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Face Oil vs Face Serum - What’s the difference and do you need them both?

July 21, 2020

Face Oil vs Face Serum - What’s the difference and do you need them both?

If you’re still unclear on the differences between using a face oil vs a face serum, you’re not alone. They can look similar and are even sometimes used interchangeably. But which product does what? What are the benefits of using each type? And do you need them both?

We’re answering these questions and more. Read on for the break down on everything you need to know about face serums vs. face oils, including the difference between the two (and why you need them both).

What is face serum?

Face serum is a water-based liquid concentrate of active skin care ingredients designed to target specific concerns. Face serum has a much lighter consistency and smaller molecular weight than face cream. That means it can penetrate the skin much deeper than heavier lotions and creams.

Almost any active ingredient can be harnessed into a face serum, making them ideal for combating a number of skin issues. You can find serums for hyper-pigmentation, sun damage, acne, dehydration, dullness, and fighting premature signs of aging.

Serums have active ingredients in them that you want to penetrate deeply as possible into your skin. For this reason, face serum should always be applied to your skin after cleansing and toning and before your moisturizer and sunscreen.

Lightweight serums  absorb quickly (usually), and can be used in both your morning and night time skin care routines. They aren’t meant to replace your moisturizer, but a hyaluronic acid hydrating serum can be used to boost its hydrating effects. Because of the number of different skin care concerns serums address, everyone can benefit from adding a face serum into their product line-up.

What is face oil?

Face oils have been used in skin care routines since the days of Cleopatra. Ancient Egyptians used a variety of plant-based oils on their skin to fight wrinkles and preserve their youth. Face oils are extracted from fruit, seeds and nuts, and packed with essential nutrients, fatty acids, and antioxidants.

Oils are particularly effective because many mimic the skin’s natural sebum production. Face oils add barrier protection and superficial hydration, sinking into the skin just enough to add a mega dose of moisture to the topmost layer.

Adding a face oil to your skin care routine can give you healthy, nourished, glowing skin, but it’s important to note that certain oils can clog pores. If you have breakout-prone skin, your best bets are lightweight options. For example, argan oil has a smaller molecular size, meaning it will sink into your skin quickly without clogging pores.

You can mix face oil with your moisturizer, or use it just before. Oils can also be applied as the last step, locking moisturizer in. Face oils should come after water based toners and serums, as the oil will prevent water-based products from absorbing.

Is face oil the same as moisturizer?

Well, not quite. Oils are emollient, which means that unlike traditional cream moisturizers, which sink deep into the skin for intensive hydration, oils tend to stay near the surface.

Essentially, their moisturizing abilities aren’t as powerful as creams or lotions, so while face oil may sink into your skin just enough to superficially hydrate, that's nothing compared with true hydrating superstars like hyaluronic acid, which literally binds water to skin cells.

But oils do provide superficial hydration, helping to protect and nourish skin. Use them in combination with with a daily face moisturizer that has ingredients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin

Can I use face oil if I have oily skin?

Some oils are comedogenic, so it might seem counterintuitive to use face oil if you have oily skin.  But certain face oils can actually help balance the oils in your complexion.

Oily skin produces more oil as a defense mechanism to balance out the loss of moisture on your skin. A disrupted skin barrier is a common cause. Using a face oil also can dissolve grease, sebum, or makeup on your face without stripping your skin of its natural oils. Plus, hydrated, healthy skin is less prone to breakouts. The ideal texture for oily skin is a non-greasy oil that evaporates quickly and doubles as an antioxidant, like rosehip oil and grapeseed oil, which are also anti-inflammatory.

What’s the difference between face oil and face serum?

While they may seem similar, face oil and face serum each have their own set of skin care advantages. They can be used separately or layered to work together. But the fundamental difference between the two comes down to the composition of their formulas.

Typically face serums are water-based, meaning their molecule size is much smaller than oil and can be absorbed quicker and deeper into your skin. This makes them extremely effective at delivering ingredients and beneficial to all skin types.

Oil’s molecular structure is larger than that of serum’s, meaning it only reaches the epidermis of the skin. But despite their inability to penetrate the skin as deeply as a serum, face oils mimic the body’s natural sebum production, making them ideal for protecting the skin’s barrier.

The great thing about face oil and face serum is that they can work so well together when layered to address a number of skin concerns at once. And this is where their chemical compositions come into play.

Face serum typically has a smaller molecule size than face oil, so if you’re planning to use both, serum should be applied first. This way, the benefits of the oil can penetrate past the smaller molecules of the serum to get to your skin. If you applied oil first, the serum wouldn’t get past the larger molecules, rendering it ineffective.

Face Oil vs Face Serum Comparison Chart

Characteristics

Face Oil

Face Serum

Composition

oils and oil actives

water based actives

Molecules

large

small


How to apply face serum

Apply your face serum to freshly cleansed and exfoliated skin once or twice daily (according to the label). Start by warming the serum between your palms. This will bring it to your skin’s temperature, so that it accepts it immediately. Use the natural weight of your hands to distribute the product evenly over your face and neck, while gently giving yourself a face massage.

How to apply face oil

Apply face oil in the morning and at night after cleansing and moisturizing. Apply four to five drops of oil to your fingertips. Remember that a little goes a long way with oil, don’t use too much or you’ll risk looking greasy. Gently smooth the oil from your nose to your ears. Then, smooth it from your eyebrows to your hairline in an upward motion, going against gravity. Finish applying your face oil by smoothing it from your neck to your jawline until it’s fully absorbed.

Tips for using face oil and face serum

  • Serum goes first.

Serum should always, ALWAYS be the first product that touches your skin after cleansing and exfoliating. Applying a moisturizer or oil creates a barrier over your skin, blocking absorption of the serum.

  • Pair them together

Face serums and face oils have each other’s backs. They can be mixed and work well together. For example, a vitamin C serum for dark spots can be layered with a squalene oil for hydration.

  • Layer according to consistency.

When it comes to deciding which serum goes first, always start light and layer by consistency. Lighter serums will be easily and more quickly absorbed, while the heavier face serums and face oils seal in the ingredients. If a serum has the same consistency, go with the ingredient that you want your skin to get the most of. In other words, if you are most concerned about dry skin, apply your hyaluronic acid serum first.

  • Layering is best done at night.

Some of the active ingredients in face serums can cause skin sensitivity when exposed to ultraviolet rays (we’re looking at you retinol!) so it’s best to layer your products at night. This also allows the active ingredients to work more effectively as your body works to repair  itself while you sleep.

  • Pay attention to the way you apply them.

Applying your face oils and serums by gently massaging them into your skin helps improve circulation. A nice massage also delivers a fresh dose of oxygen, waking your skin up and giving your complexion a healthy, radiant glow.

  • Let your serum fully absorb.

Wait a minute or two after you apply your serum before your next layer of product. This ensures that your serums have fully seeped into your skin. And, it also prevents product build up, which can make applying make-up difficult.

  • Everyone can benefit from using face oil or face serum.

As long as you’re choosing the right products for your skin type, everyone can benefit from using and layering serums and oils. By adding them both into your daily skin care routine, you’re treating the skin with a targeted ingredient and then sealing it in with a barrier that nourishes and hydrates your skin.


Adding both face oil and face serum into your everyday skin care routine will improve the overall health and appearance of your complexion. The two can be used on their own as a singular beauty treatment, or layered for customized results. In short, face serums target specific skin concerns and face oils moisturize and hydrate.Both play a role in helping your skin to look brighter and happier. Play mix and match with different face oils and face serums until you find what works best for your skin. 

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