How to Tell if a Serum is Water-Based?

This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Every serum is formulated with different ingredients of varying concentrations. As a general rule, serums are water-based if they contain H20 or aloe vera near the top of the ingredient list, with little to no silicone/oil ingredients in the formulation. Decoding your skincare serums might seem a little confusing, but we have the info and tips to help you decode your products so that you know exactly what you are using.

What is a Serum?

Facial serums are lightweight, liquid/gel-based skincare products containing concentrated active ingredients. There are a variety of benefits that serums can offer depending on which active ingredients they contain. They are formulated to address more specific skincare concerns, such as aging, dark spots, acne, or hyperpigmentation.

Because of the high concentration of powerful ingredients found in serums, they are known to be more effective and cause visible results more quickly. 

Should You Use a Water-Based, Oil-Based, or Silicone-Based Product?

Determining which base your serum should contain depends on a few factors.

Overall, water-based serums are best because their low molecular weight allows the other ingredients in the product to easily absorb into the skin. The job of serum is generally to deliver an active ingredient, like retinol, for example, deep into the skin. There are still some great oil and silicone-based serums as well depending on what kind of effects you want your serum to have. 

Water-based products are usually targeted for products containing vitamin c or hyaluronic acid. That’s because those ingredients are water-soluble, so they are easily able to pass through the skin barrier. Many water-based serums are also formulated for acne or scars, with ingredients like salicylic or lactic acid.

You should use a water-based product if you have more oily skin and you are looking for hydration and/or brightening effects from your serum. 

Read here to find the best hydrating serums! Best Hydrating Serums 2022

Serums that are oil-based can add more protection to your skin from pollution, dryness, and UV rays. Oil-based serums can also add a lot of extra hydration. Despite misconceptions, oil-based products can be used on any skin type- even oily skin! It can actually help balance out the oils on your face.

Try an oil-based serum if you suffer from dry skin, simply need a boost of hydration, or want some extra protection for your skin barrier.

Silicone is another somewhat popular hydrating base found in serums. Silicone is great in serums because it makes for a beautiful application of the product which will give your skin a smooth, velvety texture.

One problem with silicone bases, however, is that they have much larger molecules compared to water, so it can make it harder for the active ingredients to penetrate your skin. 

Just be careful about using products with silicone if you are prone to acne, rosacea, or milia. Silicone is known to cause/worsen those skin conditions because it can easily block/clog pores. 

Use a silicone-based product for achieving a poreless look on your skin. A silicone-based serum can be great to add before applying makeup for an easy application process. Just keep in mind that silicone-based products might not be as effective at penetrating skincare ingredients into the skin because of the larger molecular size.

How Do I Know What The Base of My Serum is?

Sometimes the label of your serum will make it really easy for you and include which base the product contains on the packaging. More often than not, however, it is up to you to decode the formulation of your skincare products.

Just like the ingredient lists for food, skincare products are labeled with the highest concentration ingredients at the beginning of the list and the lower concentration as you get to the bottom of the list.

You can tell if a serum is water-based if it has either H2O or aloe vera near the top of the ingredient list.

But keep reading through the rest of the formulation to make sure that there are not any silicones (-dimethicone, -siloxane words) or oils (lanolin, avocado, argan, jojoba, etc) near the top of the list as well. 

Breaking Down a Serum:

Here are the ingredients in the CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum

how to tell if a serum is water-based

Water is the first ingredient on this list, and there are no oils or silicones near the top of this list. From this, we can determine that this is a water-based serum.

Water is acting as a solvent in this product, meaning that it helps dissolve the other ingredients and makes them penetrate the skin easily.

Glycerin is a moisturizing ingredient that is actually found naturally in our skin. 

Capric Triglyceride is a common emollient, so it gives your skin a soft and smooth texture.

Potassium Cetyl phosphate helps oils and silicones mix easily together.

Besides retinol, this product also contains hyaluronic acid which is great at absorbing moisture from the environment into our skin. 

There are also ceramides and niacinamide on this list, which help soothe and protect the skin barrier. 

This serum contains many key ingredients to make up an effective retinol serum for reducing signs of aging, fine lines, scars, and wrinkles. 

Tips for Using a Water-Based Serum

  • If you are using a water-based, hyaluronic acid serum, make sure to apply it to freshly clean and damp skin before your moisturizer.
  • If you are using a vitamin C serum apply it during your morning skincare routine before your moisturizer.
  • If you have sensitive skin, wait 10 minutes after washing your face before using a serum. This will reduce your risk of irritation.
  • You still need moisturizer! Water evaporates very quickly, so using a water-based serum alone could easily dry out your skin, even if it is labeled as a “hydrating serum”. Definitely apply a moisturizer after you have used your serum. Moisturizers are designed to protect/hydrate the epidermis, or outer layer of skin. Serums are designed to penetrate the dermis or deeper layers of your skin. 
  • Apply your skincare products thinnest-thickest. For example:
  1. Cleanse your face.
  2. Apply liquid products such as toners to your clean skin.
  3. Apply a few drops of serum to your face. 
  4. Use a moisturizer.
  5. Put on sunscreen.

Cheers to happy and healthy skin.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Special offer for our visitors

Get your Free Skincare Guide

We will never send you spam. By signing up for this you agree with our privacy policy and to receive regular updates via email in regards to industry news and promotions