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Skin care

Why vitamin serums and oils are vital in the pursuit of skin health

Photography by Tracey Creed
Assisted by Amandine Paniagua
Words by Tracey Creed


Published September 7 2019

I love the ritual of facial serums and oils, as it embodies a more holistic approach to skincare. The skin is part of a large complex system, and so I do think beauty begins when we nourish our bodies both inside and out with plants. We're becoming more informed and are demanding cleaner and more effective natural products, that's the modern choice. The future of skincare is a strong focus on skin health, and here, I have curated a selection of brands and products that embody this principle.

There are many factors that affect the skin's appearance, particularly on the face; diet, stress, dehydration, hormones and environmental pollution. Confused complexions let us know that something isn't quite balanced internally. And we need to focus on these deficiencies, the source of the issues we see at the skin surface. Beauty for me is very much holistic; it's about starting within, eating lots of plants, good fats and probiotics — all of which can help bring skin back to balance. Still, it's surprising how many people are thinking in a non-holistic way.

What are 'serums'?

Most often serums are more nutrient-rich and have a lower viscosity (i.e., usually sheer and water weight) than their moisturiser or oil-based counterparts. Serums have a smaller molecular composition, and so you're applying an intensive concentration of active ingredients, which can penetrate deeper into the skin. Tata Harper, founder of the Tata Harper natural skincare empire, likens serums to skincare's big workhorses. The high-horsepower wonders come in many guises—liquid, gel, and even oil. Traditional serums are water-based, a water weight serum is very thin, particularly suited to the task of delivering super potent active ingredients to the skin. If the serum is lipid-soluble like human skin, then you'll increase potency.

Identify your area(s) of concern

Knowing what serum is right for your skin starts with identifying areas of concern. If you're acne-prone look for vitamin C (increases collagen production, enhances skin's repair process, and reduces inflammation). Alternatively the gold standard retinol (also an antioxidant, reduces inflammation), zinc (soothes irritation, regulates oil production), and salicylic acid (unclogs pores). For dry skin, a serum with vitamin E (an antioxidant, protects cells from oxidative damage). Niacinamide - Vitamin B (improves skin elasticity, increases skin ceramide levels), glycolic acid (gently exfoliates and lightens discolouration). Or hyaluronic acid (retains moisture) which helps skin act as a superior sponge for moisture. And finally, for dullness, seek out antioxidants like green tea extract, ferulic acid (an antioxidant that combats free radicals, enhances cellular repair and prevents pigmentation).

What vitamin serums can do for your skin

Vitamin A (Retinol Serum)

Known also as retinol, vitamin A can help diminish the look of fine lines and wrinkles and significantly improve uneven skin tone minimising issues such as acne and hyperpigmentation as well as smooth and refine the skin surface.

Sunday Riley A+ High-Dose Retinoid Serum

Apot.Care Vitamin A Retinoid Pure Serum

The Ordinary Retinol 1% in Squalane

Dr. Dennis Gross Ferulic + Retinol Triple Correction Eye Serum

Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum

Herbivore - Bakuchiol Natural Retinol Alternative Serum (retinol alternative)

Vitamin B3 (Niacinamide)

Vitamin B3 or niacinamide is known to reduce the appearance of pigmentation, congestion and redness associated with rosacea and acne scars. "Vitamin B3 aids in the repair of the skin's outer barrier" explains Imelda Burke, author of The Nature of Beauty, preventing the skin from losing water and protecting it from pollutants and irritants. With consistent usage, expect a notable decrease in redness and sensitivity, as well as a reduction in acne. For post-acne scarring look for vitamin B5 or pantothenic acid which promotes healing and hydration.

Apotcare B3 Pure Serum

The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5

Drunk Elephant B-Hydra™ Intensive Hydration Serum

Good Molecules Niacinamide Serum

Vitamin C

Vitamin C or Ethylated L-Ascorbic Acid is a multi-beneficial ingredient, I rotate between a few serums, but a vitamin C serum is a must-have for acne-prone skin. Vitamin C promotes cellular turnover with the ability to increase collagen levels, brighten skin tone, reduce scarring and repair the effects of UV damage that our skin is exposed to on a daily basis.

Dr Dennis Gross C+ Collagen Brighten + Firm, Vitamin C Serum

The Ordinary Ethylated Ascorbic Acid 15% Solution

Drunk Elephant C-Firma™ Day Serum

Malin + Goetz Resurfacing Face Serum

Youth To The People 15% Vitamin C + Clean Caffeine Energy Serum

Vitamin E

As an antioxidant (essential for protecting skin from free radical damage), vitamin E combats free radicals while offering substantial anti-inflammatory support. And for those with dull or extremely dry skin, vitamin E can help improve hydration. Our bodies produce extra oil when they feel they don't have enough, so when you add more oil to your skin, you calm the oil production that can cause clogged pores and acne.

