Welp! After months (and months and months) of procrastinating and prevaricating and after giving birth to our adorable baby girl, I have finally managed to wrap up my hydrating serum post. Although it was initially envisioned as a primer on boosting a winter skincare routine, the truth is that while completely indispensable in winter, for many people a hydrating serum is a necessity year round.
If you are wondering what makes hydrating serums such a must, it has everything to do with the importance of hydration to the health and appearance of your skin. I have given some background on hydration, TEWL and the wonders of barrier function in my previous post – the review of Josh Rosebrook’s latest releases – but here is a brief primer on the main points.
- Hydration is crucial for skin health. From premature aging to eczema, dehydration is the culprit behind any number of skin woes. Obviously, the first step in ensuring your skin remains well-hydrated and supple is to drink a lot of water and, ideally, avoiding things like smoking, alcohol (sorry) and inflammation-causing foods like sugar, but, let’s face it, we are here to talk about skincare.
- Fighting dehydration takes a two-tiered approach: increasing/maintaining the skin’s barrier function (i.e. the strength of your skin armor) and maintaining/increasing the level of hydration within the skin. Plant oils – green beauty’s MVP ingredients – help improve the skin’s barrier function both by creating and occlusive barrier on the skin, thus preventing water loss, and by helping restore the lipid balance of the skin (though some oils are better at this than others). Here’s the thing, though: there has to be water in the skin for the skin barrier to protect. If it feels like your oils aren’t moisturizing your skin, it could be because your skin is lacking in moisture, which isn’t being replenished by all those lovely oils.
- I sincerely hope that all or at least most of you are using hydrating mists before your oils, since they both help the absorption of oils and help infuse the skin with much needed moisture. The trouble is that during the colder seasons, in dry climates or if your skin is particularly dehydrated, mists, even the most hydrating ones, are simply not enough. And that’s where hydrating serums come in. While there are other ways to add hydration (creams, masks, aforementioned mists), serums tend to be the most effective, since they tend to contain the highest level of actives and, by being easily absorbed, help carry the moisture into the cells of the epidermis.
I tried to round up a comprehensive selection of hydrating serums. My only criteria for selecting these particular serums was that hydration needed to be their stated and more or less exclusive purpose. Serums like La Bella Figura’s Modern Radiance Concentrate, In Fiore’s Complexe de Fleur, or True Botanicals’ Cellular Repair Serums certainly do contain humectant ingredients and would do a fine job of hydrating your skin, but they do a lot more than hydrate, so to include them in this lineup would do those powerful products a disservice. I make an exception for two products: the newish serums created as a collaboration between Marie Veronique and the star facialist Kristina Holey. The reason for this exception is twofold: I wanted to give a detailed review of the two serums after falling in love with their uber-sophisticated formulas, plus their main function is strengthening the skin’s barrier function – a crucial step in fighting dehydration.
The beauty of hydrating serums is that the relative simplicity of their ingredients means that they are less likely to cause irritation. In fact, some of these serums don’t just hydrate, but also help calm irritated and sensitive skin. Of course, as with any skincare products, every skin is different and some can be aggravated by even the gentlest formulas. Actually, the fact that I tested all of these while pregnant was a big help from the review standpoint: my skin was the most sensitive it has been since I made the switch to green beauty, so if a product didn’t cause a reaction for a me, it’s likely it should work for the most sensitive skin types. And now, without (even more) further ado, here are my top draft picks for a winning roster of superstar hydrators.
Twelve Beauty Ideal Moisture Serum. If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I am obsessed with Twelve Beauty’s beautifully and deceptively simple super-hydrator. I always feel bad when followers ask me for hydrating serum recommendations because Twelve is not (yet?) sold in the US, and yet this is the serum I always recommend first. Twelve’s entire range is created to address the needs of sensitive and reactive skins and this serum is as gentle as it is effective. The Ideal Moisture Serum is a marriage of humectants glycerin and hyaluronic acid with the brand’s signature botanicals – white genepi, imperatoria leaf (aka masterwort), mallow flower and butterfly bush – which provide soothing, antioxidant and moisturizing benefits. The resulting product is like a tall drink of water for your skin.
