Serums are easily the most intimidating part of putting together a skincare routine. The word itself sounds like something that dwells within Aladdin’s hidden Cave of Wonders and contains a concoction made of fairy dust and the tears of angels. It doesn’t help that these magical potions are often placed in the back of Sephora, as if the skincare section is a secret members-only club where you must divulge how many steps are in your skincare routine and what your favorite Korean sheet mask is before gaining entry. Once you’re in, the prices all but scream “you don’t belong here,” and you quickly rush back to the makeup section before one of the salespeople notices the worried look on your face and tells you to unfurrow your brow, lest you cause any more wrinkles.
Allow me to let you in on a secret that the beauty industry doesn’t want you to find out: the expensive serums with their hard-to-pronounce ingredients and outrageous claims aren’t really necessary, especially if you’re in your twenties. There are plenty of affordable options for serums that add a little bit of luxury to your daily routine while also delivering fantastic results at a fraction of the cost of anything you could pick up at Sephora.
Before we dive into the recommendations, let’s break down what exactly serums are and why they’re important in a skincare routine. Imagine your skincare regimen as a sandwich. The cleanser is the bread – a sandwich can’t be a sandwich without bread, and you can’t have nice skin if you don’t wash your face regularly. Moisturizer is the meat, because protein is also a fundamental part of what makes a sandwich a sandwich. Together, the meat and bread make a very basic sandwich, but it’s nothing special. If you want to add more zest to your sandwich, you need a nice spread. In this analogy, serums are the spread. There are a million different spreads you can add to a sandwich – mustard, mayonnaise, pesto, hummus – and they all add a different flavor. And that’s what serums do for your face. There are a ton of serums out there that all serve their own purpose (or flavor), and it’s all about finding the one that makes your face (or taste buds) sing. Now, onwards to the recommendations!
1. Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum – $16.99
This is the closest you can get to Botox without actually paying for Botox. There is no wrinkle-fighting product as powerful and as affordable as Rapid Wrinkle Repair. The combination of retinol, glucose, and hyaluronic acid work in perfect harmony to reduce wrinkles in as little as one week. The hyaluronic acid gives you the immediate results of smoother, brighter skin, while the retinol works over time to reduce the appearance of lines. It’s the deadly one-two punch of skincare. The retinol can be a bit drying, so use it every other day until you build up a tolerance it.
2. The Ordinary Buffet – $14.40
I like to call this one “the serum of the people.” It’s for everyone. The notoriously affordable (and also just notorious) skincare brand The Ordinary is a nightmare for skincare newbies due to the scientifically precise names of their products — without a Ph.D. in biochemistry, how is anyone supposed to know what things like resveratrol and ferulic acid do and why they’re good for your skin? Buffet is The Ordinary’s only nonscientifically named product, and you don’t have to be a genius to know that this stuff works. It’s basically three serums in one, and supposedly addresses a myriad of skin woes from wrinkles to dark spots. And at less than $15, it’s worth adding to your cart.
3. Pixi Overnight Glow Serum – $24
Pixi is a Target-exclusive brand best known for their Glow Tonic, but for me, this is truly their stand-out product. It’s like Glow Tonic on acid – literally. The Overnight Glow Serum contains 10% glycolic acid, while the famed Glow Tonic only contains 5%.
I’m a huge fan of acids in skincare because they alleviate all the major skincare concerns – texture, wrinkles, sun damage – while also giving your skin a major glow. It’s one of those products where you’ll immediately see a difference when you look at yourself in the mirror the morning after applying. It isn’t the most affordable option on this list, but it’s definitely the most powerful. Pick it up next time you’re at Target to get your air freshener, a tea kettle, and the inevitable random shit you probably don’t need.
Another glowing serum. If “acid” and “skincare” used together scare you, you’ll be happy to know that this product gets its glow from oils, not acids. Perfect for dry or dehydrated skin, this serum contains argan, pumpkin, cranberry, and borage oil to coat your dull, lifeless skin in a warm cocoon of moisture. This is more of an oil than a serum, which can sometimes agitate acne-prone and oily skin, so if that’s you, then you might want to skip out on this one. It goes on like silk pajamas over freshly shaved legs, and it smells like the most expensive spa you’ve never been to. After a week or two of regular use, the glow is definitely real. It’s also natural, certified organic, paraben-free, phthalate-free, and vegan, if those things are important to you.
5. Neutrogena Hydro Boost Hydrating Serum – $14.99
This serum is no muss, no fuss. There are no revolutionary anti-aging ingredients or powerful antioxidants in this serum, just good ol’ fashioned hyaluronic acid, AKA the hydration station. This serum absorbs quickly and gives skin a nice smooth texture, which makes it ideal for those who hate the feeling of layers of product on their skin (can’t relate TBH) but also want to do something about that annoying tightening sensation that occurs after you wash your face. The heavy fragrance in this product might set off sensitive skin, but for the most part, this product does exactly what it says it’ll do – hydrate. It’ll make you look like you drank the recommended eight glasses of water per day, even if the only liquids you had that day were an espresso and two glass of red wine.
Cristina is a freelance beauty writer in Austin, Texas. She spends her spare time masking and wondering if jade rollers really work. DM her your favorite moisturizer on Twitter or visit her on her website.
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