So What's The Difference Between a Moisturizer, Serum, and Oil?

The cosmetics and skincare industry is an innovative one. It feels like every day I am being told the newest skincare item that I must have in my makeup cabinet. Don’t get me wrong, I love having options and it’s so fun trying out the latest product, but sometimes it can get overwhelming. With so many different products to choose from it can be tricky to figure out what the heck a product actually does, let alone which one I should select.(Photo via @frankirudnesky)

With skincare taking center stage these days (which is great!), we have all heard the terms “serum,” “oil.” and “moisturizer.” But here’s the real question we have all asked ourselves: What is the difference between them all?

Well, no more wondering, we’ve broken it down for you so next time you’re in Sephora you’ll know straight where to head.


Let’s start with the basics. Serums are meant to be applied after you wash your face and before you moisturize. Serums are made of smaller molecules; this allows the product to better penetrate the skin. Also, they are typically created to target one or a couple specific issues. This results in the product being more effective than a more general skincare product. Keep in mind, serums are not meant to be used in place of moisturizers. It is important to apply a moisturizer on top of the serum. Think of the moisturizer as the barrier, keeping all the magical awesomeness of the serum’s ingredients locked to your skin, thus heightening the effects. Brace yourself, serums tend to be on the expensive side of skin care, but the high number of ingredients are so worth the extra dollars.

We Recommend: Skin Inc. Vitamin B3 + Niacinamide Serum


Now onto oils. The purpose of an oil is to hydrate and nourish the skin. The term, oil, can seem daunting to many, especially those with oily or break-out prone skin. Facial oils contain essential fatty acids, or EFAs for short. Now, I know what you’re all thinking, wouldn’t a “fatty acid” cause your skin to break out? Actually, the answer is no! Facial oils are designed to quickly penetrate the skin instead of clogging pores, which is what causes acne. While serums and oils have a similar consistency, they serve two different purposes. Oils serve a singular purpose—deep, penetrating moisture. Think of serums as a bonus; a way to target something that your skin specifically needs, such a redness reduction, even skin tone, or brightness.

We Recommend: No 7 Youthful Replenishing Facial Oil


I think it’s safe to say we have all heard of moisturizer and we all should be using one on a regular basis (Yes, even if you have oily skin. Yes, even during the warmer months.) But wait? Haven’t we already covered moisture above when talking about oils? Well, yes and no. The molecules in moisturizer are larger than those in oils. The result of larger molecules means that the product doesn’t penetrate the skin as deeply. A moisturizer should be the last step in your skin care routine as they lock in the ingredients from the previous products.

We Recommend: Clinique Moisture Surge Intense

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