What’s the Difference Between Serums and Moisturizers?

Unknown woman about to apply a drop of serum
What’s the Difference Between Serums and Moisturizers?
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With such a wide array of skin care products out there, it is easy to get confused between some of them.

When it comes to serums and moisturizers, both of these products can be formulated with similar ingredients, but actually work in quite different ways.

Want to know the differences between them?

Read on to find out…

What is a Serum?

While both serums and moisturizers moisturize the skin, serums are formulated with much lighter ingredients, giving them a consistency that is thinner and more lightweight than a standard moisturizer.


Because this enables a serum to quickly penetrate into the skin’s layers, thanks to the fact that their ingredients feature much smaller molecules.

A moisturizer works best on the outer layers of your skin, whereas a serum reaches the deeper layers.

Different Types of Serums

A serum is quite a specific product, but there are still a few different types of serums out there.

When it comes to standard serums, here are a few of the most popular:

  • Anti-Aging Serums – these target everything from fine lines and wrinkles to a rough skin texture and loose skin
  • Skin-Brightening Serumsthese contain ingredients that target dark spots and hyperpigmentation, while brightening up the overall complexion. Many will be formulated with optical diffusers, giving your skin an instant glow
  • Anti-Acne Serumsthese can help to prevent breakouts, unclog pores and fade acne scars
  • Hydrating Serumsthese deliver a dose of hydration to the deeper layers of your skin
  • Exfoliating Serumsthese help to unclog pores and clear away dead skin cells
  • Renewing Serumsdesigned to repair and restore the skin 

As you can see, there are serums available for just about every skin type and skin issue, which is why serums have been quickly growing in popularity.

Another popular type of serum, especially in Asia, is known as an essence.

Essences tend to be even more lightweight than a standard serum, and also feature a lower concentration of ingredients.

You might be thinking…

What’s the point of an essence if a traditional serum contains more active ingredients?

Well, essences were designed to be used on the skin before a standard serum, after you have applied a toner. They provide the skin with an extra layer of hydration, as well as a few active ingredients, before a standard serum is applied.

To make things even more complicated…

There are now different types of essences making their way onto store shelves, such as a pre-essence and a post-essence.

Wondering if an essence is the same as an essence lotion or an essence toner?

Not quite…

Essence lotions and toners are designed to replace traditional toners. They work in a similar way to a toner, but are much more hydrating for the skin. 

While an essence is a slightly weaker version of a serum, an ampoule, which is also referred to as a booster, is the opposite.

These contain ingredients that are much more concentrated, and usually come in small vials or dropper bottles.

Unlike a standard serum, ampoules do not need to be applied all over the face. Instead, they can be used as a spot treatment in order to target certain areas of your skin.

A little goes a long way with an ampoule, which is why they are usually just used for a finite period of time in order to bring about specific results. 

What is a Moisturizer?

Moisturizers are thicker and creamier than serums, and contain heavier ingredients.

While some of these ingredients do penetrate into the skin, the main role of a moisturizer is to form a seal over the surface of the skin, therefore preventing the skin’s moisture from evaporating.

A moisturizer works best on the outer layers of your skin, whereas a serum reaches the deeper layers.

Different Types of Moisturizers

Just like with serums, moisturizers come in quite a few different forms.

Here are some of the most common:

  • Gels – these are the lightest type of moisturizer and usually feel cool when applied to the skin. However, due to their lightweight consistency, gels tend to evaporate from the skin quite quickly
  • Lotionsthese are lightweight moisturizers that usually consist of powdered ingredients that have been dissolved in water. They penetrate into the skin relatively quickly, without leaving a greasy residue behind
  • Creamsthese are heavier than lotions, making them more effective at moisturizing the skin, although they can sometimes make your skin feel sticky or greasy after use
  • Ointmentsthese are the thickest type of moisturizer and usually contain quite a high concentration of oils

When it comes to the ingredients used in a moisturizer, there are four main types that you will encounter:

  • Humectants – these draw moisture from the air into the skin, making them great for hydration. Common humectants include hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and lactic acid 
  • Emollientsalthough these are usually oil-based, they can be water-based too, and work by filling in any gaps in the skin that are lacking in moisturizing lipids. Common emollients include mineral oil and lanolin
  • Ceramidesthese are components that are naturally found in the skin, and boosting this will help your skin to retain moisture
  • Occlusivesthese are quite heavy ingredients, making them better suited for the body, as they can end up clogging pores on the face. Common occlusives include rose hip oil and avocado oil 

A moisturizer will usually contain at least a couple of those different ingredient groups.

Which one should you go for?

