Serum vs Exfoliating: Find Out What Your Skin Needs

Share this:

Using serum vs exfoliating your skin?

On some days, it seems our skincare products engage in a battle of who’s better on our skin (maybe it’s in our heads). To a large extent, it’s true because there’s a need to validate the effectiveness of anything that goes onto the skin.

Serums and exfoliators aren’t the pair to contest but when you hear something about exfoliating serums, your mind puts them at war.

Serums are viscous liquid-based skincare products that contain high doses of active ingredient(s) which are essential for the treatment of skin concerns. Exfoliators (physical or chemical), on the other hand, helps to slough off dead skin cells from the surface of your skin.

Read on to see where the lines between serum vs exfoliating lie.

What Are the Benefits of Using Serum?

The first goodness that meets your skin upon using serums is that it is a lightweight product that absorbs quickly into your skin without leaving residue. Serums are very hydrating; they seep into your skin and plump it in a few seconds.

Based on the different formulations, serums can do a lot for your skin. Some of the active ingredients you may find in serums include hyaluronic acid, retinol, vitamin C, niacinamide, salicylic acid, and glycolic acid.

Serums are very good for replenishing moisture and hydration levels. This helps to protect your skin from external irritants that can cause skin blemishes, dehydration, and premature aging. Increased moisture level helps to keep sebum levels in check.

As a result, serums help to regulate oil production, refine your pores and keep acne breakouts in check.

Some serums contain ingredients that can penetrate your skin and tackle acne and aging from the roots. More so, they help to facilitate the healing and fading of scars.

Additionally, serums work for every skin type and its specific concerns (if you use a formulation that suits your skin type). Serums have anti-inflammatory properties which makes them ideal for people with sensitive and acne-prone skin types.

What Are the Benefits of Exfoliating?

Certain processes are naturally scheduled on the skin and exfoliating is one of them. Every 30 days, the skin naturally sheds off layers of dry and weak skin cells.

However, sometimes, this does not happen as expected and this is why you need an external exfoliator.

The process of exfoliating your skin helps to loosen the binds between the clusters of dead skin cells and your skin and take them off your skin. Consequently, it reveals a brighter, smoother, and glowing complexion.

Furthermore, exfoliation unclogs your pores of oil and dirt debris that cause acne breakouts. This is why it is a highly recommended step in the skincare routine for oily and acne-prone skin types.

After sloughing off this layer of dead skin cells, your skin is ready to receive active ingredients. Therefore, moisturization becomes easier and the path is clear for your skin to receive and absorb the ingredients.

Also, exfoliating your skin increases cell turnover and stimulates collagen synthesis which is essential for treating signs of aging.

In addition, exfoliating helps to improve blood circulation which is essential for the distribution of nutrients, skin detoxification, and revitalization. Using exfoliators on your skin also helps to fade scars, therefore, improving the tone and texture of your skin.

Serum vs Exfoliating

In appearance, serums and exfoliating products do not look alike. Serums come in small glass bottles with a dropper applicator attached to the cap of the bottle.

Exfoliators may be chemical or physical; chemical exfoliators come in bigger bottles while physical exfoliators are more DIY recipes and hand tools that help to remove dead skin cells.

Serums perform a wide range of functions which may include exfoliating your skin, based on their formulation. Exfoliating, on the other hand, carries out the sole purpose of taking dead skin cells off your skin to clear off dry, scaly skin, and improve your complexion.

Furthermore, serums penetrate your skin better than exfoliators. Besides, exfoliating your skin creates a better canvas for serums to penetrate and deliver their active ingredients. Exfoliating is a process that majorly happens on the surface of your skin.

Moreover, exfoliating your skin is an important part of the cleansing step in your routine. Serums come after to hydrate and most especially treat the skin issues you may have.

The topical application of serum is goodness all through; it does not hurt your skin or pose any threat of skin tears, unlike exfoliators. Physical exfoliators are usually harsh as they may contain sugar granules or any other particles which may jag your skin.

Chemical exfoliators can be very drying and expose your skin to more damage than it already had or put it in a vicious cycle of acne breakouts.

If you experience any side effects with serum, it is majorly because your skin is trying to adapt to the ingredients and the effects are short-lived.

Are Serums Exfoliators?

Serums are not labeled “exfoliators” but they can play the role of exfoliating your skin if they contain such ingredients. Alpha and beta hydroxy acids (AHAs & BHAs) like glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid are the major exfoliating ingredients.

A serum that contains any of these acids will make a good and gentle exfoliator that will perform the functions of your regular exfoliators at an even better penetration level.

Since exfoliators are not made to penetrate your skin, using a serum that contains exfoliating ingredients will be better for your skin. Skincare serums that contain exfoliating ingredients are commonly labeled as resurfacing serums.

What Does an Exfoliating Serum Do?