The light, unscented, watery serum absorbs immediately and layers perfectly under any product – I like to apply it on freshly cleansed skin, before my hydrating mist. It’s so light, in fact, that you may wonder if it’s actually doing anything. Worry not: it works like a charm. The Ideal Moisture Serum has gotten me through the coldest and driest of winters with skin that was practically dewy. At the same time, this lightness means that while being a boon for dry and mature skin types, the serum would also be perfect for even the oiliest skins. In fact, if you are super-oily, you could probably use this alone as a perfect, oil-free summer moisturizer.
For someone like me: a beauty junkie blogger whose bathroom cabinets, counters and even floors groan under scores of products, the ultimate expression of love is repurchase. Since I first discovered it through Content Beauty in London, I have repurchased this serum every time it ran out. And speaking of Content, while the lack of a US stockist is not ideal, both it and the Twelve Beauty website offer free worldwide shipping, which makes it that much easier to get your hands on this serum.
Kypris Antioxidant Dew. Before we start talking about the product itself, I must mention this serum’s packaging. I happen to think that Kypris has some of the prettiest packaging in the green beauty industry and this serum is a stunner. From its gorgeously gilded outer box to the lovely, blue, vaguely art nouveau bottle, this serum will beautify not just your face, but your vanity as well. Of course, the lovely looks wouldn’t matter if the serum itself wasn’t fabulous. Thankfully, it is. Despite the the word “Antioxidant” in the title, this is, primarily, a hydrating serum and an excellent one at that. The ingredient list here is more complex than in Ideal Moisture Serum, but the Dew remains incredibly gentle and I don’t think it’s likely to cause a reaction even in the most sensitive skin types (unless, of course, you’re allergic to one of the ingredients).
Some of the standout ingredients in the overall stellar formula aside from the expected humectants glycerin and hyaluronic, are Vitamins C and E, combined with the antioxidant superstar ferulic acid (please note that while the formula contains Vitamin C, it’s not present in a high enough concentration to make this a primarily Vitamin C serum, though you will, of course, still get the antioxidant benefits of the ingredient);Superoxide Dismutase (another powerful antioxidant); sea algae; DPHP (a skin supporting amino acid); a number of plant extracts, as well as sunflower, camelia and tamanu oils. Obviously, the presence of the oils makes this serum richer than Ideal Moisture, but it does not feel in any way oily or heavy. Indeed, while I think that Ideal Moisture is too light to be used on its own by all, but the oiliest of skins, the milky, white Antioxidant Dew would make a lovely light moisturizer for those looking to simplify and lighten their routine for summer. Of course, it also layers beautifully under oils and other serums, providing a perfect layer of hydration.
Earthwise Beauty Nap In the Meadow. These days, I, like most beauty-obsessed folk, tend to discover new products via Instagram. This was also the case with Earthwise Beauty, a small-batch, artisanal line out of Washington State (shout out to my Spokane peeps!). Suddenly, the brand’s products, and especially Nap, started showing up in the feed of my favorite and most discerning ‘Grammers and bloggers and I… I didn’t get it. The thing is, despite this blog’s name, my tastes lean decidedly more Hermes than hippie, at least when it comes to aesthetics, and Earthwise’s packaging just looked a little too chintzy and homespun for my taste. In the end I gave in, of course, and ordered a couple of products (including Nap), beginning what I expect to be an enduring love affair. All those fellow bloggers and ‘Grammers were right to gush: Earthwise Beauty formulator Ava creates thoughtful, elegant, high-performing formulas that aren’t just a pleasure to use – they make a real difference to the skin. In time, I even fell in love with the packaging, which now reminds me of an English country garden.
As for Nap In the Meadow itself, it became immediately apparent why it’s such a cult favorite. The pale green serum is quite different from most hydrating serums on this list, using aloe vera juice and a carefully selected roster of essential oils in place of the usual glycerin and hyaluronic acid, but it’s just as effective despite the differences. From its fresh, herbal scent to the way it feels on the skin, Nap is probably the most refreshing of the bunch – in fact, Earthwise recommends storing it in the fridge to maximize the cooling potential. It doesn’t have any carrier oils, but does have quite a few EOs.
