January 19, 2019
Do Skin Serums Work?
Ask the Experts

Do Skin Serums Work?

by Jeanine Barone  

Q: How do skin serums differ from cosmetic creams or lotions? And do they deliver on their claims?

A: Skin “serums” are all the rage, promising to tighten your skin, brighten your face, erase wrinkles, and turn back the clock to a youthful complexion. The prices are as big as the promises—tiny bottles usually run from $20 to $100, but some actually cost as much as gold (literally; one doctor-designed product we found online costs $1,500 for less than an ounce).

There is no formal definition of a skin serum, which is essentially a scientific-sounding marketing term. Products marketed as serums generally have a thinner consistency than creams or lotions and are usually clear and water-based. They typically contain a laundry list of ingredients more commonly found in dietary supplements—from vitamins, peptides, resveratrol, and beta-glucan to green tea extract, turmeric, and coenzyme Q10. Some also have standard anti-wrinkle ingredients such as retinol and alpha-hydroxy acid, presumably in tiny amounts. They usually don’t have a moisturizing ingredient.

There have been few well-designed published human studies on serums, and these have generally not found significant long-term improvements. It’s not even clear how much of the ingredients penetrate into the skin and whether they have biochemical effects.

In 2010, Consumer Reports tested nine anti-wrinkle serums and concluded that any benefits were “at best slight,” varied from person to person, and “fell short of the miracles that manufacturers seemed to imply on product labels.”

While the FDA doesn’t require cosmetics makers to back up their claims with clinical evidence, as it does for drugs, it does say that claims can’t be outright misleading. Any claim suggesting that a serum or other cosmetic can change the skin’s inner structure is considered a drug claim and is thus illegal. But the agency has cracked down on only a small percentage of products making blatant anti-aging claims. For example, in 2012 the agency told Lancôme to stop saying that one of its serums boosts gene activity and stimulates “youth proteins.”

Of special concern are serums claiming to contain stem cells—undifferentiated cells that are promoted as a way to heal aging skin. In a 2012 article in Scientific American, researchers expressed concern about using stem cells for this purpose, since it’s not known what effects they have. Do they boost immunity or suppress it, for instance, halt cell division or activate it? Or perhaps they do nothing at all when applied to skin.

Bottom line: Don’t fall for the fancy ads and scientific-sounding claims made for skin serums. High price doesn’t mean better results.