What is the difference between a serum and a cream?
The biggest difference between a cream and a serum are the ingredients that have been left out on purpose to improve its qualities. In a nutshell, serums are lighter, more rapidly absorbable alternatives to creams that evaporate really quickly. They’re almost never used alone, and their application is generally followed by another skincare product. A cream, instead, is a formulation that includes several oily ingredients to protect and nourish the skin.
What is a cream?
A cream is a pharmaceutical preparation used to be applied to the skin. Creams are emulsions of oil in water that contain several ingredients such as moisturizers and liposoluble nourishing ingredients (i.e. substances that are soluble in oil). They are often formulated to be gentle on the most delicate skin types and protect them against external agents and dehydration by forming an oily barrier that prevents water loss from the internal layers of the skin.
Creams aid in the retention of moisture, form a protective layer that remains stable for several hours, and deliver their active principles over a long time. Their chemical nature also represents the biggest drawback of creams. In fact, when used on oily skins, they may stimulate excess production of sebum, making things even worse. Also, they can’t deliver high concentrations of a specific active ingredient over a short time, which may sometimes be important for certain formulation.
- Protect the skin
- Moisturizing action
- Sustained-release of ingredients
- Cheaper than serums
- Require a long time to release the substances
- Active ingredients are more diluted
- Bad for people with oily skins
- May leave a sticky residue behind
What is a serum?
Serums are topical products that do not contain some of the heavier substances found in creams that occlude pores, such as moisturizers. In fact, they rarely contain any oily substance at all, and are more than often only water-based formulations. They are usually used for a specific purpose, such as rejuvenating or brightening damaged skin, exfoliating the outer layers of the dermis, or delivering a concentrated quantity of water-soluble vitamins.
Since they contain higher concentrations of active substances due to the general absence of thickeners, serums are often more expensive than creams. The lack of these ingredients, however, makes them less stable than creams from a pharmaceutical point of view, so their expiration time is usually much shorter. Serums are often used in conjunction with other skincare products to increase their effectiveness, and should never be used alone. In fact, they may be too aggressive, and should be followed by the application of a gentler moisturizer to comfort and protect the skin once the serum provided it with its unique properties.
- Active ingredients are much more concentrated
- Lighter, quicker to apply
- Good for people with oily skins
- Evaporate rapidly leaving no traces
- Can be used as a base before applying any cream
- More expensive than creams
- Must be used on very clean skin
- Shorter life span than cream
Both serums and cream serve their unique and different purposes. If you want to take care of your skin, always use a good serum with vitamins before applying a cream of your choice according to your specific needs.
- Jean L. Bolognia, Julie V. Schaffer, Karynne O. Duncan (2014). Dermatology Essentials. Elsevier - Health Sciences Division.
- Osborne, D.W., 2008. Review of changes in topical drug classification. Tech.