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The beauty of serum

Once you've stumbled upon a beauty serum, there's no going back. But unless you're already an aficionado, there can be confusion about what these little bottles do. Lisa Haynes unveils the secret of serums and how to choose one that suits you

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"Unlike moisturisers, serums deliver added nutrients and vitamins more rapidly and deeply into the skin's epidermal layers for long-lasting results"

Before it had even launched, YSL’s Forever Youth Liberator had racked up more than 5,000 pre-orders, while Victoria Beckham and Rihanna were rumoured to have been sent advance supplies. And when this long-awaited super serum finally surfaced in store earlier this year, skincare enthusiasts stripped the shelves bare on its first day of sale. As previous stampedes for Boots’ No7 Protect & Perfect prove, serums are hot property.

Though this unassuming product – with its scientific-looking pipetted packaging and refined texture – may take pride of place on every beauty editor’s bathroom shelf, many women are yet to sign up to the serum club: a little unsure of where these products fit into their skincare routine. Why do I need to add another pricey product (serums can range from Dh80 to Dh1,600) to my already packed beauty cupboard? I hear you ask.

Sarah Chapman, facialist and skincare expert, says you should think of serum as your skincare underwear, a product that restructures and contours the skin, smoothing, repairing, brightening... it’s the foundation of healthy, youthful skin. However, on top of this, a serum’s job is quite specific – different serums target specific skin concerns, from acne to open pores, and it’s this ability to address specific skin concerns that make serums special, as well as their hi-tech formulations, which deliver intensive results. “Serums are high in concentrated ingredients to treat specific skin problems such as redness, wrinkles, discolouration, dehydration, sagging skin and acne,” explains Chey Birch, aromatherapist and founder of beauty brand Black Chicken Remedies.

Serums are water-based moisturisers containing a high concentration of skin-benefiting active ingredients, such as vitamins, antioxidants and/or plant extracts, which are chemically formulated into molecules much smaller than those in a moisturiser. So, unlike moisturisers, which contain emollients like shea butter and only really affect the top layer of skin, serums are able to deliver added nutrients and vitamins more rapidly and deeply into the skin’s epidermal layers for more intensive, long-lasting and targeted results... acting much like a multi-vitamin for the skin.

But a serum doesn’t necessarily replace a moisturiser. Most serums have moisturising ingredients and some specifically target hydration, but if your skin is dry you will probably need a moisturiser over your serum. So, how do you go about choosing a serum to suit you? Just as you choose a moisturiser according to your skin type, so you choose a serum based on your needs. There are serums that minimise pores (Clinique Pore Minimizer Refining Serum), serums that combat really dry skin (The Body Shop Vitamin E Moisture Serum) and those that tackle acne (Ren ClearCalm 3 Replenishing Night Serum).

It’s really about deciding what your most pressing skin concern is and how much you want to spend, and then choosing a product to fit your skin’s needs. And while some of the claims made by the brands certainly sound impressive, you also need to be realistic... serums cannot remove deep wrinkles or restructure a sagging face. A smart way to choose the right serum, say experts, is to look for the right ingredients for your concern.

But exactly what ingredients do what? “As the skin ages, we all notice slackening and sagging, with deeper lines becoming more visible,” says Sarah. “Once you start noticing these signs, look for peptide-loaded serums, which also contain antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E, coenzyme Q10 and targeted ingredients such as renovage that work on the cells’ DNA
to help repair.”

So if your skin is beginning to drop, look for peptide-packed serums, which work on firming and lifting. Clinique’s Repairwear Laser Focus Wrinkle & UV Damage Corrector is one of the industry’s leading serums for sagging skin. Containing high levels of peptides to help boost your skin’s natural collagen, giving your skin bounce, its effects are so good, tests have shown it can achieve 63 per cent of the same wrinkle-reducing effects as a somewhat pricier laser treatment.

More affordable yet effective on the serum shelf for lifting are pharmacy brands such as Olay and Boots No7 products. Olay Regenerist 3 Point Super Serum contains a super-concentrated amino-peptide complex, to both instantly and over time plump and firm. Clinical studies have shown No7 Protect & Perfect Beauty Serum can achieve a measurable and visible reduction in wrinkles. Dull skin demands retinoids (vitamin A), as well as glycolic acid and linoleic acid, all of which help remove dead skin cells and encourage cell turnover.

Glycolic acid boasts exfoliating properties that remove the outer layer of dead skin cells responsible for dulling the complexion and blocking the pores, so opt for this if you want brighter skin. But it’s best to avoid this ingredient if you have dry skin. Plagued with age spots? Vitamin C is key (also good for wrinkles) as it helps regulate melanin production, preventing and reducing the hyper-pigmentation that causes them. The most important thing to look for when choosing skin serums containing vitamin C is the concentration: it should contain at least a 10-15 per cent concentration of vitamin C to be deemed to be effective.

Other ingredients du jour include: vitamin A (retinol), which has been dubbed the next best anti-ager to sunscreen; antioxidants such as idebenone (which helps to counteract environmental damage – try Elizabeth Arden’s Prevage) and Vitamin A (shown to increase collagen production); and most recently, glycans (complicated sugars that play a key role in the skin’s structure), which made their beauty debut in this year’s biggest skincare story, YSL Forever Youth Liberator. In a trial of 50 women, nine out of ten said their skin looked more luminous after using it, while 72 per cent said fine lines were less visible.

Further ingredients to look for are kojic acid (a skin-lightening mushroom extract) and liquorice, which help inhibit the enzymes that lead to over-production of melanin. And if the summer overdose of A/C has dried out your skin, look for a serum based on hyaluronic acid (HA), which holds 1,000 times its own weight in water and so helps plump up skin. “Slot this option into your routine if your skin looks dull and always feels tight, to lock in moisture and get your skin glowing and dewy again,” says Sarah. As for application, there are no hard and fast rules on routine. Serums can be used morning and night after cleansing and toning, and before a moisturiser – or on their own.

“Apply a few drops of serum and use mild upward and outward strokes to blend the serum into your face,” suggests Chey. “Wait for five minutes to allow full absorption, then, if required, apply a moisturiser over the serum. Don’t forget the neck area, too.” Adding a serum to your skincare routine might feel like a daily chore but it can make all the difference.