This all depends on your skin type…

For those who have oily, acne-prone skin, gels and lotions with humectants and ceramides work best, as these will moisturize your skin without clogging up your pores.

On the other hand, if you suffer from severely dry skin, you will need to use a cream or an ointment that contains all four of the above ingredient groups.

When it comes to moisturizing your body…

You will find body versions of all the above moisturizers available, but you also have the option of using a body butter.

These are thick in texture, with a consistency similar to the butter you would eat. They are usually not formulated with water, containing a combination of essential butters and carrier oils instead, with the carrier oils designed to deliver the essential butters into the skin. 

Body butters are fantastic for the parts of your body that are prone to dryness, such as your elbows, legs, hands and feet.

What about beauty oils?

These are great for those who have dry skin, and there are even oils out there that can be used on oily skin, as they help to regulate the skin’s natural oil production. An example of this is jojoba oil, which sends a signal to the body to stop over-producing sebum

However, these oils don’t technically count as a moisturizer, as they don’t actually moisturize the skin. Instead, they form a seal over the skin’s surface, similar to the way in which occlusive ingredients work. This then protects your skin from the environment, while preventing moisture from evaporating.

If you do decide to use an oil, this needs to be applied after a moisturizer.

Wondering why you can’t apply it before?

Because the seal that it creates over your skin will prevent the moisturizer from properly reaching your skin.

Should You Be Using a Serum or Moisturizer?

Now that you understand the main differences between serums and moisturizers, you are probably trying to decide which one you need.

As mentioned above, serums target the deeper layers of skin, while a moisturizer works on the surface. This means that the two products actually work together extremely well.

Rather than choosing one or the other, try incorporating both into your skin care routine.

Which one should you use first?

A serum should always be applied before a moisturizer.

When it comes to layering your skin care products, always go for the lightest and thinnest one first, working your way up to the thicker and richer products.

If you are using multiple serums…

Try to work out which the lightest one is, and apply that one first. Alternatively, begin with the serum that contains the higher concentration of active ingredients, as it is always beneficial to apply these as close to your skin as possible.

Once you apply your moisturizer, this will lock the serum into your skin, ensuring that all of its active ingredients end up penetrating into your skin’s layers.

Wondering how long you need to wait after applying a serum before applying a moisturizer?

While some people prefer to wait a few minutes in order to give the active ingredients in the serum some extra time to soak into the skin without being diluted, this is not strictly necessary.

In fact, these skin care products always work best when applied onto damp skin, as this increases the rate at which your skin can absorb them. Don’t be afraid to apply your moisturizer immediately after applying your serum, while your skin is still damp.

If you would still prefer to only use one of these products…

Make your decision based on your skin type

Illustration of different skin types

If you have dry or dehydrated skin, or suffer from eczema or psoriasis, then it is likely that a moisturizer would benefit you the most, as this will help to strengthen your skin’s natural protective barrier and prevent moisture loss. 

On the other hand, those who have oily or mature skin, or are looking to target specific skin issues, may be better off with a serum due to its high concentration of active ingredients, as well as the fact that its lightweight texture will not clog up your pores.

Can serums and moisturizers be used for both day and night?

Definitely! Using these products twice a day will actually be even more beneficial for your skin.

Of course, you will find that there are specific day and night versions of serums and moisturizers out there.

Wondering if it’s really necessary to have separate products for day and night?

Well, they will usually contain a different range of active ingredients. For example, serums that are formulated with retinol or citrus extracts will usually be designed for night use, as the sunlight can interfere with the way in which these ingredients work. Night products will also contain ingredients that will support the way in which your skin heals and regenerates itself while you are sleeping.

On the other hand, serums and moisturizers designed for the day will be formulated with ingredients that will protect your skin from the environment. You will also find quite a few that contain SPF, which is usually quite a big bonus.

However, even if your serum and moisturizer contain SPF, you will likely still need to use a sunscreen over the top of your moisturizer.


Because most people rarely use enough of a moisturizer or serum to actually obtain the SPF rating shown on the label. This means that your skin ends up being much less protected than you realize. To overcome this, always apply a sunscreen after applying your moisturizer.

One more thing to remember…

Only apply your skin care products to cleansed skin.


Well, while you may not realize it, the surface of your skin is filled with dead skin cells, dirt, oil, bacteria, sweat and more. When you apply skin care products over the top of this, it prevents the ingredients from reaching your skin.

By cleansing your skin first, you clear away all of these obstacles, allowing your skin care products to quickly sink into your skin and work their magic.

There are a few main differences between serums and moisturizers, and now that you understand them, you will be able to choose the best type of each for your skin. With each serum and moisturizer out there being formulated with different products, it always helps to give a few different ones a try, so that you can find one that really works well for your skin.

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