Deep Dive Comparison of Serums vs Oils

May 9, 2023by Heather Smith

What are you shopping for - a face oil or serum? Do you even know the difference? Is a face oil the same as an oil serum? What is the difference between oils and serums?

All these words are marketing terms. While they aren't meant to intentionally confuse you, it makes shopping for an effective product difficult if you can't wade past the words and actually understand what you're buying. 

What is a Serum?

A serum is a lightweight, fast-absorbing liquid that delivers a high concentration of active ingredients directly into the skin.

These ingredients might be water soluble like peptides, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, vitamins, and botanical extracts. The formulation is made with ingredients usually small in molecular size for deeper skin penetration. This maked serums effective for targeting specific skin concerns like wrinkles, dark spots, or dehydration.

The benefits of using a serum are significant and could include anti aging, improved dark spots, enhanced collagen production, improved skin tone, and improved acne - it all depends on the active ingredients in the serum. 

This is where marketing terms can get confusing and there has been some controversy.

Before you can decide what type of serum you're shopping for, you need to understand what skincare brands mean when they label something as a "serum". 

bareLUXE Skincare specializes in face oils and want to help consumers understand that face oils can be serums too. 

The TL:DR is that the term "serum" is a marketing label used to communicate to consumers that a product contains highly active ingredients that target a specific result.  

Though serums are traditionally water-based, face oils with active ingredients are serums too!  Oil serums are not just a skincare trend, they should become part of your permanent daily ritual. 

 Serum vs oil | Oil serum - infographic by bareLUXE Skincare

The reason it's so important to understand that the term serum means different things to different brands is so you can spot hyped up marketing and not waste your money.

Here are a few key definitions and distinctions:

    • Serum: A serum is a lightweight, fast-absorbing liquid that delivers a high concentration of active ingredients directly to the skin.
      • Water based, oil free: clear, transparent, lightest skin-feel.
      • Water based, contains oil: emulsified, opaque, heavier skin-feel.
      • Oil based, water free: clear, oily, ranges in skin-feel based on the fatty acid profile of the oils used.

Face Oil vs Serum

    What is a Face Oil Serum?

    Simple face oils and oil serums, while similar, have distinct differences.

    Think of the difference between a simple lotion, cream, and traditional serum - the lotion and cream will deliver some simple benefits and mainstay ingredients, but the serum is powerful and targeted towards a specific ingredient or skin concern.

    Simple face oils primarily serve to moisturize and protect the skin, with their composition being just a blend of various carrier oils. Carrier oils are nourishing and wonderful, but they are passive when it comes to results. 

    On the other hand, oil serums deliver concentrated, oil-soluble, active ingredients, just like traditional serums, but in an oil base.

    How Does an Oil Serum Differ from a Traditional Serum

    An oil serum differs from a traditional serum based on how it is formulated.

    While traditional serums are water-based (and may or may not integrate oils with an emulsifier), oil serums are oils and do not contain water.

    The lipid content of oil serums allows for a different absorption route, interacting with the skin's lipid layer for deeper penetration of oil-soluble active ingredients. 

    Oil Serum Benefits

    There is no specific disadvantage to using a serum that contains water, emulsifiers and preservatives. It will be effective and safe if formulated correctly. 

    With that said, oil serums are preferred by many shoppers. Face oils are generally simpler and closer to nature. Oil serums are also better able to penetrate the deeper layers of the skin where the active ingredients can get more work done

    Choosing an oil serum over a traditional emulsified serum will have many benefits for people with all skin types. You would expect a smooth, silky skin feeling. Oil serums have many antioxidant properties to fight free radicals and inflammation.

    One significant benefit of oil serums over traditional serums is their ability to deeply moisturize and nourish the skin, thanks to their lipid content. They are particularly beneficial for dry skin types as they replenish the skin's natural oil content and prevent trans-epidermal water loss. Furthermore, oil serums can better deliver oil-soluble vitamins and active ingredients through enhanced penetration into the deeper layers of the skin.

    If your shopping preferences include staying as close to nature as possible, then oil serums are going to be a better choice for you because they can remain free from things like emulsifiers, geling and thickening agents (which are often microplastics), and preservatives.

    Disadvantages of Oil Serums

    Despite their benefits, oil serums have some potential drawbacks. People with oily or acne-prone skin might find oil serums for face products too heavy or occlusive. 

    It's also important to note that, while traditional serums can be 100% oil-free or contain oil with emulsifiers, oil serums cannot contain water-soluble ingredients, so there are some limitations as to what actives can be used.

    Face oils and oil serums - infographic by bareLUXE Skincare

    Bottom Line: Serums vs Oils

    Choosing between a traditional serum and an oil serum comes down to your specific skin needs and preferences. If your primary goal is to deliver potent, water-soluble active ingredients like niacinamide or peptides, a traditional serum might be more beneficial.

    On the other hand, if you seek deep nourishment and hydration alongside the delivery of oil-soluble actives, an oil serum could be your ideal choice.

    In some instances, like with ingredients such as Bakuchiol or Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate (oil-soluble Vitamin C), the activity level and penetration is better when used in an oil-based format.  

    Lastly, if your focus is mainly on skin protection and remaining as close to nature as possible, simple facial oils could suffice.

    Always consider your skin type, sensitivity, and specific skin concerns when making your decision.


    If you're shopping for oil serums, check out bareLUXE Skincare's award-winning Bakuchiol Serum or our Vitamin C Oil for targeted results in an oil-based delivery system. 



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    3. Chaudhuri RK, Bojanowski K. Bakuchiol: a retinol-like functional compound revealed by gene expression profiling and clinically proven to have anti-aging effects. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2014 Jun;36(3):221-30. 
    4. Dhaliwal S, Rybak I, Ellis SR, Notay M, Trivedi M, Burney W, Vaughn AR, Nguyen M, Reiter P, Bosanac S, Yan H, Foolad N, Sivamani RK. Prospective, randomized, double-blind assessment of topical bakuchiol and retinol for facial photoageing. Br J Dermatol. 2019 Feb;180(2):289-296. Bluemke A, Ring AP, Immeyer J, Hoff A, Eisenberg T, Gerwat W, Meyer F, Breitkreutz S, Klinger LM, Brandner JM, Sandig G, Seifert M, Segger D, Rippke F, Schweiger D. Multidirectional activity of bakuchiol against cellular mechanisms of facial ageing - Experimental evidence for a holistic treatment approach. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2022 Jun;44(3):377-393.


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    About the Author

    Dr. Heather Smith developed her love for skinimalism and clean beauty years ago when she began making home remedies for her newborn's eczema. She is an expert in natural ingredients and active botanicals and has now launched bareLUXE Skincare - a full line of effective oil serums. She dedicates this blog to consumers who are researching ingredients and working to make their beauty ritual more natural and sustainable.


    This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Smith nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content should consult their physicians about their skincare concerns and routines.