Health & Grooming

Serum: wonder of the world?

A new generation of super-active serums promise unprecedented firmness, radiance and wrinkle resistance. Lucia van der Post weighs in on the new stars of specialised skincare.

May 23 2011
Lucia van der Post

Serums, attentive readers will have noticed, are the beauty product du jour. They’re on every cosmetic counter in the land, full of promise. They make claims of an almost miraculous nature – to rejuvenate, add radiance, do away with wrinkles, add plumpness – all of which speak to our most vulnerable selves. Anybody not up for looking younger, more radiant, less wrinkly, more moisturised, less spotty? Of course not; which goes a long way to explaining their huge success. And now there’s talk of “super serums”.

But what do serums offer us that our usual moisturisers don’t already deliver? Speak to anybody in the beauty business, and praise for them is fulsome and heartfelt. Experienced beauty journalists who are showered with delicious lotions and potions by beauty companies great and small often develop an almost religious devotion to their favourites and actually – rather a novelty this – spend their own money on them when the freebie runs out.

If you’re wondering what a serum is and how it is different from other unguents, the answer is that there isn’t a settled precise definition. It is generally agreed, however, that the term is applied to lotions that have very high concentrations of active ingredients and are designed to target very specific problems. In addition, they’re usually lightweight in texture and penetrate the skin very quickly. Renowned cosmetic surgeon Dr Jean-Louis Sebagh puts it thus: “The prime advantage of serums is that they are far more effective carriers of active ingredients than more conventional creams, and they’re able to deliver them more deeply into the epidermis.”

Ole Henriksen, the LA-based facialist, expounds on the term, explaining that “there are many different types of serums available that target different skin concerns, yet the commonality between all of them is their ability to act as a booster treatment. Serums infuse the skin with a higher concentration of active ingredients to strengthen the skin’s immune mantle and neutralise free-radical damage – they’re designed to lift and firm the skin more effectually and add uniformity to the skin’s pigment, leaving you with that luminous glow.”

And the “skin concerns” they aim to deal with are almost everything that the human face is heir to. There are serums that target dryness, that promote exfoliation and get rid of dead cells – those by Sarah Chapman (from £57 for 30ml) and Dr Murad (from £45 for 30ml) are excellent examples, while NIA24 has an overnight Rapid Exfoliating Serum (£62 for 30ml). There are serums that target fine lines and wrinkles, others that help with lifting and firming, some help to deal with pigmentation, others add radiance. And just launched is a new one from NuBo (£48 for 30ml) described as a Post Injection Treatment Serum and designed to “act against many of the tell-tale signs of an array of procedures that include laser treatment, microdermabrasion, chemical peels and filler injections”. The list, as you can see, is long and comprehensive, not to say bewildering.

Though the first serum is generally agreed to be Estée Lauder’s Advanced Night Repair, which came out in 1982, it wasn’t called a serum at the time. It was formulated to repair during the night the damage caused to the skin during the day by pollution, sun and that thing called “life”. It was interesting because it came in a small brown bottle (which protected the lotion inside from being damaged by daylight) and the liquid was dispensed by a dropper, both of which gave it an air of serious pharmaceutical purpose. It was an almost instant hit and has been a cult product ever since, selling in vast quantities around the world and endorsed by several of our best-known beauty editors, who claim never go to bed without it. Read the beauty blogs and they are filled with rave notices for what they all affectionately call ANR.

Here’s just one: “I’ve used ANR since I was in my mid-30s and now, at the age of 46, I am routinely told I look 10 years younger than I am! The way this serum makes my skin feel and helps to repair past sun damage is miraculous. I can tell the difference if I skip a day. My skin feels soft and my moisturisers work much better with it.” Other fans have discovered that a little ANR dabbed on the cheekbones over make-up adds a pop of radiance, while others (including Nigella Lawson) say that a dab on burns speeds up the healing process.

ANR has evolved over the years, being improved whenever new technology comes along, and in 2009 it was launched in its latest guise as Advanced Night Repair Synchronized Recovery Complex (£39 for 30ml; and what, I wonder, is it with the long names?). This incorporates ingredients that deal with science’s latest discovery of what it calls “clock genes”, which has made the whole industry rethink many of its formulae. The research shows that each skin cell has its own “clock genes” that help maximise DNA repair. Besides lots of hyaluronic acid (which is found naturally in the human body and is key to regulating cell growth and renewal), the new ANR includes Chronolux, which helps skin to repair past damage. So ANR is to be used at night when the skin rests, with the optimum recovery activity happening at something like 3am. During the day, the skin has other things to do – it busies itself with protecting against the hazards of everyday living.

Serums really took off more generally about 10 years ago when, seeing the success of Lauder’s ANR, almost every beauty company came up with a serum of its own. A key ingredient in almost all of them is hyaluronic acid, which helps plump up the skin, but there are often hydrating vitamins as well, while serums targeting exfoliation will have glycolic acid and salicylic acid.

So today the problem is one of choice. There are so many that it is impossible for any beauty journalist, let alone ordinary consumer, to road-test them all.

How are you to know which are the serums that really work; which ones to use and which to avoid? Well, beauty blogs aren’t a bad place to start. Here aficionados speak their minds. Word of mouth is also good, and it’s how most of the cult serums have gathered a following. Price, I’m afraid, is another good guide. Most of the lower-priced serums contain lots of silicone – a relatively cheap ingredient that gives the gels or lotions a wonderful silky texture. Many in the industry, though, agree that the use of silicone mitigates the effectiveness of the other active ingredients, and so the more expensive serums use very little or no silicone. There’s nothing for it, therefore, but to read the labels. Key words to look out for are dimethicone, methicone and phenyl trimethicone – all silicone polymers.