The essential oils used in the formula are of the calming/healing variety and include lavender, blue chamomile and immortelle, but the relatively high EO content does mean that it could possibly cause a reaction in especially sensitive skins. For reference, I used and adored Nap throughout our two-week trip to the UK, where it gave me the exact results I expected: it hydrated and refreshed my skin, while giving it a zingy lift. Once we returned to the US, however, and crazy NYC weather made my skin go haywire, I found that Nap would tingle slightly on application. There was no irritation or inflammation, but I want my hydrators to feel like a gentle kiss, so the tingle was ever so slightly annoying. That being said, I think my skin during pregnancy might not be the most accurate benchmark, since it was disproportionately reactive. In fact, this is something I found not just with Nap, but a few other calming products, which makes me think that this was the case of “it’s not you, it’s me”. I think most of you will actually find Nap to be wonderfully calming and soothing.
Ultimately, I think this is an absolutely ideal hydrator for younger, oily and acne prone or normal skin types and could work well as super-lightweight moisturizer if used on its own. I also think that Nap makes for a lovely layering, hydrating and calming product for drier/more mature skins, but you may try a sample first if you are ultra-sensitive.
NB: Since I started writing this post, Earthwise Beauty reformulated Nap to remove the emulsifier Polysorbate 20. The new version is a slightly darker green, with visible droplets of oil dispersed throughout (that would be the absence of the emulsifier). I found the scent of the updated formula even more delightful, with a more pronounced note of blue tansy (i.e. HH crack) and it felt gentler on my skin, although this could be because I am generally less sensitive, now that I am no longer pregnant.
Jordan Samuel Skin Facial Serum: Hydrate. Ballet dancer turned aesthetician Jordan Samuel used his expertise to created a well-edited, thoughtful and incredibly well-priced line of skincare, making his brand another favorite of Instagram beauty junkies. Despite its accessible price tag, the Hydrate serum does not skimp on quality: the first three ingredients in the waterless serum are aloe vera juice, organic glycerin and organic hyaluronic acid, with the formula rounded out by Vitamin C (as Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate, tamarind, cucumber and passion flowerextracts, hexapeptide and willow bark. The pale yellow serum is completed unscented and has a slightly viscous texture that makes it feel a little… well, snot-like. That’s right, folks: come for green beauty, stay for elegant descriptions. Just to be clear: I don’t mind the texture at all and it layers perfectly under other products.
I think of this serum as the most workmanlike of the bunch. It does exactly what it promises to do, without unnecessary fuss or bells and whistles. From the minimalist packaging (the line was rebranded after I bought my serum, but the new packaging is, if anything, even more stark), to the lack of scent, to the price, to the lack of oils or EOs – this serum is reassuringly practical and should not cause any irritation, regardless of your skin’s sensitivity. I do have a word of warning, however. The high level of humectants in the formula does mean that this serum could end up dehydrating your skin if you find yourself in an especially dry climate. I explain why this happens in my previous post, but basically, one of the ways humectants get moisture into your skin is by pulling it out of the air. When the air is dry, they can end up actually drawing it from the skin instead. This happened to me when I used Hydrate in the winter, but this certainly doesn’t happen to everyone. If you don’t typically have this problem with products containing a high level of hyaluronic acid, Hydrate shouldn’t give you any trouble and is a pretty perfect hydrating serum. If you do, you may want to avoid using it in the dead of winter or on your trip to Burning Man or Coachella.
Hannes Dottir Elixir of Minerals. Hannes Dottir is a funky little brand, built around an origin story involving Icelandic ancestors and coded messages from beyond, but the products it creates are stellar. Elixir of Minerals is different from the other hydrators on this list because aside from the usual suspects – humectant glycerin and NaPCA (aka Sodium PCA, rated 1 on the EWG), sea kelp and plant ingredients (eucalyptus and oil of searmint) – it contains minerals to help improve the condition of the skin. The specific minerals used in the serum are zinc sulfate to help with inflammation and alum crystal to firm and tighten the skin. I actually have a few thoughts about the use of alum as well as the overall formula and I will get back to them a little later, but for now, let’s talk about the product.
