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In my series on each of the steps of the Korean skincare routine, I aim not only to explain each step but also to tell you more about why you want to do them in the first place. When it comes to serums, these can be some of the most powerful steps in your skincare arsenal. But what’s the difference between a toner, an essence, and a serum? Why do people use all three–can’t you just use one? I’ll cover the answers to those questions and more, so if you’d like to better understand what you’re smearing all over your face, read on.
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What is a serum?
While most Korean beauty products are packed with nourishing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, and ceramides, a serum is designed to be even more powerful. Since serums are light on fluid, they tend to contain the purest concentrations of highly effective ingredients like antioxidants, peptides and more. Serums tend to be significantly more moisturizing and penetrate the dermis more deeply than creams (but you still need a cream, and I’ll explain why in a moment). It’s because of this that they are so effective when treating wrinkles, pigmentation, and redness.
The reason a serum can’t replace a cream is because the two products are structurally different. A serum typically contains smaller molecules designed to deeply penetrate the skin. Moisturizing creams are occlusive, meaning they are designed to sit on the top layer of your skin and form a barrier that seals moisture inside. If you’ve ever used Vaseline or Aquaphor, these are ideal examples of occlusives. The way to best use a serum is to follow it with a moisturizer to seal all of its magic within. Once you do, you’ll start to see the results in the tone and glow of your skin.
Serums come in different types, curated to target specific skin issues. You would benefit from using any type of serum in your routine, but it’s worth doing some research if you have specific needs you want to address. Also, the potent ingredients in serums can sometimes irritate sensitive skin, so be sure to patch test first to make sure it works well for you.
The best Korean beauty serums for your skin type
If you’re new to serums and want to experiment with something of good quality that’s not too pricey, I suggest the Mizon Snail Repair Ampoule. This is an inexpensive yet powerful product thanks to snail mucin, one of K-beauty’s star ingredients. The serum contains 80% of that golden goo so it will absolutely reveal that healthy skin you’re looking for. Apply in a thin layer after your cleanser, toner, and essence and you’ll be good to go (or glow, as the case may be).
Price on Peach & Lily: $27
If you’re ready to spend a tiny bit more on your serum, this is absolutely the one you should move to next. While the Glass Skin Refining Serum grants a near-instantaneous glow for the user, what Peach and Lily founder Alicia Yoon shared about the process of creating it in our interview with her was even more fascinating. Like all of Peach & Lily’s house products, this extensively-researched formula is suitable for all skin types thanks to gentle yet powerful ingredients like niacinamide. You’ve also got power players like hyaluronic acid in the mix, which provide hydration at multiple skin levels, and peptide complex which encourages collagen production to plump skin and weaken the appearance of fine lines.
Price on Peach & Lily: $39
Simply put, this serum is glorious. It has a completely different texture than most serums, looking more like a cream when you open the jar. A pressed serum is intended to replace two steps: your serum and your moisturizer. The Tundra Chaga contains 60% Chaga Mushroom extract, an ingredient used for centuries in traditional medicine. It has natural anti-inflammatory properties and has even been proven to slow cancer growth!
Price on Amazon: $39.98
Honey (or propolis, as it’s often called in the skincare world) has powerful antibacterial properties, making it a terrific ingredient for battling acne. It’s also a natural antioxidant and antibacterial, highly moisturizing, and soothing. This serum from Skin Food contains fermented honey, which is super concentrated and contains a ton of vitamins and minerals. Also, it’s not at all sticky like honey is, so thankfully you won’t have to deal with that issue when you use it in your routine.
Price on Amazon: $23.95
I’ve done an entire post on the awesome powers of Vitamin C in skincare already, so you may be aware that this is one of my top picks for Vitamin C serum. But if you haven’t read that post, then hey–here you go! This serum is well-known in the K-beauty community for being a power player, and its only downfall is it needs to be refrigerated to slow down oxidation of the contents. That said, give it a few minutes to warm up in your hands and you’ll find that combo of vitamin C, vitamin E and ferulic acid will give you lovely results.
Price on Amazon: $22.95
If you want to investigate higher-end serums, Sulwhasoo’s First Care Activating Serum EX is one of my top picks. Sulwhasoo’s products are “hanbang,” or based on traditional Korean medicine. These products have a fragrance that you’ll either love or hate, but the results of regular use reveal beautiful skin fast. This is the brand’s most affordable offering and is packed with Korean herbs. Unlike most serums, it’s meant to be used right after cleansing and preps the skin for better absorption of the layers to follow.
Price on Amazon: $75.55
This product is what you might call a legendary serum. Shangpree spent four years working on the formula until it was perfect. The result is a fragrance-free product featuring the company’s proprietary S-Energy complex, which contains Skullcap Callus, liquid oxygen, a Violet Herb Complex and other botanicals. The formula also relies on hydrolyzed silk, propolis, and panthenol for hydration and overall repair.
Want to learn more about Korean beauty? Check out our guides to doing the 10-step Korean beauty skincare routine, the best sheet masks money can buy, and why Korean sunscreens are vastly superior to American ones. You can also dig through all our Korean beauty coverage right here.
MORE BAZAAR DEALS:
- 10 Korean skincare brands that are worth your money
- The best Asian beauty products to help you survive winter
- The 18 best Korean beauty sheet masks
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Colette Bennett is a writer/editor who specializes in web culture, skincare, and all things geek. Her work has appeared on CNN, HLN, Engadget, Kotaku, Colourlovers, and Continue Magazine. She also writes horror and sci-fi fiction for Corona Books and is at work on her second novel.