Serum, Cream, Oil - What's the Difference?

5 min read

woman applying cream to face

With so many options, trying to figure out what moisturizing products to use to meet your skin's needs can feel like walking inside a labyrinth. While skin care experts recommend using both a serum and a moisturizer, some of your friends might swear by their favorite facial oil. No matter your age or skin type, the outermost protective layer of your body, your skin, fluctuates along with your activities, time of month related to hormones (if applicable) and/or changing seasons. There's no "one size fits all". Every day brings different factors and recognizing your skin's needs for nutrients and moisture will help you figure out how to choose and layer products efficiently.
Should you use a serum or cream or facial oil?
Which one do you put on first?
And what’s the difference between serum vs. cream vs. oil anyway?

It's easy to get overwhelmed and confused about which product to choose and if and when to layer them. In recent years, facial oils have taken the beauty world by storm, and it’s amazing to see so many people incorporate simple botanical oils into their rituals. But it’s important to understand the difference between face oils, serums and creams, as they all serve different functions. So should you be using serum, cream, oil – or all of them? We believe that a good skincare regime combines serum, cream and facial oil. So it’s not a case of serum vs. cream vs. oil. It’s more about understanding how they perform differently on the skin and how you should be incorporating them into your skincare regimen.

Questions about Serums & Creams & Facial Oils

Are they the same thing?
Can you use one without the other?
Must you use them all?

Serum, cream and facial oil help the skin in different ways. For some, particularly those who do not have dry skin, a serum alone may be enough. At other times, when your skin is dry or the environment is drying, you will find that you need a serum, cream and/or facial oil.

What Is A Serum?

Serums are typically lighter and thinner in texture than cream and designed to be absorbed more easily and quickly through the skin. Think of your serum like a vitamin for your skin. Serums have smaller molecules and are an ideal transport medium to get a high concentration of active ingredients to penetrate deeply into the skin for maximum benefit. Serums leave out the more occlusive, moisture-locking ingredients, such as petroleum derivatives and/or oils, that you find in creams - these are the ingredients that give the product its “creamy” qualities. They also contain fewer lubricating and thickening agents, like nut or seed oils. In fact, most serums are water-based, eliminating oils completely.

Serums contain a high concentration of active ingredients — like antioxidants, peptides, and skin brighteners — that you can find in nonprescription products. 

Because active ingredients are more expensive than thickeners, serums can also be more costly. But when applied properly, a 1-ounce container of serum should last you months, and many serums have applicators to dispense just the tiny amount you need. Always apply a serum first after cleansing or toning and before your moisturizer and sunscreen. Don’t put your serum on after you moisturize. Creams & oils are designed to form a barrier on your skin. But they can also lock active ingredients out.

You can use your serum both morning and night. Using a serum does not necessarily replace your moisturizer but can boost the hydrating effects of your moisturizer, especially if it is formulated with hyaluronic acid such as the alpenglow Resveratrol + Hyaluronic Youth Serum. Make sure to wait for serum to dry before applying a moisturizer.

how to layer serum, cream and/or facial oil

What Is A Cream?

Creams are a mixture, or emulsion, of oil and water and that is what gives them their thicker texture and creamy color. Creams hydrate the skin, prevent water loss and help protect against environmental stressors. Fatty oils and ingredients like vegetable-derived glycerin and hyaluronic acid help retain moisture prevent the water from evaporating.This hydration boost means that skin cells retain moisture, leaving skin supple, healthy and glowing. While the main role of a cream is to provide hydration and lock it in, some creams, like the protect&defend Squalane + Hyaluronic Restore Cream have added anti-aging ingredients that help repair and strengthen cells, so they can do double duty for your skin. In order to really address a difficult skin care problem, like sun damage or hyperpigmentation, you’ll want to combine your moisturizer with a quality serum or facial oil. If using a cream, always apply to cleansed/toned skin after serum and before facial oil.
AM/PM Skincare Routine
What Is A Facial Oil?

Unlike cream, facial oils do not provide hydration, they lock moisture into the skin, helping the skin to hold onto precious hydration for longer. So where do you get this hydration? That’s where creams come in. The key difference with facial oil is that actives in the botanicals are present at a much higher concentration as they’re not diluted. This means they have a more tangible effect on the skin.

A fatty, omega-rich oil like alpenGLOW Ritual Face + Body Oil deeply conditions, nourishes and improves skin tone and elasticity. Natural ingredients are the key to a good facial oil and will leave you visibly (and deeply) glowing. For those who prefer cream or find layering a cream and oil too occlusive, the alpenGLOW Ritual Face + Body Oil works amazingly well as a standalone "slip" oil for ritual GUA SHA technique and pairs well with the Amazonite Fish-Shape Gua Sha Lifting Tool to relieve tension and improve skin tone.

If layering favial oil and cream, always apply facial oil after cream This is because oils are able to penetrate moisturizers, but not the other way around. So even if you apply a cream first, the actives and nutrients in your facial oil will still be able to get to work on your skin.

But What About Too Much Layering?
Not everybody needs a serum, cream and facial oil everyday. Every person's skin changes daily, monthly and seasonally. During certain times of year or for oily skin types, people find using a combination of serum, cream and/or facial oil to be too much on top of the skin. Additionally, many quality products multi-task to hydrate, proetct, repair. nourish, boost, glow, and lock in moisture.


When trying to decide which ONE of these is the best choice ask yourself:
IS MY SKIN DRY? A cream is likely the best option with a layer of oil to lock in moisture.
DO I HAVE A SPECIFIC SKIN CONCERN TO ADDRESS? A serum is likely the best option for oily skin and a facial oil for drier/sensitive skin types to match actives with skin-specific solutions.
AM I JUST GOING FOR MORE GLOW? Definitely reach for the facial oil! And add a bit to your hair, cuticles and nails too.

SHOP Moisturizers + Serums

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