As skincare experts, we’re constantly fielding questions from customers about skincare products and ingredients. People often want to know which ingredients or formulas are best for their skin type, or what to use to help correct skin concerns like premature aging. One question we’ve heard time and time again, however, is: “What’s the difference between face oil and serum?” It’s a great question, and one a lot of people have. Admittedly, face oils and serums are similar in many ways. For instance, they’re both liquid skincare products designed to help improve skin texture and appearance. But they’re also different in many ways—and understanding how they both work is vital to using them properly.
To help, we’ve put together a guide to the differences between face serums and face oils. Ahead, you’ll learn about the benefits and uses of both, and how to use them in your routine, separately and together. We’ll also provide recommendations on our best serums and oils to use for your skin type. Read on for everything you need to know about how face oils and serums differ.
What Is Serum?
Serums are lightweight, concentrated liquids designed to help correct skin concerns, such as an uneven skin tone or texture. They’re typically water-based and often contain lightweight moisturizing ingredients, like hyaluronic acid. Their watery or gel-like texture and fluid consistency allow serums to penetrate the skin quickly and easily. As such, they’re generally applied after cleansing and toning onto clean, dry skin.
Our top-rated Powerful-Strength Vitamin C Serum is one of our best-selling facial serums. This lightweight formula contains 12.5% vitamin C and hyaluronic acid to instantly boost radiance and smooth the skin’s appearance. With regular use, it helps reduce the look of fine lines and wrinkles and minimize the appearance of enlarged pores for firmer-looking skin. This potent formula is suitable for all skin types and can be used morning and night for a healthy-looking glow.
What Is Face Oil Used For?
As you can probably guess, facial oils are oil-based liquid formulas designed to be used on the skin. They’re typically formulated with non-comedogenic botanical oils and essential oils, which won’t cause breakouts or clogged pores. Facial oils often also include plant extracts and antioxidants. These rich, emollient formulas can help moisturize and soften the skin, nourish the skin barrier, and help address some skin concerns, like dryness or dullness.
If you’ve never used a facial oil before, we recommend starting with a daytime oil, like Daily Reviving Concentrate. This antioxidant-rich oil stars sunflower oil, tamanu oil, and ginger root essential oil to help revitalize the skin. The lightweight formula also helps protect the skin from free radicals and damaging environmental stressors. It’s non-comedogenic and safe for all skin types. Use it in your daily skincare routine for radiant, healthy-looking skin.
Which Goes First: Oil or Serum?
First things first: You can use face oil and serum together—it’s not an either/or type of situation. As a rule of thumb, we typically recommend applying products in order from lightest to heaviest. For oils and serums, that usually means applying serums (which are often water-based) first. After the serum absorbs into your skin, you can apply facial oil, and then moisturizer and sunscreen.
If you want to use both a serum and facial oil, but not simultaneously, try breaking it up. Designate one formula for your morning routine and the other for your nighttime routine. If you’re doing this, we’d recommend reaching for the serum for daytime, since it’s typically lighter in texture and won’t weigh down your skin. Then, apply a richer oil at night to hydrate and nourish your skin.
How To Choose Between Face Oil and Serum
While you can layer oil and serum, it’s not necessary. Ultimately, which formulas you use—and when—depends largely on your personal preferences, skin type, and goals. That said, there are some skin concerns for which oils may be more beneficial, and vice versa. Read on to discover which formulas we recommend for your skin type and how to use them for healthier-looking skin.
For Mature Skin, All Types:
Vital Skin-Strengthening Hyaluronic Acid Super Serum
Address the visible signs of aging with Vital Skin-Strengthening Hyaluronic Acid Super Serum. This top-rated formula stars 11kDa hyaluronic acid, an engineered form of hyaluronic acid capable of penetrating skin’s deeper layers to deliver lasting hydration. It also contains a blend of adaptogenic herbs, including red ginseng root. In our formula, these potent ingredients are clinically-demonstrated to double skin’s strength.* This allows skin to more effectively defend itself against damaging aggressors, such as pollution and UV exposure. This potent serum also helps reduce the visible signs of aging, including fine lines and wrinkles, for smoother, more youthful-looking skin. It’s suitable for all skin types and can be used daily for a more radiant, healthy-looking appearance.
For Sensitive or Acne-Prone Skin:
Cannabis Sativa Seed Oil Herbal Concentrate Face Oil
It may seem counterintuitive to use a facial oil to help manage acne or oiliness, since blemishes often result from excessive oil production. But drying out your skin isn’t the answer. When skin is dehydrated, it produces more oil to make up for the lack of natural moisture in the skin. This excess oil production can make skin appear oily and lead to clogged pores and blemishes. Keeping the skin well-hydrated, therefore, can help prevent this overproduction of sebum.
Moisturizer, of course, is essential for maintaining skin hydration. But non-comedogenic oils can be a useful tool, too. If you have oily or acne-prone skin, try treating your skin to a few drops of Cannabis Sativa Seed Oil Herbal Concentrate Face Oil every day. This effective oil for problem skin is formulated with 100% naturally-derived ingredients, including Cannabis sativa seed oil and green oregano oil.** This unique facial oil helps relieve stressed skin and visibly reduce skin redness for calmer-looking skin. With regular use, it also helps strengthen the skin barrier to help skin defend itself from environmental aggressors.
For Dry Skin:
Midnight Recovery Concentrate
If your skin feels dry or dehydrated, we recommend reaching for richer, emollient facial oils, such as Midnight Recovery Concentrate. This Kiehl’s customer favorite contains olive-derived squalane, evening primrose oil, and fragrant lavender essential oil to help hydrate and replenish the skin. The nighttime oil helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and improve skin texture in just one night for softer, more supple skin. Apply a few drops in the evening before going to sleep for radiant, younger-looking skin by morning.
Kiehl’s Expert Tip: For extra dry or dehydrated skin, try incorporating an overnight mask into your weekly skincare routine. Learn more about what overnight masks are and how to use them in our article Why You Need an Overnight Face Mask.
For Dull, Uneven Skin:
Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Solution
Environmental aggressors, age, and dehydration can all result in dull-looking skin, dark spots, or discolorations. To help restore your skin’s appearance, incorporate a brightening serum into your skincare routine. We recommend the best-selling Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Solution. This clarifying serum is formulated with a blend of potent brightening ingredients, including activated C, white birch extract, and peony extract. The effective formula is clinically-demonstrated to help correct the appearance of a wide range of dark spots and discolorations, including post-acne marks, age spots, and sun spots.*** It also helps visibly brighten the skin with continued use. It’s suitable for all skin types and tones and can be used daily for more radiant, even-looking skin.
*Based on a 4-week clinical study on 58 subjects tested in urban and polluted environments, using the Skin Strength Index = Composite average score of skin suppleness, plumpness, and resiliency.
**We consider ingredients to be naturally derived if they retain more than 50% of their molecular structure after being processed from a natural source.
***This product was tested on a multi-ethnic panel equally distributed: 25% African American, 25% Asian, 25% Caucasian, 25% Hispanic. Results based upon a clinical study of upper layers of the skin.