The Regimen

Facial Oils vs. Serums: What’s the Difference?

Facial oils and serum bottle


Facial oils are getting a lot of attention lately. They’re also creating a certain amount of confusion. What are they for? How do you use them? Are they serums? From the outside, they certainly look a lot like serums. They’re packaged in apothecary bottles with droppers, and many skincare manufacturers label them as “facial oil serums.” Be that as it may, the difference between the facial oils and serums is night and day. What are the differences? Which do you need? Let’s examine both to find out.


What is a serum?

Serums are lightweight, highly concentrated formulas with active ingredients that target specific concerns like acne, aging, or discoloration. They’re formulated with ingredients that are readily absorbed by the skin so they can reach the cellular level to effect change. Increasing cellular turnover, boosting collagen production, fading age spots or acne scars, clearing blemishes, and diminishing fine lines and wrinkles are among the benefits that serums can bring.    


What is a facial oil?

Facial oils are lipids extracted from plants. The formulas may be a single oil or a combination of oils, which contain fatty acids, antioxidants, and nutrients. Most oils remain at the surface of the skin, creating an occlusive effect and acting as a protective barrier, which helps skin to retain moisture. This makes facial oils useful mainly as a moisturizing element. They can help to hydrate the skin and strengthen the skin barrier, but they are not the agents of change that serums are.


Oils heavy in oleic acids, like grape seed oil, can act as permeability enhancers, so formulas that contain these oils are a better choice if you’re looking for more than just moisture in a facial oil. 


Do you need a facial oil or a serum?

Every skin needs a serum to help counter visible signs of aging, protect against oxidative stress, and to keep skin tone and texture bright, smooth, and radiant. Not every skin needs a moisturizing facial oil.


Serums often contain ingredients that help skin retain moisture. Unless you have particularly dry or sensitive skin, adding additional moisture may not be the best idea, especially in the form of oil, which can be occlusive and sometimes pore-clogging. If you have acne-prone skin, you’ll do better with an oil-free moisturizer. A healing and anti-inflammatory aloe-based gel like Vivant’s Totaloe Calming and Hydrating Gel is an excellent choice.


Other things to consider.

Coconut oil is one of the most popular facial oils. It’s also one of the most comedogenic.


If you’re considering a facial oil, be sure to check the formula for comedogens and allergens. If you have an allergic reaction to a plant, you’ll have an allergic reaction to the oil extracted from it. 


If a product is labeled “Facial Oil Serum,” look very carefully at the ingredients. Most oils will impede the penetration of the actives in a serum and keep them from providing their benefits, so you may be paying a premium for a formula that’s working against itself. Better to keep your actives separate from your moisture factors.


For application, remember the rule of thumb is always light to heavy. Moisturizers, if you’re using them, are always last to seal in moisture and avoid interfering with product absorption.


Must-Have Serums

Spin Trap Antioxidant Serum

No matter your skin type or age, this potent protector is a must for every skin. Use it daily to defend against pollutants, photo-damage, UV age acceleration, and oxidative stress.


Derm-A-Gel Daily Vitamin A

Dermascope Magazine’s Aestheticians’ Choice Award-Winner for Best Retinoid Serum. This radiance-boosting skin resurfacer increases cellular metabolism, reduces fine lines, clears impactions, and promotes a more even skin tone.


8% Mandelic Acid 3-In-1 Serum

A gentle approach to targeting acne, aging, and discoloration with dramatic results. Transform skin texture and tone without irritation that can trigger post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Ideal for darker skin tones.



Encourages cell renewal and reduces wrinkles, acne scarring, and hyperpigmentation with a potent blend of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and pro-brightening ingredients. An advanced formula for brighter, smoother, clearer skin.


See all Vivant corrective serums.

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