Elixir of Minerals is a clear, thin and watery liquid, with crystals visible on the bottom of the bottle (you are meant to shake the bottle to activate the crystals). Despite its seemingly watery nature, the Elixir feels almost oily on the skin. It’s delightfully refreshing (that would be the spearmint) and does a bang up job of hydrating the skin, layering beautifully under any other product. Really, there are only two issues I have with this product that keep me from recommending it without reservations. The first is the price: at $60 for 15 ml, this is the most expensive serum on this list. I know that the de Mamiel Intense Nurture, which I mention below, is sold for $135 by American online retailers like Net-a-Porter and Integrity Botanicals, but if purchased directly from the de Mamiel website, it ends up being aroudn $100 for 30 ml (and even less if you get it from a site like Victoria Health or Cult Beauty, both of which discount the VAT, making the serum 20% less than the list price).
The second issue is ingredients. For starters, while I don’t mind the eucalyptus and the spearmint oil, both can be irritating for certain skins. As much as I enjoy the cooling spearmint, I’m not a fan of potentially irritating ingredients being included just because they are fun. Then is the inclusion of alum. The general consensus is that alum, unlike aluminium (as found in conventional antiperspirants) is safe. CAP Beauty, a retailer with notoriously stringent selection criteria, as well as a number of other stellar green beauty stores, happily store Hannes Dottir and the Elixir of Minerals, which would normally be all the reassurance I need. Unfortunately, there is a fly in my ointment (or is that a fly in my serum?): this article by the founder of Bubble and Bee Organics, Stephanie Greenwood, which claims that alum is not, in fact, a harmless cousin to aluminium, but is just as potentially dangerous and should be avoided.
Although well written, the article rings alarmist to me and I am not sure that I am entirely convinced by its assertions, especially since no other sources or retailers seem to take this view. Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the potential concerns. My job is to discuss all of the potential issues with the product and let my readers make up their own minds. I guess I do have to wonder why it was necessary to include alum (or eucalyptus and spearmint, for that matter) at all. I am a big fan of skincare that includes minerals, but there are plenty of minerals out there that are both effective and completely safe. Same goes for essential oils. Ultimately, I really enjoy the Elixir of Minerals and it certainly seems to agree with my skin (plus I think the packaging is seriously chic) and I think many of you would enjoy it as well. I just wish I could recommend it without reservations.
Sodashi Recovery Skin Boost. The Australian brand Sodashi has an extensive range of products, grouped into categories to address a wide variety of skin concerns, from oiliness (the Balance line), to aging (Rejuvenate) to sensitivity (Calm). The Recovery Skin Boost is part of the Everyface line for normal skin and is meant to hydrate, calm and brighten stressed skin. The clear gel contains seaweed powder, sandalwood hydrosol, minerals and select essential oils and plant extracts, all geared towards stimulating, strengthening and revitalizing the skin.
Unlike the other serums in this lineup, Recovery Skin Boost does not contain humectants, so it’s better as a light hydrator for the warmer months, rather than a heavy duty hydrating layer for winter. It does feel wonderfully refreshing on the skin and leaves it soft and calm. This would be an ideal serum for someone whose skin isn’t particularly parched, but who still wants to add a gentle layer of moisture and get some additional skincare benefits in the bargain. Skin Boosts are also available in Balance, Calming and Rejuvenating, so you can find one specifically targeted to your skin’s needs.
Marie Veronique + Kristina Holey Barrier Restore and Soothing B3 Serums. These serums, products of a collaboration between Marie Veronique Skincare and the superstar aesthetician Kristina Holey, are pretty much designed to be Hermes Hippie catnip. These products have sophisticated formulas with top-notch ingredients that marry the glories of nature with the best of science and are created by the OG green beauty chemist and the woman behind my beloved and transformational CAP Beauty facial. It’s no surprise that my finger was hitting the “add to cart” button the moment these beauties were released. These are the two products that I have included in this roundup despite them failing my “simple formula, for hydration only” test. There are several reasons I broke with my own rule: for one, I am excited about these products and feel like there aren’t too many reviews of them out there. They also address the problem of dehydration “at the source”, if you will, i.e. by improving the skin’s barrier repair function. And then there is a fact that I feel that despite their excellence, these products must come with a bit of a caveat, or even a warning. Let’s get into it, shall we?