One of the things many serum users love about them, though, is that they are gel-based or light liquids, and so are absorbed almost instantly. This makes them especially popular in hot countries, where heavy creams can leave the skin looking too oily. They are also particularly useful to those who have highly sensitive or acne-prone skin. And a little also goes a very long way, which helps mitigate the £200-plus price tags on many of the best ones.

As for so-called super serums, this seems to be something of a marketing word. At Estée Lauder, for instance, they don’t use the term. As Dr Nadine Pernodet, executive director of skin biology, research and development, puts it, “All our serums offer concentrated ingredients and intense benefits.” Others use the term for serums that target more than one problem. At Nude, marketing manager Annmarie Harris defines a super serum thus: “It addresses the skin holistically, rather than just one specific concern. It repairs damage, prevents damage reoccurring and protects the skin cells. A lot of products,” she points out, “have one killer ingredient, but where our super serum differs is that it looks at repair and damage from all angles. Nude’s Advanced Cellular Renewal Serum [£68 for 30ml], for example, has three systems working together to support, boost, preserve and protect.” Its highly concentrated dose of hyaluronic acid smoothes fine lines, while Japanese sea kelp blocks the enzymes that break down hyaluronic acid. Ole Henriksen’s Truth Serum Collagen Booster (£47 for 30ml) is another that falls into this multitasking bracket.

But it’s worth also looking at the issue of chemicals in serums. When it comes to skincare products, people mostly want the product to be truly effective and aren’t too concerned about what makes it so. However, there’s a growing band of women who like their creams and lotions to be as pure as possible but want them also to deal with the brown spots, the wrinkles and the ageing. Nude aims to do just that. It’s a wonderful brand started in 2007 by Brian Meehan, who founded organic food stores Fresh and Wild. He felt there was a big gap in the market for products that were pure and natural but also – and this is key – as effective as those pumped full of artificial ingredients.

There are lots of lovely natural products, such as Dr Hauschka, Weleda and Jurlique, which smell divine, are delicious to use and do a good job of cleansing and moisturising, but don’t deliver on anti-ageing. They don’t use peptides or hyaluronic acid or co-enzymes, all of which are key in the war against the years. This meant that many women who in theory loved things that were organic and natural, “when it came to their wrinkles”, as Harris puts it, “were willing to compromise”.

Meehan, however, also wanted to tick the eco and ethical issues – which is why the products are responsibly packaged. After painstaking research, Nude came up with natural substitutes so that now it uses probiotics sourced from milk that stimulate cellular renewal, reduce cellular damage by up to 50 per cent – they have the clinical data to prove this – and reduce irritation (a story reported in How To Spend It in 2009). While most peptides, which also stimulate the cells to produce collagen and hyaluronic acid, are synthetically manufactured in laboratories, at Nude they have managed to develop peptides, again, from milk. The range is, as yet, small, but its fortunes have been transformed by its Advanced Cellular Renewal Serum, which has put it right on the beauty map. It uses almost entirely natural ingredients – the only non-natural ingredient being a tiny percentage of preservative.

And instead of silicone, it uses a plant-based glycerine that allows the skin to breathe. It seems that Nude must be on to something, for it has been noticed by French luxury conglomerate LVMH, which bought a 70 per cent stake in the brand in February.

And finally, serums are not meant to be used instead of moisturisers. They’re all about layering and one of their advantages is that they combine well with moisturising and nourishing creams. Nicky Kinnaird, for instance, who owns and runs Space NK and has the whole world of beauty brands to choose from, has a wardrobe of serums and will usually have at least two on the go (cynics will say, “she would say that wouldn’t she”, but given that many serums target specific problems the advice does seem more than just a marketing ploy). “For instance,” she tells me, “I never travel without Kate Somerville’s Total Vitamin Antioxidant Face Serum [£61 for 30ml].” Somerville is an LA-based facialist from a medical background who has developed a serum that specifically targets environmental damage to the skin, and which incorporates an antioxidant.

“If I were going to an event,” continues Kinnaird, “I’d want to make sure my face looked radiant and lifted, so I’d use By Terry’s Concentré de Rose [£84 for 30ml]” – a hot-off-the-press serum from Terry de Gunzberg. Then, for post-holiday, sun-damaged skin, Kinnaird turns to the aforementioned NIA24 Rapid Exfoliating Serum (NIA is short for niacin, one of its key ingredients), which was formulated by a doctor in Arizona, where sun damage is a big issue. And for those with highly sensitive skin, she recommends Bakel’s Jaluronic Instant Replenishing formula (£85 for 30ml), which uses only 100 per cent pure hyaluronic acid, and lots of it.

For the record, since I have been trying out serums as research, I too have come to love them. I notice a serious difference in the texture and luminosity of my skin and will certainly be forking out for the ones I reckon work best. So far, I have grown to love Crème de la Mer’s Regenerating Serum (an eye-watering £215 for 30ml), Sisley’s Sisleÿa Global Firming Serum (another high-ticket number at £266 for 30ml) and Chanel’s Sublimage Essential Revitalising Concentrate (alarmingly priced at £290 for 30ml).

But I leave the (second) last word on serums to Kinnaird. “What,” she asks, “is everyone seeking? Clear, radiant and healthy skin, that’s what. Well, serums help one to achieve this in a highly targeted way.”

Finally, let’s not forget the man in your life: for an anti-ageing, soothing aftershave serum, there’s not a lot to beat Dr Sebagh’s slicone-free Serum Repair (£69 for 20ml).

See also

Skincare