Aug 18, 2022 · 9 min read
While you’re sound asleep, your body works overtime to repair and revive itself both inside and out. Science shows that getting a good night’s rest can help keep you looking younger,¹ so it’s no surprise some people try to give their skin an extra boost to support it during its nighttime regeneration process with night serums for the face.
Serums are formulated to target specific skin concerns, like acne and aging, but they’re a completely optional step in your skincare routine. At Curology, we believe the best skincare routines are the simplest—cleanser, moisturize, and protect with SPF at the beginning of the day, and cleanse, treat, and moisturize before bed. Serums are fine to use, but again, they’re not an essential part of your skincare journey.
Generally speaking, applying a serum is okay at any time of day, be it day or night. But some serums contain ingredients that can increase your skin’s sensitivity to UV radiation, such as alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)² like glycolic acid and lactic acid or retinol.³ When exposed to sunlight, your skin may be more likely to burn when wearing products with these ingredients. Other serums, with ingredients like hyaluronic acid or vitamin C, are marketed as night or day serums, but the truth is it really doesn’t matter—you can use products containing these ingredients whenever. For the record, neither hyaluronic acid nor vitamin C is known to make the skin more sensitive to the sun.
Serums are marketed to treat or help prevent specific skin problems and blemishes. For example, to offset the signs of aging, a serum rich in hyaluronic acid can help hold onto the moisture in your skin, which can help improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Night serums may be packed with many components, but what they actually do depends on the active ingredients. But take it from us—a few key aspects to every nighttime skincare routine are cleansing and applying treatment and taking care to get your beauty sleep as best as possible.
Serums contain powerful active ingredients that work magic on your skin, and which nighttime serum you choose depends on your skincare goals. So, here we’ll tell you about ingredient powerhouses you can use and which ones you should choose based on the results you want.
AHAs are chemical exfoliants that can gently boost skin cell renewal. Over time, AHAs can improve the appearance of your skin’s texture, pigment, fine lines, and wrinkles. However, AHAs can leave your skin sensitive to UV radiation.⁴ That’s why AHAs make a great nighttime serum. Examples of AHAs include glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, and citric acid (here’s more info if you’d like).
Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A available over-the-counter to help ward off signs of aging. As an anti-aging ingredient, retinol promotes skin cell turnover, stimulates collagen production, and improves skin elasticity.⁵ Retinol also has anti-inflammatory properties which can improve the symptoms of photoaging.⁶ Retinol is another ingredient that should be used only at night, as it can make skin more sensitive to the sun.⁷
Niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3, is a powerful antioxidant that can improve the skin’s epidermal barrier function and help decrease hyperpigmentation, fine lines, and wrinkles. It works in part by increasing the synthesis of ceramides and other lipids that help form the natural skin barrier and maintain structural and functional integrity.⁸
Vitamin C is an antioxidant and free radical scavenger. It helps protect the skin against sun damage, reduce the signs of aging, and even skin tone.⁹ A vitamin C serum can also help promote collagen formation, which can help improve the appearance of wrinkles.¹⁰ Vitamin C won’t increase photosensitivity, so it’s fine to also use during the day.
Hyaluronic acid (HA) retains water and is vital for maintaining the skin’s moisture. Hyaluronic acid serums have been shown to improve the appearance of wrinkles and roughness by increasing the skin’s hydration and moisture content.¹¹ It’s great for sensitive skin, and like vitamin C, it won’t cause photosensitivity, so it’s also okay to use during the day.
Of course, as dermatology providers, we have our favorite age-defying serums. But if you want to mix and match, here are some combinations to look for in a night serum:
Glycolic acid and hyaluronic acid gently exfoliate without drying out your skin. This combo tends to work well for any skin type.
Retinol and niacinamide are a great combo to help improve skin texture and fade dark spots.
Hyaluronic acid and vitamin reduce signs of photoaging and boost hydration, which is ideal for people living in drier climates or harsh winter environments.
Hyaluronic acid and retinol are the perfect matches for those with dry skin looking for anti-aging benefits.
Do you use a serum before or after moisturizer? Typically before! Face serum goes on after washing your face (and after applying toner if you use one), but it goes on before your moisturizer. Another way to remember is to apply your products from thinnest to thickest. So, starting with a clean face, toner would be next in line (if you’re using it—it’s not necessary), followed by serum. Finish with moisturizer, which is the richest (thickest) product you use. Don’t forget, during the day, you also need to apply sunscreen, which is your best anti-aging product.
Here are a few other tips for applying serums.
Apply at night. With the few exceptions we’ve talked about here, most ingredients in serums are okay to use whenever, save for AHAs and retinol. But if you’re looking to keep your serum usage as stress-free as possible, stick to using them at night and let them do their work while you sleep.
Use the right amount. This can vary from person to person. In general, use enough to spread a thin layer over your face. Remember, a little goes a long way, so start with just a few drops or one pump—about the size of a pea.
