Are Serums Different from Gel Moisturizers?

And, if so, which one do you truly need?

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As more and more product types enter the market, our skin care routines evolve—and since there are many formula categories circulating, our arsenals are fuller than ever. Is every lotion and potion truly necessary? It's a common question, especially since several of today's formulas seem similar. Consider serums and gel moisturizers: Both are designed to douse skin with lightweight moisture, and won't overwhelm oily or acne-prone complexions. So, do you truly need both? With so many queries swirling around the topic—and even more moisturizers and serums in drugstores and big-box beauty shops alike—we thought it was time to defer to the experts. Ahead, the key differences between serums and gel moisturizers.

beauty cream jar and serum dropper on white with shadow
Yulia Naumenko / Getty Images

Serums are more diverse.

While some serums are moisturizing—Dr. Loretta's Intense Replenishing Serum ($70,, for example, is thick enough to take the place of a light cream in your routine—the product category goes far beyond hydration. "Serums are lightweight products that deliver an active ingredient to the skin," explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Elyse Love, noting that they may be exfoliating, soothing, or hydrating. "Gel moisturizers, on the other hand, provide lightweight moisture." Despite their bouncy nature, though, gel moisturizers are often more substantial than serums, says Dr. Love, especially from a hydration standpoint.

These products have entirely different formulations and functions.

Weight aside, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Geeta Yadav explains that these products' formulations set them apart. "Serums are not designed to provide sole hydration benefits, but are instead used to apply a specific ingredient, such as a vitamin or botanical extract, to the skin beneath a moisturizer," she explains; SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Serum ($166,, for instance, has a potent vitamin C content. In this vein, serums are also more concentrated—this allows those actives to quickly sink in and penetrate the dermis at a deeper level.

It's not an "either or" situation—you might need (or want!) both.

Since serums deliver actives and gel moisturizers—like Neutrogena's Hydro Boost Water Gel ($19.79,—provide hydration, they both have a place in your beauty routine. "When used together, a gel moisturizer can help lock in hydration and the benefits of the serums layered underneath it," Dr. Yadav says. "This is a particularly great method for those with oily or acne-prone skin, as both are hydrating, but also lightweight. They won't cause excess sebum production or breakouts."

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