Medically reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/30/2021
That skin on your face? It’s going to be there for a while. While it would be awesome if we could molt like lizards and get a fresh face every now and then, we are only human — which means it’s important to take care of our skin.
Having the right skin care routine can help keep facial skin looking young and healthy. But with so many kinds of products available, knowing what everything is — and how to use them — can be difficult.
For example, moisturizers. You think you know what they are — but do you really?
Dermatologists agree that moisturizers help with anti-aging, and we concur. Moisturizing is essential when it comes to skin care (we’ll get to all the benefits later on).
But that bottle of moisturizer in your medicine cabinet shouldn’t be the only product in your anti-aging arsenal.
A good quality facial serum is also an effective go-to when it comes to skin care.
But what’s the difference between the two? Is one better than the other? And is it ok (or necessary?) to use both?
We’ve got the answers.
If you moisturize, you’re in good company. A survey conducted by Mintel shows that over half of guys aged 18 to 34 use moisturizer. This tells us that lotioning up is becoming a men’s grooming mainstay.
And for good reason. Just because you work hard and play hard doesn’t mean your skin needs to suffer.
Wrinkles are only noble and “a part of life” until you’re the one staring back at them in the mirror, fellas. Trust us.
Well, to begin, moisturizers help with skin hydration. Dry skin can be sore, tender to the touch and itchy.
What’s more, dry skin can cause skin cells to dehydrate, shriveling plump facial cells and causing premature fine lines and the appearance of wrinkles.
So, using a moisturizer on your face — especially one that contains SPF — can help keep skin looking healthy and young.
On a very basic level, in order to be considered a moisturizer, the product must supply water to the skin, and also must contain some sort of greasy substance that holds the hydration in.
Now, how it actually works may sound like scientific mumbo jumbo, but we’ll break it down pretty simply:
First of all, our skin is made up of layers. The top layer — the one we see — is called the stratum corneum and it’s comprised mostly of dead skin cells.
These dead skin cells contain substances that hold water, and can actually absorb five to six times their own weight!
For skin to feel smooth (not flaky and cracked) the stratum corneum needs to contain at least 10 percent water. So it should be no surprise that most moisturizers contain water.
Although the stratum corneum absorbs water, it still needs some sort of oily substance to trap it in and prevent moisture loss.
These substances are called occlusives. Some common occlusive agents are petrolatum, lanolin, mineral oil and silicones.
Moisturizers also contain humectants. Humectants pull water from the air and from the deeper layers of skin into the uppermost layer.
If you were to look at the ingredient list on a bottle of moisturizer, you may see glycerin, honey, panthenol or even sorbitol (Yep! The artificial sweetener!). These ingredients serve as humectants.
So the humectants pull the water in, the occlusives act as a barrier to water loss and then there are the emollients, which help the skin feel smooth.
Often, the occlusives and the humectants do double duty as emollients, too.
Facial moisturizers are often formulated so that they can provide a variety of skin care benefits.
For example, ingredients like essential vitamins, antioxidants and sunscreen can be added to help minimize fine lines, lighten brown spots, protect skin from UV rays, reduce excess shine, increase firmness and help with other targeted skin care issues.
Daytime moisturizers are usually lighter and often contain sunscreen.
Nighttime moisturizers may help repair skin while you sleep. Hims’ Goodnight Wrinkle Night Cream contains hyaluronic acid, shea butter and caffeine to deeply hydrate skin overnight.
As we explained earlier, moisturizers work by trapping moisture into the top layer of the skin.
Because of this, the best time to apply moisturizer is after you wash your face or shower because your skin is already damp.
But that’s not all: studies show that moisturizers work even better if you apply a serum first.
Now that we know all there is to know about moisturizers, let’s talk about serums.
Serums are also applied to the face, but unlike moisturizers — which are often creamy and thick — serums are oil- or water-based liquids that are easily absorbed into the skin.
Since they are more concentrated than moisturizers, serums deliver an intensive dose of ingredients that can target a number of skin care issues.
Also unlike creams, facial serums generally come in a bottle with a dropper. Because they often contain a higher concentration of ingredients than moisturizers, using just a few drops usually does the trick.
To learn about specific serums, read our blog on the best face serums for men.
The short answer is yes. Facial serums are not the same as moisturizers, so using both is recommended.
Unlike moisturizers, the main goal of serums is not to provide skin hydration. Instead, serums can be formulated to target specific skin concerns and skin types.
For example, serums with high concentrations of antioxidants may help decrease wrinkles, while serums high in vitamin C may help reverse age spots and damage due to UV rays.
Other active ingredients that serums may contain include vitamin E, niacinamide and glycolic acid for dry, tight skin and glycolic acid for blotchy skin.
Like moisturizers, the best time to apply a serum is when your skin is damp — like after showering or washing your face.
But since serums do not contain occlusives or humectants, it’s still important to use a moisturizer to hydrate your skin after applying a serum.
Serums are an excellent way to deliver anti-aging ingredients to your facial skin. However, because they are highly concentrated, they can also cause irritation.
So, when you use a serum, try testing it out on a small patch of skin before coating your entire face with it!
Moisturizers and serums both have specific benefits and are both important aspects of an effective anti-aging routine.
Moisturizers are thicker and contain ingredients that seal the hydration into the top layer of your skin.
Serums are highly concentrated liquids that are quickly absorbed into the skin.
When used together, they deliver anti-aging ingredients and hydration that will keep your facial skin looking young and healthy.