Lock in hydration. After applying serum, lock in hydration using a moisturizer for your skin type.
Be patient with results. It’s human nature to want results fast, but it takes time. Give yourself at least four to six weeks to start seeing results. Whatever you do, don’t give up.
Wondering if you can use a serum with your personalized Curology formula? You can! It's fine to use a serum once you've adjusted to your formula without dryness or irritation. A serum is optional but not necessary—it just depends on your skincare goals. For example, if you’re concerned about dark spots, you can add a vitamin C serum in the morning to help with dark spots and boost sun protection. When in doubt, consult your Curology provider for the advice!
Tired of reading labels? Although we think you should always read the label of your skincare products, we’re here to share some helpful recommendations.
Here’s a list of nine dermatology provider-approved face serums we recommend to our members (and here’s a link to 10 face serums under $30).
Carrot and Stick Repair Serum. This excellent hydrating serum is formulated with hyaluronic acid, vitamin A, and plant botanicals.
The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA 2% Exfoliating Serum. It gently exfoliates and hydrates to improve visible signs of aging while reducing signs of inflammation and sensitivity associated with exfoliation.
Paula’s Choice Niacinamide 20% Treatment. This concentrated formula is used to tighten and minimize the look of sagging pores and rough bumps due to age and sun damage, helping to improve the appearance of blotchy skin tone and dark spots.
Olay Wrinkle Correction Serum. Full of peptides and niacinamide, this serum is formulated to help prevent signs of aging, like wrinkles.
Pixi Overnight Glow Serum. This nighttime serum helps give a brightening effect to your complexion that works while you sleep. It’s also enriched with vitamin A, C, and E to help nourish and soothe your skin.
Dr. Dennis Gross Advanced Retinol and Ferulic Overnight Wrinkle Treatment. This one’s designed to help reduce fine lines and wrinkles and even tone and texture.
Alpha-H Liquid Gold Midnight Reboot Serum. Glycolic acid and granactive retinoid work together to give your skin a plump, glowing appearance, making it one of the best night serums.
Dr. Hauschka Night Serum. This night serum is formulated to support your skin’s natural revitalization processes.
Dermalogica Overnight Repair Serum. This formula contains argan oil, rose oil, and peptides to help increase luminosity and beat the signs of aging.
Not a Curology member? Sign up for a free 30-day trial* and receive a personalized skincare plan made to address your unique skin concerns. Just take a short quiz and snap a few selfies. You’ll be partnered with one of our licensed dermatology providers, who will create your personalized prescription formula with three active ingredients to target your skincare goals. You’ll also receive a cleanser and moisturizer to use morning and night—plus you can try any of our other skincare products, at no additional cost. Our products are designed by dermatologists to be non-comedogenic, dye-free, paraben-free, and hypoallergenic—made to improve the health of your skin.
You can get a free month of Curology—just pay $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling on your first box. After that, you can cancel at any time or choose the subscription plan that works for you.
Generally speaking, applying a serum is okay at any time of day, be it day or night. But some serums contain ingredients that can increase your skin’s sensitivity to UV radiation, so your skin may be more likely to burn when exposed to sunlight.
Remember to apply your products from thinnest to thickest. So, starting with a clean face, toner would be next in line, followed by serum, and finishing with moisturizer, the richest (thickest) product you use. Other recommendations might include applying at night if you’re looking to keep your serum usage as stress-free as possible, using the right amount, and locking in hydration.
Oyetakin-White, P., et al. Does Poor Sleep Quality Affect Skin Ageing?Clinical and Experimental Dermatology. (January 2015).
Kornhauser, A., et al. The Effects of Topically Applied Glycolic Acid and Salicylic Acid on Ultraviolet Radiation-Induced Erythema, DNA Damage and Sunburn Cell Formation in Human Skin. Journal of Dermatology Science. (July 2009).
Skin Cancer Foundation. When Beauty Products Cause Sun Sensitivity.Sun & Skin News. (2018, November 16).
Tang, S.C., et al. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. (April 2018).
Zasada, M., et al. Retinoids: Active Molecules Influencing Skin Structure Formation in Cosmetic and Dermatological Treatments. Advances in Dermatology and Allergology. (August 2019).
Oliveira, L.M., et al. Impact of Retinoic Acid on Immune Cells and Inflammatory Diseases. Mediators of Inflammation. (2018).
Skin Cancer Foundation. When Beauty Products Cause Sun Sensitivity. Sun & Skin News. (2018, November 16).
Levin, J., et al. How Much Do We Really Know about Our Favorite Cosmeceutical Ingredients?Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (February 2010).
Al-Niamimi, F., et al. Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Applications. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (July 2017).
Pullar, J.M., et al. The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health. Nutrients. (August 2017).
Jegasothy, S.M., et al. Efficacy of a New Topical Nano-hyaluronic Acid in Humans. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (March 2014).
* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.
Kristen Jokela, NP-C