Serum or Moisturizer First? Get the Most From Your Skincare

Serum or Moisturizer First
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Let’s be honest, skincare routines are getting more and more complicated. It seems like there is an ever-expanding list of products and regimens, and it can be hard to tell which products you really need, and in what order to use them.

Both serums and moisturizers have a long list of skincare benefits, but do you need one or the other, or both? And which order do you use them in? Is it serum or moisturizer first?

Read more about face serums in these posts:

Do Face Serums Really Work? The True Story

Best Hydrating Serum in 2022

The Best Way to Apply Serum

A Look into Skin Serum

Serums are light liquids or gels that contain highly concentrated skincare ingredients. They are designed to deeply penetrate the skin, carrying beneficial ingredients deep into the cells. There are five basic types of skincare serums:

Anti-aging serums

These serums are designed to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and add firmness and plumpness to the skin. They may also have the ability to reduce the appearance of dark spots. They typically contain retinol, and may also contain alpha hydroxy acids, peptides, growth factors, Vitamin C, and botanicals. These facial serums are generally also designed to keep skin hydrated. Vitamin C serums tend to be particularly effective at reducing the visible signs of aging, as well as to help keep skin soft. 

Skin brightening serums

These serums are designed to reduce hyperpigmentation and fade sunspots, giving you a smoother and more even complexion. Another purpose of this type of serum is to reduce the appearance of dark spots and to help even out skin tone.  The active ingredients are usually ones such as Vitamin C, and may also contain Vitamin E, ferulic acid, peptides, and botanicals.

Anti-acne serums

These serums are designed to penetrate skin and prevent acne before it starts, and can often help with reducing acne scars and reducing redness and irritation.  The active ingredients are usually ones such as salicylic acid, alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acid, glycolic acid, zinc, and botanicals like green tea.

One thing to keep in mind is this is never going to come in the form of an oil-based serum, because oils are generally bad when it comes to treating and preventing acne. Moreover, this type of serum is often used for spot treatments when acne breakouts occur. If you have acne prone or oily skin, this is exactly what you need. 

Moisturizing and repair serums

These serums hydrate the deeper layers of the skin for lasting moisture and can help repair skin damage. The active ingredients are usually ones such as glycerin, hyaluronic acid, ceramides, Vitamin E, jojoba oil, argan oil, rosehip oil, and other botanical oils. These are best used by people who suffer from dry skin.  These serums also tend to take the form of a thicker cream. 

Exfoliating serums

These serums promote cell turnover, revealing brighter, fresher skin cells beneath dull surface cells. One of the main purposes of this type of serum is to help clean skin. In part, they do this by getting rid of dead skin cells, the very outer layer of skin, to give new skin cells an extra boost. This can help diminish fine lines, reduce hyperpigmentation, and improve the appearance of sun damage or acne scars.

They also tend to be ideal for people who have both sensitive skin and oily skin. The active ingredients are usually ones such as alpha hydroxy acids, glycolic acid, lactic acid, retinol, enzymes, citric acid, and other botanical extracts. This type of skincare product may also help to moisturize dry skin. Moreover, exfoliating treatments may also be used as acne treatments, as the two go hand in hand. 

Understanding Facial Moisturizers

Moisturizers are creams and lotions that, obviously, moisturize the skin. Moisturizers do not deeply penetrate the skin, but stay on the outer surfaces of the skin cells. This allows them to stay on the skin longer, providing longer-lasting hydration, and creating a protective barrier that prevents skin from drying out. There are two basic types of moisturizer:

  1. Day creams. Moisturizers designed for daytime use are lightweight, without a greasy finish. They are formulated to layer well beneath makeup, and often contain SPF and other protective ingredients.
  2. Night creams. Moisturizers are designed for use at night, where the thicker texture doesn’t need to layer beneath other products, and there is no need for SPF. Because there is no need to avoid sun exposure, these creams often contain higher concentrations of ingredients like retinol and glycolic acid, that have more time to penetrate and hydrate skin while you sleep.

Because the skin needs more protection from sun, wind, weather, and the environment during the day, and can absorb hydration more deeply at night, experts usually recommend that you use both types of moisturizer at different times of the day. Remember, the thicker products tend to be best used during the night. 

To better understand the difference between serums and moisturizers check out this post.

Serum or Moisturizer First?

Do You Need to Use Both Serum and Moisturizer?

As you can see, both serums and moisturizers have different effects and benefits.

Generally speaking, a serum penetrates the layers of the skin, carrying beneficial ingredients deeper into the skin’s layers and promoting healthy skin from the inside out. Moisturizers stay on the surface layers of the skin, creating a barrier that traps and holds moisture inside, and protecting the skin from external damage. But do you need both

Most of the time, using both a serum and a moisturizer is the best approach, because they have different benefits and work in different ways. However, a moisturizer is not always needed. You can use just a serum and skip the moisturizer if:

  • You have healthy skin with few problems, and want to simply use a hydrating serum and simplify your routine
  • You have delicate, sensitive skin and don’t want to use lots of products that may irritate the skin. A gentle cleanser may be more than enough. 
  • You have oily or acne-prone skin and want to avoid clogging pores by layering products on the surface. If you already have very clogged pores, using moisturizer likely will not help. 

It’s important to remember that, because they penetrate skin, serums do not provide sun protection. If you are using a serum alone, without moisturizer, make sure you follow up with sunscreen or cosmetics with SPF in them.

Many dermatologists and skin care experts recommend that, if you want to simplify your skincare routine, it’s more important to use a serum than a moisturizer.

CeraVe and Cetaphil both have affordable dermatologist-recommended moisturizers and serums. Find out which one would work best for you here.

Serum or Moisturizer First?

When you are layering skincare products, as a rule of thumb, the correct order of products is:

  1. Cleanse
  2. Toner (if using)
  3. Serum
  4. Eye cream (if using)
  5. Spot treatments (if using)
  6. Moisturizer
  7. Sunscreen (if moisturizer does not have SPF)
  8. Makeup (if using)

Note that doubling up on sun protection is a good idea. You can choose moisturizers and foundations or BB creams with SPF, or add a lightweight sunscreen to your routine. The sun always comes with a risk of skin cancer and other skin concerns, so it’s always better to be safe than sorry. 

Why Apply Serum Before Moisturizer?

Because serums are designed to deeply penetrate the skin and carry beneficial treatments deep into the skin cells, they are best applied to clean, toned skin. This is especially important for people who have sensitive skin. This allows them to be most effective, with no barriers between the serum and the skin.

Because moisturizer is designed to create a beneficial and protective layer, it is best applied after serum. While the serum penetrates the skin cells, the moisturizer protects and hydrates the outer layer of the skin, something that people with dry skin types should be able to appreciate. 

Applying serum before moisturizer allows it to penetrate the skin and carry beneficial ingredients deeper into the layers of the skin, promoting healthy skin from the inside out.

Applying moisturizer after serum adds a hydrating and protective barrier that holds moisture against the outer layers of the skin, and reduces skin drying and damage from sun, wind, pollution, and other environmental effects. Using the right products at the right time is essential to get the most benefits from your skin care regimen and financial investment.


Today’s skin care regimens are more complex than ever, with more products, more steps, and more options. However, having so many choices means that people with sensitive skin can finally find the help they need.

Understanding what products to use when can be confusing, and not all products and steps are necessary for all skin types and needs. If you still have questions and concerns about skin care products, particularly in relation to your skin type, visiting a board certified dermatologist may be your best bet.

Knowing whether to apply serum or moisturizer first helps to clarify how best to care for your skin, and get the most benefits from your products. Indeed, your skin care routine order does make a difference. 

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