I’m choosing to review these products as a duo because I believe they work better together, though, of course, you are welcome to use them separately. The Barrier Restore Serum is designed to do just that: help restore the skin’s barrier function. According to Kristina Holey, she initially created the serum for client’s with compromised barrier function, but soon realized that virtually everyone could benefit from the serum. A light, brown gel serum, which feels oil-free, though it does contain oils (jojoba and broccoli), Barrier Restore contains a panoply of ingredients known to help restore skin barrier function, including ceramides, magnesium chloride and L-arginine, as well as the usual humectant suspects – sodium hyaluronate and sodium PCA. It is, unquestionably, a very active product and if it works for your skin, it can make a real difference to its condition. It’s also worth noting that both of these serums are formulated without essential oils to help avoid sensitivities.
As for the Soothing B3 serum, its name, too, is self-explanatory: it contains 10% niacin amide (i.e. Vitamin B3), panthenol, licorice root and bioflavonoids to calm inflammation and reduce hyperpigmentation, as well as sodium hyaluronate for hydration. Although the brownish serum is very thin and watery (I’ve seen it described as a gel, but I think it is entirely too thin to be considered gel-like), it doesn’t disappear into the skin, leaving a slightly tacky finish. Although its formula is more complex than most other products in this lineup, this is the serum that comes closest to being a traditional hydrating serum out of the three MVxKH products (I did not test the third serum, Intensive Repair, since it’s geared towards acneic/blemish prone skin).
Both serums are fabulous, formulated with thought and care and raved about by skincare junkies all over Instagram… and, ultimately, they did not work for me. My goodness, how I wanted to love them! Unfortunately, they appear to be too active for my skin. There had been a few stretches in my testing period where things seemed to click and my skin handled the serums quite well. When that happened, I could definitely see an improvement in the overall condition of my skin. The thing is, those stretches were few and far between. Sure, as I mentioned before, my skin was sensitized by the pregnancy (although I have had sensitivity when I used these serums post-pregnancy as well), but ultimately, these products just didn’t quite “click” for me. I had mentioned by problem to Cara, CAP Beauty’s brilliant aesthetician, who recommended that I layer Barrier Repair over B3 and that did indeed make a difference and helped diminish the sensitivity. Still, using skincare should be a delight, not a struggle, so I decided to stop trying to like these products. Bizarrely, it feels like a personal failure.
I suppose that my disappointment still provides a valuable skincare lesson: just because a product works for most people, doesn’t mean it’ll work for you; an absence of essential oils does not guarantee lack of irritation and when it comes to expensive skincare, always sample when you can. Ultimately, I still feel comfortable recommending these products. I think that most folks would find both of them to be terrific and effective – us not getting along very clearly has more today with my skin’s unique quirks than any fault in the formulation. Still… get a sample if you can.
de Mamiel Intense Nurture Antioxidant Elixir. This review will be short, as I have already written an in-depth review of the entire de Mamiel Atmosperiques range in a separate post. Still, I felt Intense Nurture deserved another mention, as it’s such a fabulous hydrating serum. It’s gentle, nourishing, calming and has an immediate effect on the skin. Along with humectants (glycerin, hyaluronic) it also contains antioxidants, ceramides and so much more. It would work quite well on its own as a light moisturizer for oily skins, especially in the summer, and makes a fabulous hydrating layer for everyone else. This serum is a gem (and happens to contain a gem extract, malachite, to be precise, in it) and I can never be without it.
African Botanics Rose Treatment Essence. Since this roundup has taken me approximately 73 years to finish, in the course of writing it I ended up discovering several fantastic hydrating serums, most of them released since I started writing, and I simply had to add them to the list. One such gem is the Rose Treatment Essence from one of my long-time favorite brands, African Botanics. Despite the “Essence” in the name (presumably meant to capitalize on the K-Beauty craze), it’s not at all watery or toner-like, but rather a clear, firm gel. Although its formula is not quite as complex as the MV x KH serums, it has an impressive list of actives, including niacinamide, peptides, firming green coffee, pantheon, carefully chosen plant extracts and hydrating aloe and hyaluronic acid.
