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How to Choose the Right Face Cream and Serum

Find the perfect product to target specific skin concerns


spinner image a woman applying facial serum
PeopleImages/Getty Images

It goes like this: You’re standing in the drugstore or browsing online and wondering which of the hundreds of moisturizers and serums might improve your aging skin. You haven’t a clue what to mix or match. You’re also fed up with products that sound great, look great, even feel great at first but fall flat after a trial run. I’m a beauty editor who has specialized in the 50-plus demographic for over four decades, and I know you don’t need another dud to stash under the sink or toss in the trash. Here are six practical tips to success:

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spinner image A woman looking at herself in the mirror
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1. Zero in on what your skin needs right now.

Skin care is a lot like fashion. Fads fly in and out, and they get hyped on social media as creams and serums (pricey and affordable) compete for game-changer status. Despite the claims, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. That’s because by age 50 each of us has a long skin history of care, neglect (skipping sunscreen is a biggie!) and our concerns continue to change. What your skin needs today versus last year or even four months ago may be different. A mirror can provide a DIY diagnosis. Is your skin feeling drier or looking spotty, rough or uneven in texture? Does it seem dull and lack glow without the help of makeup? Are lines and wrinkles more prominent? Do your face a favor. Ignore the creams and serums your best friend or work colleague rave about. Their skin “story,” from genetics to sun exposure history and self-care, are very different from your own, regardless of age or skin tone. Then read on to match your concerns with some down-to-earth product advice.

spinner image Sunday Riley Ice Ceramide Moisturizing Cream; BeautyStat Universal Pro-Bio Moisture Boost Cream; Glow Recipe Avocado Ceramide Recovery Serum; Burt’s Bees Renewal Firming Moisturizing Cream - Fragrance Free; Skinfix Barrier+ Triple Lipid Peptide-Cream
Clockwise from bottom left: Sunday Riley Ice Ceramide Moisturizing Cream ($65, sephora.com); BeautyStat Universal Pro-Bio Moisture Boost Cream ($50, bluemercury.com); Glow Recipe Avocado Ceramide Recovery Serum ($45, kohls.com); Burt’s Bees Renewal Firming Moisturizing Cream - Fragrance Free ($23, cvs.com); Skinfix Barrier+ Triple Lipid Peptide-Cream ($54, sephora.com)
Sephora; Bluemercury; Kohl's; CVS; Sephora

2. Identify the best-for-you ingredients.

Notice I didn’t say the trendiest ingredients. You don’t need to be a dermatologist or a cosmetic chemist to select the hero ingredients that are proven to work and still at the top of their game. You’ll find them shouting out from the label or at the top of the ingredient list (when vague product names don’t give them away). Mature skin responds to humectants like hyaluronic acid, glycerin and aloe vera, which attract water to plump up lines and wrinkles; emollients like ceramides, shea butter, cocoa butter, squalane and fatty acids, which repair and seal the skin barrier for a bouncier, healthier texture; peptides, which stimulate collagen and improve elasticity and firmness; niacinamide (also known as B3), which reduces inflammation and addresses hyperpigmentation; vitamin C, which has a brightening effect and helps sunscreen work more effectively (thanks to C’s ability to fight free radicals that contribute to dullness and age spots); and retinol and its plant version, bakuchiol, which promote cell turnover, boost collagen and smooth fine lines and wrinkles.

spinner image Tula Wrinkle Treatment Drops Retinol Alternative Serum; e.l.f. Holy Hydration! Face Cream; OleHenriksen Goodnight Glow Sleeping Creme; The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5
Left to right: Tula Wrinkle Treatment Drops Retinol Alternative Serum ($48, amazon.com); e.l.f. Holy Hydration! Face Cream ($13, cvs.com); OleHenriksen Goodnight Glow Sleeping Creme ($36, kohls.com); The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 (pantothenic acid) ($9, ulta.com)
Amazon; CVS; Kohl's; Ulta Beauty

3. Understand the difference between creams and serums.

Creams and serums serve different purposes but work together. Serums are highly concentrated formulas with specific ingredients (like peptides, hyaluronic acid, vitamin C or retinol) that can add extra moisture, brighten or counteract discolorations, depending on which one you choose. Silky and fluid, serums are applied under creams to supplement them. Their smaller molecules enable the ingredients to penetrate more deeply into the skin, but make no mistake — serums are not moisturizers. You still need a cream topcoat for hydration and to lock in moisture and your serum’s active ingredients. Moisturizer — not serum — is what gives skin an instantly softer, healthier, more plumped up look. Does everyone need a serum? Do you need to use it all the time? No and no. Although skin care brands may say otherwise (face it, skin care is big business!), serums are an option, not a must-have like sunscreen and moisturizer. You might use a serum during the winter months for extra hydration, to solve a particular issue that has cropped up, only at night or just during the day. Or you might not use one at all if your skin is extremely sensitive (see tip no. 6 for more on that) or you are dealing with a skin issue like eczema.