An exfoliating serum plays the role of an exfoliator. It helps in skin resurfacing, revealing a better and glowing complexion. An exfoliating serum is a milder and gentler option for sloughing off dead skin cells from off your skin.

Using an exfoliating serum is a gentle way to loosen dead skin cells and alleviate dry complexion without rough particles scrubbing your skin. And its gentle nature does not make it less effective as an exfoliator.

Also, it helps to address skin issues from dry, scaly skin to blackheads that trouble the peace and smoothness of your skin. Using an exfoliating serum helps to smoothen your skin, even your skin tone, and improve the texture of your skin.

Additionally, exfoliating serums penetrate your skin just like every serum would. Consequently, it tackles skin issues from the roots.

More so, it helps to unclog your pores, fade scars, and improve the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines, and hyperpigmentation spots.

Salicylic acid, lactic acid, glycolic acid, citric acid, and malic acid are the major ingredients that should be in your exfoliating serum. Most importantly, the ingredient you choose to go for should be based on your skin’s sensitivity.

How to Use an Exfoliating Serum

Exfoliating serums are acid-based serums and as such, should be used with the utmost care. Just like with retinol, your skin will need time to adapt to the acid. Therefore, you should start slowly and with small concentrations.

Salicylic acid is a very potent BHA and can cause your skin to dry out excessively with irritations. Glycolic acid and lactic acid are some AHAs that can have the same effect on your skin.

When you begin to use either of these acids, you should introduce them in small concentrations. For instance, you can start with about 4-5% glycolic acid and lactic acid. Salicylic acid, on the other hand, should be much smaller; about 0.5-2% would do.

Also, begin with using them three times a week. When your skin can tolerate the acids better, you can graduate to using them once a day. To apply the serum, you should start by cleansing your face but with a cleanser that does not contain any exfoliating acid.

Afterward, you can apply your exfoliating serum all over the areas of concern. After applying the serum, wait for it to absorb into your skin. Then, you can layer on a hydrating serum like one that contains hyaluronic acid or niacinamide.

The hydrating serum will seal in moisture and prevent the drying effect of the acids in the exfoliating serum. Moreover, it will enhance the penetration of the acids for effective skin resurfacing.

You can use these serums in the morning and evening, but morning use should be accompanied by sunscreen to shield your skin from sun damage.

Can You Use Serum After Exfoliating?

Yes, you can. It is okay to use a hydrating serum after using a chemical exfoliator. Although very beneficial, exfoliating your skin can be very drying and irritating.

If you do not moisturize your skin immediately after, you could get more breakouts than you’re already managing.

Moreover, serums are skin treatments. So, applying a serum after exfoliation will enhance the penetration of the serum and make it a good delivery vehicle of the active ingredients present in the serum.  

Is Using Serum Better Than Exfoliating?

Using a serum is neither better than exfoliating nor the other way around. Serums and exfoliators are two different skincare products that serve different purposes. You should use any of the products that suit the need of your skin at the time.

The upper hand serums have is that they can also be good and mild exfoliators if they contain exfoliating acids. Exfoliators cannot be serums because they do not penetrate your skin as serums do.

Rather than a comparison of using serum vs exfoliating, it is best to use both products in your routine with the right prescriptions and correct method of application.


Should you wash off exfoliating serum?

No, you should not. Exfoliating serums are just like every other serum. They are leave-on products and should not be washed or rinsed off after application. You should allow the serum to absorb into your skin and perform its resurfacing functions.

Is hyaluronic acid serum an exfoliator?

A hyaluronic acid serum is not an exfoliator. Hyaluronic acid is a humectant that attracts and retains moisture in the skin.

Although it is an acid, it does not behave like an acid. It is a mild and soothing acid that works with other ingredients to improve the health and appearance of your skin.

Is exfoliating serum good for acne?

Yes, it is. Exfoliating serums help to tackle acne from the roots. They penetrate your skin, unclog and refine your pores (controlling sebum production), prevent future breakouts, and fade existing acne scars.

How often should you use an exfoliating serum?

You should use exfoliating serums about two to three times a week. The acids in these serums can be very drying and so you should limit usage.

Exfoliation is best done during your night routine; when you sleep your skin enters self-repair and there are no interruptions from environmental factors that can alter the skin resurfacing process.


Why choose between using serum vs exfoliating your skin when you can and probably should do both? If you have oily or acne-prone skin, you need to exfoliate your skin to control sebum production, remove excess oil and get rid of blackheads.

Also, serums are very beneficial for the treatment of acne and its related problems. A serum is not an exfoliator; however, some serums contain exfoliating acids. And such serums are gentler for exfoliation purposes.

Rather than make a comparison of serum vs exfoliating, use both to improve the health, texture, and tone of your skin.

Thanks for reading.

Check Serum101 to read related skincare products and ingredient comparison articles that guide you to better usage and application.