The star ingredient in this serum, as is evident in the name, is rose. Although touted for its numerous skincare benefits and properties (emollient, astringent, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory), perhaps the main reason why rose remains such a popular and revered skincare ingredient is the sensory pleasure it affords. There is just something elegant and indulgent about using a rose-forward product. Occasionally, I can find the scent of products featuring rose as the main ingredient a little cloying, heavy or musty, but that’s certainly not the case here. Rose Essence has the fresh scent of crushed rose petals – both soft and slightly astringent. Combined with the lovely gel texture, it feels wonderfully cooling and refreshing on application – the perfect summer serum. As for its actual performance, I can’t find fault with it. It’s wonderfully hydrating, layers well under other products and helps calm my skin. Another thing that i find interesting about this product is that my skin usually reacts to niacinamide (I suspect it’s one of the reasons why I did not get on with the Marie Veronique serums), yet it gives me no trouble here. A reminder that the right formula is everything. Oh, and if I must find one downside, it’s that the formula contains phenoxyethanol: not a problem for me at all, but a concern for many in our “clean” world and worth pointing out.
Sahajan Protective Face Serum. Sahajan, a brand that marries serious science (clinical trials and lab testing) with ancient tradition (ayurveda), is another of my recent discoveries. The brand’s founder is a former pharma executive and her background shows both in the rigorous testing of Shajan’s products and in their sophisticated formulas. This approach is evident in the Protective Face Serum – a hydrating serum that also helps protect and calm the skin. Aside from the usual hyaluronic acid and glycerin, the Serum also contains collagen-stimulating gotu cola and the tart triphala (doesn’t that sound like a Shakespearean character? “The Tart Triphala exeunt”) – an antioxidant fruit that boasts 20 times the amount of Vitamin C as an orange.
The Protective Serum is a thick, viscous, dark taupe liquid that leaves an ever-so-slightly tacky finish (though the tackiness dissipates quickly, especially when it’s layered under other products). I find it to be both fabulously hydrating and very calming. I have been using it under a rather intense overnight refining/exfoliating/retinoid treatment and see no trace of dehydration or sensitivity that is my skin’s normal reaction when using products of that kind. I think it would be fantastic as a protective hydrating layer in winter – the skincare equivalent of one of those silk/cashmere undershirts. The only possible issue worth mentioning is that this serum does contain coconut oil – something to keep in mind if you are particularly sensitive to the ingredient, since it’s found in the top third of the ingredient list and could, ostensibly, cause a reaction.
True Botanicals Basics Hydrating Serum. Remember when you started reading this post all those years ago and I mentioned that I wouldn’t include products like my beloved True Botanicals serum because they were too active and did way more than hydrate? Well, in the time it has taken me to finish this post, my friends at True Botanicals decided to try their hand at elegant simplicity – with unsurprisingly fantastic results. Their newly-released Basics line is designed for folks who don’t quite need the powerhouse ingredients and complex formulas of their original lineup – be it customers with younger, normal skin types or pregnant women, wary of actives.
Unsurprisingly, TB’s “basic” is most people’s “sophisticated and advanced. Though the Hydrating Serum isn’t as active as the Cellular Repair Serums from the main line (with the more accessible price point to match), the light lotion-like serum combines low weight hyaluronic acid with moisturizing algae extract, seaweed (one of my favorite ingredients) and antioxidant tea leaf extract in a fast-absorbing, sophisticated formula. While wonderfully gentle, even when my skin is feeling temperamental, it provides serious hydration to parched skin. Layered under my aforementioned exfoliating nighttime treatment, it too managed to ward off any dehydration and sensitivity and while it plays very well with others as a layering step, the Serum’s light, fast-absorbing, yet comforting texture means that it can be used on its own as an excellent daytime moisturizer for someone with oily skin.
And there you have it! I have tried my darnedest to make this post as comprehensive as possible, yet I’m sure there are fabulous products that got left off the list. One thing is certain, though: whether simple or complex, minimalist or over-the-top, fresh from the meadow or high-tech, when it comes to hydration, the green beauty consumer is spoiled for choice. Just remember: in the immortal words of the world’s greatest male model (and human, probably), Derek Zoolander, “Moisture is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty”. So go forth and hydrate, my darlings!
Of the products mentioned in this post, I bought quite a few, while others were generously gifted to me by the brands or PR. The ones that were gifted are Sodashi, de Mamiel (I had also repurchased it myself), Kypris (I had also purchased it myself), African Botanics (gifted to me by Credo Beauty, which is why the link directs there, but is not an affiliate link), Sahajan and True Botanicals. I would gladly spend my own money on all of them.