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Serums 101: Common Active Ingredients and their functions

What are serums?

A serum is a skincare product that delivers high concentration-specific active ingredients into the skin, to tackle a specific concern. Unlike moisturizers, serums are usually made up of smaller molecules that can penetrate deeply into the skin and deliver a very high concentration of active ingredients. They are usually applied after cleansing your face before you apply moisturizer.

While serums are more effective than moisturizers, they are not meant to replace moisturizers. A serum will perform a specific function/ address a specific concern, but a moisturizer will provide more than one benefit. They are therefore supposed to be used before moisturizers.

There are many types of serums with different ingredients available in the market.

Please note:

Since the active ingredient(s) in serums tend to be more concentrated, they can occasionally cause irritation and dryness in those who have dry skin. It’s a good idea to layer a more substantial moisturizer with the serum if your skin tends to be on the sensitive or dry side. Always patch-test accordingly before using a serum.

Common ingredients in face serums and their functions

Let’s now see what makes Face serums equivalent to little, tiny bottles of liquid gold (quite literally because of how good serums are and how pricey they are compared to size).

Hyaluronic Acid – What is it?

Hyaluronic acid replenishes moisture to dry skin. As we age, our skin tends to lose its ability to retain moisture, which is why we need hyaluronic acid.

It works by absorbing water from the surroundings and locking in vital moisture from the skin. By rehydrating the skin, it smooths and plumps the surface, while dramatically reducing fine lines and wrinkles. Think of a baby’s skin, how plump, and supple it is, that’s what Hyaluronic does for you.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a powerful oxidant that protects the skin from damaging free radicals caused by stress and common environmental factors. This leads to more elastic and resilient skin and fewer fine lines and wrinkles.

Vitamin C brightens the skin tone and reduces the appearance of discoloration from sun damage, acne scars, and age spots. It will therefore repair and protect your overall complexion and fight signs of aging. Vitamin C serums are sometimes in derivative forms like L-ascorbic acid, Ascorbyl Glucoside, etc.

What is Retinol?

Also known as Vitamin A, it is one of the most clinically proven anti-aging ingredients today. It stimulates the production of collagen, which leads to firmer, plumper skin.

Retinol has exfoliating properties that encourage cell turnover and help shed dead skin cells. It is also able to tighten pores and reduce hyperpigmentation by evening out skin tone. This vitamin leaves you with a fresh vibrant glow and visibly softer, firmer skin.

What are Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)?

These include lactic acid, glycolic acid, mandelic acid, triple fruit acid, and malic acid. These acids are chemical exfoliators that keep your complexion clear and vibrant by removing the buildup of dead and damaged skin cells. They also keep your pores from getting clogged and help prevent acne breakouts.

By exfoliating the skin, they clear dead skin and debris to make your facial products work better and absorb more efficiently.


Niacinamide is adored greatly and is an active ingredient in some cleansers and creams also. This ingredient is also found in some face masks, which are rinsed off after each use. Cerave Skincare Products especially have Niacinamide as an ingredient. This is because of its numerous benefits for the skin.

Niacinamide is also called Vitamin B3 and in some product labels can be called Niacin or nicotinamide.

Benefits of Niacinamide include:

  1. Minimizes redness and blotchiness. Niacinamide reduces inflammation, which may help ease redness from eczema, acne, and other inflammatory skin conditions.
  2. Lipid barrier. Niacinamide can help your skin grow a ceramide (lipid) barrier, which can, in turn, help retain moisture. This is beneficial for all skin types, especially if you have eczema or mature skin.
  3. Regulates oil. The benefits of moisture retention aren’t just for those with dry skin types. Niacinamide can also help regulate the amount of oil the sebaceous glands produce and prevent your glands from going into overdrive.
  4. Minimizes pore appearance. Keeping skin smooth and moisturized may have a secondary benefit, a natural reduction in pore size over time.
  5. Treats acne. Niacinamide may be helpful for severe acne, especially forms like papules and pustules. Over time, you may see fewer lesions and improved skin texture.

Products like the Ordinary Niacinamide have been formulated with Zinc and hence the two ingredients work together to give optimum results against Acne.

What is Resveratrol?

Resveratrol is a potent antioxidant found in the skin of grapes. It not only works against free radicals, but it also helps improve the look of fine lines, hyperpigmentation, texture, and overall radiance. Because of the skin-renewing effects, resveratrol is a perfect addition to your nighttime repair routine. This is especially important as our skin loses its ability to restore itself in our sleep as we age.

This serum formula combines ultra-high concentrations of two of the most powerful antioxidants in the industry: resveratrol and ferulic acid to maximize the protective, age-defying benefits.

Vitamin E

This vitamin is another potent antioxidant that works well in conjunction with vitamin C.

This essential nutrient minimizes free radicals and reverses the signs of aging. It also moisturizes the skin, leaving you with a soft, luscious complexion.

Vitamin E works to brighten and even skin tone and texture.

A lot of skincare products are formulated with vitamin E. Creams, sheet masks, and cleansers. The Body Shop has a vast range of these products.


They play a crucial role in the strength and structure of the skin. They contain amino acids that are the building blocks of protein (namely collagen).

Peptides encourage cellular repair of skin and increase collagen production. This firms the skin and reduces wrinkles and fine lines.

We recommend getting a serum or moisturizer with peptides in and applying it twice daily, under makeup or SPF.


Is your serum too pricey for twice-a-day use? Use the serum as a booster either a.m. or p.m. by adding a couple of drops to your moisturizer. However, you need to make sure the serum is compatible with the ingredients in your moisturizer.

What are the most effective active ingredients for your skin? Let us know your favorite ingredients and the products containing them below.