Serums vs. Oils: What's the Difference?

Maybe it’s due to their unique consistency or perhaps because they’re outside the realm of a basic skincare routine (for the record, there’s nothing wrong with simply sticking to cleanser, moisturizer, and SPF), but serums and facial oils seem to frequently cause confusion in the skincare world. How to use them, when to use them, and whether you even should use them are questions you may ask yourself (or Google) when considering stocking your shelf. Read on for answers to your serum and facial oil q’s—and don’t forget you can always hit up our Skin Hotline if you’ve got more.

What Are Serums and Oils?

These two treatments tend to get thrown into the same category (perhaps because they usually come in a bottle with a dropper) but they’re truthfully quite different. Serums have a thin, watery consistency and are formulated with a high concentration of active ingredients. Because this allows the product to penetrate deep below the surface of the skin, serums are ideal for targeting specific skincare concerns—from acne to aging to dullness.


Unlike serums, oils aren’t formulated with water and are thicker in consistency, beneficial for keeping skin’s barrier smooth and nourished. You can think of these as a replacement for (or an addition to) your moisturizer, depending on skin’s needs. Moisturizers, formulated with a mixture of water and oils, deliver on both hydration and moisture (yes, there’s a difference). If you’re getting your hydration elsewhere—like through our Baby Cheeks toner—and strictly want to double down on moisture, you may choose to only use an oil. If your skin is extra thirsty, you may opt for both. The best option? Get the benefits of an oil and a serum in one, single product with our Sunday Morning Antioxidant Oil-Serum.

Should Oily and Acne-Prone Skin Use Them?

All skin types can benefit from adding serums and oils to their routine, but you have to find the right ones for your skin. Because each serum is so unique, feel free to mix and match according to your specific skin’s needs. For example, adding a Clarifying Serum and Brightening Serum to a acne-prone skin routine can simultaneously clear up acne and fade the marks they leave behind. You may even opt for a boost of hyaluronic acid, like Moisture Maker, which will leave skin hydrated and moisturized. 

Dry skin types will definitely benefit from the extra moisture a facial oil provides, but oily and acne-prone skin (despite what their instincts tell them) can use facial oils, too. In fact, as long as your product is formulated with skin-friendly oils like jojoba and camellia, facial oils can actually help acne-prone complexions. All skin types produce oil, known as sebum, which helps keep skin moisturized. There are several reasons why skin may overproduce oil but supplementing your routine with non-pore clogging oils signals your glands to stop overproducing sebum, which ensures skin is moisture is balanced and can actually prevent breakouts from occurring.  

When to Apply Serums and Oils in Your Routine

Both serums and oils can be used morning and night and should be patted (gently) onto the face, neck, and chest. Following the rule of applying skincare from thinnest to thickest, serums should be applied after cleansing and toning but before moisturizing. Facial oils can replace your moisturizer or, if you’re extra dry, can be layered above or beneath depending on personal preference. Note: The term “serum” is sometimes used ambiguously and may be formulated with oil-based ingredients. In that case, treat that product as you would a facial oil and apply towards the end of your routine. Regardless, allow both serums and oils to sink in for 2-3 minutes (or more for heavier oils) before moving on to your next skincare move (if any). 


While you’re here, read 5 tips for getting the most out of your serums.