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Face Creams vs. Oils & Serums

Face oil, serum or cream moisturiser? If you’re confused about what each one does and if you really need all three, keep reading. We break down the difference and explain why we believe face oil and serum deliver the best results for your skin.

Oil & Water Based Serums

What is a water-based serum?

Serums are lightweight products formulated with a high concentration of active ingredients to target specific skin concerns including fine lines and wrinkles, dullness, hyperpigmentation, dehydration, and acne.

Water-based serums have a smaller molecular structure which allows them to be absorbed deeply and rapidly into the skin. Just a few concentrated drops of serum is an extremely efficient way to deliver big results for your skin.

What is a face oil?

Face oils are a blend of natural oils containing antioxidants, vitamins, and essential fatty acids. These oils are derived from the seed, fruit, bark, stems, roots, or leaves of a plant.

Face oils have emollient properties which work on top of the skin, rather than penetrating deeply. On the surface, these emollients support hydration by sealing in moisture to prevent it evaporating off the skin.

They also bolster your skin’s natural barrier (lipids, cholesterol, and ceramides) and derma strength by helping fill in spaces between skin cells to lubricate and smooth the skin.

Depending on the formulation/blend, some face oils contain active ingredients but they don’t deliver the same potency as serum formulation.

Face oil and serum are a skincare dream team!

It’s not a matter of serum or moisturiser. A serum isn’t designed to replace a moisturiser, rather complement it. Using both you’ll maximise the results of your skincare routine.

Serum delivers a burst of active ingredients deep into the skin to target specific skin concerns.

The face oil then works on the surface to lock in moisture, helping the skin hold onto hydration and strengthen the skin barrier.

Serums and face oils are also free from synthetic lubricating and thickening agents (fillers!) unlike many creams and lotions. We’ll talk about these ‘fillers’ in a moment.

How to use face oils and water-based serums in your routine

After cleansing, while the skin is still damp, apply serum by using a gentle motion to press or massage it into the skin. Allow time for it to fully absorb.

Next, apply the face oil by dropping a few drops of oil into your palm and massage into your face.

Face Creams & Lotions

Like face oil, moisturising creams and lotions work on the surface of the skin. Their basic function is to stop the skin drying out by holding water into the outermost layer keeping skin supple and smooth.

Often creams and lotions are also formulated with active ingredients to address skin concerns.

Look out for thickening ingredients that may irritate skin

Creams and lotions contain synthetic or mineral thickening agents and occlusives to give the product its consistency and texture.

Mineral and natural thickeners (both naturally derived)

These are naturally occurring ingredients that can absorb water or oils and boost the thickness of a formulation.

Synthetic thickeners

Some of these synthetic ingredients, a common one is carbomers, are low-quality thickening agents used to add bulk to formulations. These types of ingredients provide little, if any, long lasting benefit to the skin and some can even cause irritation.

Active ingredients: Serum vs moisturiser

These thickening ingredients also reduce the impact of any active ingredients in the formulation. The active has to ‘fight’ its way through thickening agents to actually penetrate the skin.

High quality serums, on the other hand, have no fillers. They’re concentrated drops of super efficient active ingredients delivered straight to the skin.

Which is best for me? 

So, which is the best - oil or cream for your face?

We recommend treating skin with both the active ingredients of a serum and the moisturising properties of an oil. The combination of the two is a more effective, potent, and natural way to get your skin the ingredients it needs to stay hydrated, healthy, and address specific concerns.

Combinations from our range of esmi Skin Treats that work well to target the following skin concerns include:


Serum: Hyaluronic Hydrating Serum

Face Oil: 24K Gold Nourishing Oil

Ageing concerns

Serum: Golden Anti-Ageing Serum

Face Oil: 24K Gold Nourishing Oil


Serum: Pomegranate Brightening Serum

Face Oil: 24K Gold Nourishing Oil

Redness, inflammation and acne

Serum: Anti-Redness Minty Green Smoothie

Face oil: Peppermint Green Oil

See our full range of Skin Treats to target specific skin concerns. You can purchase a combination of Skin Treats in one of our Skin Care Bundles to kick start your skin care routine! 

Infographic_face creams vs oils and serums