Salt by Hendrix Mermaid Facial Oil

True Organic of Sweden Face It Serum

Moon Juice Plump Jelly

Ere Perez Australian Blue Cypress Face Nectar

Vitamin F

The F stands for fat, and without vitamin F, the skin's barrier is compromised. Natural skincare formulator Marie Veronique emphasises the importance of lipids in an acne regimen, an ingredient often incorrectly avoided. Adults may not be producing as much sebum and often experience a type of inflammatory acne associated with dry, sensitive skin. Veronique recommends "applying oils like safflower or sunflower topically to clear clogged pores." Adding Manuka oil like Activist Mānuka Oil will enhance your efforts. For scarring, a blend of vitamin F and vitamin C like The Ordinary Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate Solution 20% in Vitamin F can further reduce the appearance of acne scarring.

Drunk Elephant F-Balm Electrolyte Waterfacial™

Pai Skincare Rosehip BioRegenerate

Vitamin K

Vitamin K, a potent anti-inflammatory strengthens the skin's natural barrier function, enabling it to retain hydration for longer. This makes vitamin K a great ingredient to incorporate into your skincare routine in particular during cooler months when skin can get much drier. This is especially true if you spend a lot of time on planes and adjusting to different environments.

Aesop's Parsley Seed Anti-Oxidant Serum

Advice on using vitamin serums as part of your skincare regime

STEP 1: "With your skincare products, you always want to go from the thinnest to the thickest," advises Harper. Apply toner, that's if you use a toner, making sure it has soaked in before applying your serum.

STEP 2: Apply your serum or serums, ZIIP Beauty founder and esthetician Melanie Simon, advises you "apply your serum under the lash line, eyelid, face, and neck, basically everywhere" and if you're serious, more than one serum. Allow your serum to soak into your skin for at least 5 minutes and up to 10 minutes, without immediately layering other products on top. This approach allows the skin to soak in all the necessary nutrients.

STEP 3: Continue with the rest of your routine, moisturisers and sun protection — if applied during the day would be the last layer.

Skin cell turnover takes about twenty-eight days, which means almost all products require at least four weeks of use before you'll see if they're addressing your skin concerns. However, don't take a grin-and-bear-it approach to skin reactions, always patch test, and if you experience irritation with your products, discontinue use.

The skincare routine that cleared my acne

Exfoliate. And then to balance your complexion, flood your skin with nutrients — face oils and serums. To keep your skin barrier intact and calm reactive, stressed skin you must moisturise. And never skip the SPF. Finding the right products can be daunting, honestly, no one wants to spend money on a serum that doesn’t work for their skin. And the reality is, skincare isn’t linear. Certain ingredients meld well together while others don’t. If any of the products in this article interest you, read reviews and post your own. Sharing our experiences helps others navigate their next purchase.

My skincare routine is more focused on a thorough night cleanse so I don’t do much in the morning. I recently purchased Drunk Elephant E-Rase™ Milki Micellar Water which currently replaces toner and prepares my face for the day. No rinsing. Then, while my skin is still damp, I mix The Ordinary 100% L-Ascorbic Acid powder with Hylamide SubQ Skin and The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 creating an emulsion in my hand and applying to my face. A little bit of Emerald CBD + Adaptogens Deep Moisture Glow Oil and I’m out.

Nighttime is when I exfoliate and really cleanse. I love the Glow Recipe Papaya Enzyme Cleansing Balm, this gives me dewy skin that feels super clean. I do a heavy massage with the cleansing balm and follow that with either Go To Face Hero or Drunk Elephant Lala Retro™ Whipped Cream while my skin is still damp.

Another part of my nighttime routine is exfoliation — both chemical and physical. I think skin looks so fresh once it’s exfoliated properly. Plus, it helps the products you apply afterwards absorb more deeply and just gives you a nice, healthy glow. You can exfoliate every other day if you have a normal or oily complexion. If your skin is dry and sensitive, limit it to a few times a week. These are my current favourites.

Youth To The People Yerba Mate Resurfacing Energy Facial Exfoliator

Bangn Body Smooth Skin Scrub

Aesop Purifying Facial Exfoliant Paste

The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution

Moon Juice Acid Potion (daily use)

Different things work for different people but vitamin oils and serums, they're ideal for everyone. And once you understand the ingredients, you can tailor serums to specific skin concerns, whether that is acne, pigmentation, or simply protecting your skin from environmental pollution. And you don't need to abandon all of your favourite beauty products, maybe try to swap two of them out for natural options. I find that is the best way to adopt a natural lifestyle — gradual mindful changes.

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