Can avoiding serums really make your skin better?

Gone are the days when a simple “cleanse, tone and moisturize” routine was enough to take care of your skin. Social media trends, a plethora of brands, and a better understanding of skin tissue now give us access to more products than we ever thought possible. But if you ask a dermatologist, one might be more popular than the others: targeting serums.

From hyaluronic acid to niacinamide, there's a new serum to try almost every week. Don’t like retinol? You can always try plant-based bakuchiol alternatives. Do you think vitamin C is irritating? Ascorbic acid glycosides may be your best choice. While all of these ingredients have their benefits, it's clear that when it comes to serums, there are a lot to choose from. Of course, this is a good thing. But how much is too much?

Have serums fallen out of favor?

As of this writing, searches for skin-care serums are down slightly according to Google Trends, and on TikTok, some beauty enthusiasts are questioning our obsession with skin-care serums. TikTok users share the products they cut out of their daily lives with their fans in the form of viral videos. "Good night, beast, but we can't be beasts anymore," echoes a line of serums that users claim cause redness, breakouts and irritation. "Buy regret skincare" is also a popular trend, with several best-selling serums becoming stars of the show.

In almost all of these viral fragments, the serum involved contains the active ingredient. Active ingredients are designed to address specific skin concerns. Some of the most popular ingredients include vitamin C, exfoliating acids (like glycolic and lactic acid), niacinamide, and retinol, among others. The strength of these ingredients varies depending on the specific product, but serums provide targeted skin support and tend to provide higher levels than most other products, such as cleansers and moisturizers. Many of TikTok's trending serums are particularly concentrated, such as 30% vitamin C or 30% glycolic acid.

Like TikTokers, dermatologists and skin experts are warning about the effects of overuse of serums containing powerful active ingredients, claiming to have seen patients develop self-inflicted burns and rashes. PhD. Aesthetic doctor and skin care expert Anna explains that social media has had a significant impact on public interest in skin care in recent years. She revealed that her patients experience a "FOMO" (fear of missing out) feeling when choosing serums containing popular active ingredients. Consultant dermatologist Dr. Anjali Mahto agrees that influencer culture and influencer marketing perpetuates FOMO and drives many of the serum purchases she sees in her clinic.

Are layered serums bad for skin?

The truth is, everyone's skin is different. Powerful exfoliating serums used to clear influencer acne scars can seriously irritate your face. The same goes for ingredients like retinol, which are known to cause irritation if used incorrectly. But one of the worst serum mistakes skin care experts see in the clinic is over-layering.

From hyperpigmentation to dull skin, you'd be forgiven for wanting to address all your skin concerns at once. But going all out can be a problem. “There has been a rise in the ‘more is better’ ethos, driven by social media like Instagram and TikTok, where people are using multiple products and often adding unnecessary steps to their skin care routines,” Dr. Mahto. “I’ve seen videos where people are using up to 5-6 different active ingredients in their evening skincare routine – but that’s not necessary.”

Which skin care ingredients cannot be mixed?

Before we go any further, it’s important to note: Here at R29, we frequently cover skin care trends. If there are new, promising ingredients or serums, we'll let you know. But everyone’s skin needs are different, and understanding whether a product is right for you before buying (such as by contacting a skin specialist, reading detailed reviews, or studying the ingredients list) is a good place to start.

PhD. Anna explains that your tolerance for a blend of active serums depends on your individual skin type. However, she said, certain combinations are known to cause irritation — even when used individually, but especially when combined with each other. For example, she advises against layering tretinoin with AHA (alpha-hydroxy acid, like glycolic acid) or BHA (beta-hydroxy acid, like salicylic acid). Other combinations that may cause irritation when applied directly on top of each other include: Vitamin C and the exfoliating acids listed above; Benzoyl peroxide and vitamin C or exfoliating acids; Vitamin C and a retinoid; Benzoyl peroxide and retinoids.

PhD. Derrick Phillips, consultant dermatologist and spokesperson for the British Skin Foundation, explains that the right serum is an excellent addition to any skincare routine, especially if you want to tackle a specific skin concern, such as acne Acne or hyperpigmentation, etc. But using two or three more products or using a thick serum can clog your skin, which means bad news for those who may suffer from issues like acne.

PhD. Mahto explains that this overuse can lead to other skin conditions, two of the most common being eczema and perioral dermatitis (an unpleasant red rash around the mouth). It's such a common skincare concern that the hashtag #periooraldermatitis has racked up 66.9 million views on TikTok and counting. Furthermore, Dr. Anna sees patients with a weak skin barrier whose symptoms include itching, flaking, redness, tightness and spotting. Ironically, there's a reason skincare brands push out "barrier repair" moisturizers left, right, and center — serum overload means many of us have completely ruined our moisturizers.

Is serum still necessary?

No one is suggesting you throw away your favorite serum. Depending on your skin concerns, the right product can work, and if it works for you, that's great. But Dr. Ana explains that depending on time and budget, serum is less of a necessity than daily SPF and cleansing. "I think these should never be excluded," she said.

In fact, TikTok skincare enthusiasts are following suit. A quick search for "simple skin care routine" will turn up countless, simple, three-step routines that don't require complicated serums at all. Instead, TikTok users like @stxph.h now prefer a basic cleanser, moisturizer and sunscreen.

Experts agree that the best way to keep your skin healthy is to stick to the basics. "A simple skin care routine (one that doesn't require layering or using multiple active ingredients) is easier to stick to," explains Dr. Phillips. "You're also less likely to get breakouts due to skin congestion or redness and irritation from a combination of harsh ingredients."

How to use serum effectively without irritating your skin?

Serums may still be a popular purchase, but DIY layering is a risky business. In this context, Dr. Mahto doesn’t recommend using too much product at once. However, if you plan on using two or more serums in your daily routine, you may want to keep them separate. "For example, if you want to use vitamin C and vitamin A (retinol), use vitamin C in your morning routine [before SPF or moisturizer] and vitamin A in your evening routine [before moisturizer] before],” Dr. Mahto.

PhD. Anna agrees. "If you have no particular concerns and want to protect your skin from environmental damage, I recommend the simple ABC method." "A" stands for vitamin A (retinol), "C" stands for vitamin C, and "B" stands for Sunscreen [or sunscreen]. "Vitamin A should be used at night, and vitamin C and sunscreen should be used during the day.

Now, says Dr. Mahto says skin care formulas are so advanced that brands often combine active ingredients into a single product to work harmoniously. “Brands I’m particularly fond of include Paula’s Choice, Medik8 and Omorovicza,” she says. To get the most out of your serum this way, choose ingredients that complement each other, says Dr. Phillips. "The combination of retinol and niacinamide works well, and the anti-inflammatory properties of niacinamide can relieve sensitivity caused by the effects of retinol peels." La Roche-Posay's Retinol B3 is an anti-aging serum for sensitive skin (sold (£38), which combines both, as does Youth To The People's Retina and Niacinamide Youth Serum (£59).
“The combination of niacinamide and vitamin C also works well,” says Dr. Phillips, "Especially if the goal is to brighten the skin." R29 reviews Versed Stroke of Brilliance Brightening Serum, £18. Of course, Dr. Anna points out that these mixed serums should be used as directed. So be sure to read the instructions to avoid Skin problems occur in the future.

Serums definitely have their place in skin care. But the consensus among experts and TikTok beauty enthusiasts proves that it's easy to try everything and then overdo it. If anything, the beauty industry's re-evaluation of serums is positive. Be it your skin (especially if you notice some unexplained issues with use) and, of course, your bank balance.

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