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spinner image Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Face Cream-Fragrance Free; Bliss Bright Idea Vitamin C + Tri-Peptide Moisturizer; Vichy LiftActiv B3 Serum for Dark Spots & Wrinkles; Cetaphil Deep Hydration 48-Hour Activation Serum
(Left to right) Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Face Cream-Fragrance Free; Bliss Bright Idea Vitamin C + Tri-Peptide Moisturizer; Vichy LiftActiv B3 Serum for Dark Spots & Wrinkles; Cetaphil Deep Hydration 48-Hour Activation Serum
CVS; Bliss; Target; CVS

4. Learn how to safely pair creams and serums.

There are several options. The safest route, especially if you’re a serum novice or wary of irritation, is to pair a cream and serum from the same brand. Or, if you just want to add a serum, pair it with your current moisturizer from a brand you already use and trust. That’s because research and development teams have tested the formulas and products within a brand to ensure they work well together. Curating individual products on your own is a little bit more advanced. The easiest method for combining two brands is to balance a specific active ingredient with a soothing partner. You can do this by layering an exfoliating serum under a hydration-focused cream. For example, the Vichy LiftActiv B3 Serum for Dark Spots & Wrinkles ($45, target.com) with glycolic acid, peptides and niacinamide under Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Face Cream-Fragrance Free ($31, cvs.com) with hyaluronic acid. Or you might reverse that thinking and choose a multitasking cream that already contains a power ingredient like C with a simple hydrating serum, for example Bliss Bright Idea Vitamin C + Tri-Peptide Moisturizer ($26, bliss world.com) over a hyaluronic serum like Cetaphil Deep Hydration 48-Hour Activation Serum ($26, cvs.com). However, you never want to mix ingredients like retinol, vitamin C and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic or lactic acid, because it could cause skin sensitivity. Keep them separate. One common regimen many women choose is to use vitamin C serum in the morning to address dull skin and pigmentation issues, and a retinol, bakuchiol or alpha hydroxy acid at night to address sun damage and wrinkles.

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spinner image CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum; Roc Correxion Revive + Glow Moisturizer; L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Pressed Night Cream with Retinol + Niacinamide; TruSkin Vitamin C Facial Serum with Vitamin C+ Hyaluronic Acid
(Left to right) CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum; Roc Correxion Revive + Glow Moisturizer; L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Pressed Night Cream with Retinol + Niacinamide; TruSkin Vitamin C Facial Serum with Vitamin C+ Hyaluronic Acid
Walmart; Amazon; Ulta Beauty; Walmart

5. Choose between creams and serums mindfully.  

Forget those TikTok and YouTube videos where “influencers” pile on layers of active ingredients and multiple serums at the same time or skin cycle their way through a bunch of exfoliating serums weekly. Your 50-plus face is not a science experiment; older skin is thinner and drier, and therefore more fragile. Instead, target one specific issue at a time day and night, and decide whether to get your dosage of “actives” like C, retinol or AHAs in a cream (a more gentle approach) or a serum (for more impact) depending on your individual skin health, history, preferences and current needs. For example, Roc Correxion Revive + Glow Moisturizer ($19, amazon.com) has 10% vitamin C, plus glycerin, peptides and shea butter in a gel cream, but C can also be found in a serum like TruSkin Vitamin C Facial Serum with Vitamin C+ Hyaluronic Acid ($17, walmart.com). Retinol or bakuchiol is a key ingredient in a cream like L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Pressed Night Cream with Retinol + Niacinamide ($40, ulta.com) and also in a serum like CeraVe Skin Renewing Retinol Serum ($20, walmart.com).

spinner image La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer; Clinique Moisture Surge 100-Hour Auto-Replenishing Hydrator; First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Hydrating Serum; Olay Sensitive Soothing Moisturizer Fragrance-Free
(Clockwise from left) La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer; Clinique Moisture Surge 100-Hour Auto-Replenishing Hydrator; First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Hydrating Serum; Olay Sensitive Soothing Moisturizer Fragrance-Free
Walgreens; Clinique; First Aid Beauty; Target

6. Address sensitivity sensibly.

Do you have reactive-prone skin? If you’ve often experienced burning, tingling, itching or redness when trying new skin care, you’re in the “sensitive skin” category. You’ll want to avoid more potent and aggressive formulas with a higher percentage of active ingredients, exfoliants such as alpha hydroxy acids and retinoids, and fragranced products. Be sure to try only one new product at a time. You can still improve the look of stressed-out aging skin by opting for creams and serums that address revitalizing without setting off irritation. A lightweight day/night cream fortified with gentler ingredients — like La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer ($11, walgreens.com) with glycerin, ceramides and niacinamide or Clinique Moisture Surge 100-Hour Auto-Replenishing Hydrator ($46, clinique.com) with hyaluronic acid, glycerin and aloe vera — can significantly improve skin texture and plump up lines. Those dealing with redness or ongoing sensitivity might opt for a cream with soothing colloidal oatmeal cream like Olay Sensitive Soothing Moisturizer Fragrance-Free ($30, target.com) or a colloidal oatmeal serum like First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Hydrating Serum ($40, firstaidbeauty.com). Still squeamish? Test all new products on your inner forearm for two days before moving on to your face.

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