skin care essentials Face Oil vs. Face Serum: What’s the Difference?

And how to use them in your routine.

February 11, 2022
Face Oil Vs Face Serum


Considering how many different categories of skin care products exist on the market, it’s understandable that their purposes and differentiating qualities can be confusing. Is a toner different from an essence? Are creams and lotions different? Is face oil the same thing as face serum

If the latter question has been on your mind, you’re not alone 一 many people actually don't know that face oils and serums are, in fact, different. So, we consulted with Madison Godesky, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Scientific Affairs at L’Oréal Paris, to break it down. Keep reading to learn more about how face oils and serums differ, the correct order to apply them, and more. 


How Oil And Serum Formulas Differ 

Before diving into how face oils and serums should be used in your skin care routine, let's establish how their formulas differ. Both formulas are liquid products that are designed to be layered in your skin care routine. While serums and oils appear similar when looking at them, there are key differentiating factors to understand in order to get the benefits of both when putting them to use. 

“From a formulation perspective, the key difference between a serum and an oil comes down to their ‘hydrophilicity’ and ‘hydrophobicity,’” says Godesky. “In other words, [it’s about] how “water-loving” or “water-fearing” each formula architecture is.”  

According to Godesky, serums are “water-loving” fluids and oils are “water-fearing” liquids. 

If you’re wondering why this is relevant, allow Godesky to explain. “Our bodies are made up of a lot of [water], so the way a formula interacts with water influences how the formula interacts with our skin,” she says. 

You know how olive oil and water separate if poured into a glass together? Think about it in that way. Well because our skin is made up of a lot of water, oil formulas aren’t able to penetrate the layers of the skin as well as serums can 一 more on this ahead. 

She also explains that the hydrophilic and hydrophobic properties of a formula determine the types of actives that can be dissolved and incorporated into it. For example, you’ll often see ingredients, like hyaluronic acid, in serums rather than oils due to how the formulas and ingredients interact. 


How Face Serums Benefit The Skin 

Because serums are water-based and water-loving, they can hold high concentrations of dermatological actives. They’re designed to absorb quickly and deliver actives into the deeper, more watery layers of the skin. 

“Serums tend to offer the most potent and targeted treatments for skin care concerns,” she explains. “If you are experiencing more advanced signs of aging, like wrinkles, dark spots, or volume loss, look for potent serums with dermatological actives.” 

For example, if you’re dealing with  wrinkles, opt for highly concentrated retinol serum, like the L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives Night Serum, 0.3% Pure Retinol, versus a moisturizer with a lower concentration of retinol. 


How Face Oils Benefit The Skin 

Godesky explains that oils are water-fearing in nature, which means they interact best with other oils, including skin’s outer lipid barrier. Because of this, face oils typically remain in the uppermost layers of the skin and do not fully penetrate the more watery layers. 

When it comes to the benefits, facial oils can help nourish and strengthen skin’s natural protective barrier. 

“While technically it’s impossible to hydrate without water, face oils can help your skin stay moisturized by locking in it’s own water,” says Godesky. If you have a dehydrated skin barrier, you may benefit from a facial oil in your routine.


How To Use Face Serum And Face Oil In Your Skin Care Routine 

Now that you know the different skin benefits of oils and serums, you might be wondering how to use them together in your skin care routine. Like layering any skin care products, the most lightweight formulas should be applied before heavier ones. 

“If you plan to layer, let your water-based serum fully sink in before you lock in the treatment with an oil,” says Godesky. 

Next: How to Build a Skin Care Kit for Beginners

Written by: Alyssa Kaplan, Photo Credit: Chaunte Vaughn