Serum vs Moisturizer or Toner- The Differences and How to Use Them

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Which is better, a comparison of serum vs your go-to moisturizer or the bottle of toner?

Product comparisons are good, and they help you to understand your products, the ingredients, and functions, and maybe make a choice. Sometimes, after the application of your products, your skin begins to feel like they’re all doing the same thing.

However, this is not true. Each product plays a different role in your routine. For instance, comparing serum vs moisturizer or toner; these three products come after each other in your routine. And each is important in its way.

Read on to see a detailed comparison of your serum vs the moisturizer you never want to let go of and your toner. Also, this article details how you should use them correctly in your routine.

Serum vs Moisturizer

Serums and moisturizers are two different products. To start with, serums are lightweight, thin, watery, or gel-like products that are packed with high concentrations of active ingredients that nourish your skin.

On the other hand, moisturizers are thicker, heavier, and contain more oils than serums.

Moreover, serums penetrate deeper into the layers of your skin to treat skin conditions such as acne, aging, and hyperpigmentation. They can do this because they are made of smaller molecules.

Moisturizers are occlusives and as a result, they do not penetrate your skin. They rather sit on the surface of your skin acting as a seal, keeping moisture and the active ingredients in a serum trapped in your skin.

Both products help to hydrate your skin and keep it plump. However, moisturizers double to provide an extra layer of moisture and protection to your skin, preventing moisture loss and consequent dehydration.

Serum vs Toner

Toners help to further cleanse your skin and remove residues where cleansers could not reach. Based on consistency, toners are waterier than serums. The extra cleansing step that makes use of toners helps to balance your skin’s pH and refine your pores.

Serums are used to treat skin concerns and improve the health and appearance of your skin. The molecules in a serum penetrate the surface of your skin but the molecules in a toner cannot do this.

The deepest the molecules in a toner go is to unclog your pores of debris. Toners do not contain high doses of the active ingredients present in serums.

They are better cleansers that hydrate and soothe your skin and prepare your skin to receive the ingredients in other products.

Moisturizer vs Toner

Moisturizers and toners are two different skincare products. Moisturizers are occlusive products that contain lubricating ingredients such as oils. The ingredients are airtight and lay over the surface of your skin to prevent the evaporation of moisture and active ingredients.

Toner, on the other hand, hydrates your skin and helps to balance the pH level. Toners deep cleanse your skin and remove soap, oil, makeup, dirt, and cleanser residues that may interfere with the application of other products.

Applying toner to your skin prepares your skin to receive the ingredients in other products down your routine.

Is Serum Better Than Moisturizer?

You need both products in your routine. A serum is neither better than a moisturizer nor the other way around. Serums are made of smaller particles that penetrate your skin, unlike moisturizers that contain occlusive, lubricating ingredients.

Moisturizers do not penetrate your skin and as such, they cannot deliver active ingredients to the deep layers of your skin. Also, serums are not occlusive and cannot prevent moisture loss or keep ingredients trapped.

Whichever product you choose to use at a time depends largely on the needs of your skin and the climate around you.

Should You Use Serum or Moisturizer for Oily Skin?

You may not always have to use serum and moisturizer if you have oily skin. Naturally, your skin produces more oil than you probably need.

More so, introducing an external supply of oil may rather expose your skin to what you intend to protect it from.

Although your skin needs both, if you have oily skin and you’re in a humid environment, your skin may fare well with just serum. In dry conditions, you should boost hydration and seal in moisture with a moisturizer.

Additionally, if you used a hyaluronic acid or niacinamide serum, and you’re in an environment with moisture, you could free your skin from the occlusive and emollient nature of moisturizers.

Should You Use Serum or Moisturizer for Dry Skin?

Yes, you should. Layering serum with moisturizer is exceptionally beneficial for people with dry skin. Applying moisturizer over a serum will help to seal in moisture and prevent the evaporation of moisture.

Furthermore, moisturizer keeps in the actives in serums and strengthens your natural barrier. While the elements around would harm your skin unprotected, moisturizer takes the hits and keeps your skin looking its best.

Should You Apply Serum or Moisturizer First?

Serum should come before moisturizer. The rule of application of skincare products says that you should apply your products from the thinnest to the thickest. Therefore, serums (lighter) should be applied before the thicker moisturizers.

The molecules in a serum penetrate the layers of your skin and communicate things like cell resurfacing and rejuvenation. Then, the molecules of a moisturizer lay over the surface of your skin, seal in the actives in the serum, lock in moisture, and keep your skin hydrated.

Is Toner Better Than Serum?

What toner does for your skin cannot be replaced with serum. They are two different products although both can be very hydrating for your skin.

Toner takes the extra step of cleansing and refreshing your skin while serums are treatments. Toners do not contain or deliver active ingredients as serums do.

A toner is one product that doesn’t last long on your skin because it does not penetrate your skin as a serum would. Also, while not every skin type may need a toner, everyone needs a serum for at least hydration.

Can You Use Toner and Serum Together?

Yes, you can. You actually should use a toner and serum together in your routine. Toner deep cleanses your skin, balances pH, and preps your skin for the penetration of the actives in a serum.

After clearing your pores with a toner that contains an ingredient like salicylic acid, the path is clearer for the delivery of actives like hyaluronic acid and retinol.

The ingredients in your serum can better carry out their functions to improve the appearance and texture of your skin.  

You should use both products for the overall health of your skin and achieve your skin goals.

Should You Apply Serum or Toner First?

Always apply your toner before the serum. Toners are forerunners for serums; they refresh your skin and prepare the way for the active ingredients loaded in serums.

Following the rule of application of skincare products, you should apply toner (thinner product) before serum (thicker product). The thinner product absorbs and carries out its function before you apply the thicker product.

Moreover, the molecules in a serum are the ones your skin needs, and they should be absorbed through a clean, hydrated surface. A toner hydrates your skin and balances your pH for optimum action of the ingredients in your serum.

Can You Use Serum Without Toner?

You may skip applying toner as part of your cleansing process and carry on with serum. If your cleanser is mild enough and doesn’t throw your skin off balance, you may not have to deep cleanse with a toner.

In addition, if your serum contains the active ingredients you need (and they are also present in your toner), it is okay to use just serum. Apply the serum after cleansing and moisturize afterward.

Why Should You Use Toner Before Moisturizer?

You need a toner to remove any extra residues of oil, dirt, makeup, and even the chemicals in your cleanser. Also, it helps to prepare your skin to receive the ingredients in a moisturizer on a balanced pH.

A clean skin enhances penetration and the efficacy of the ingredients in your products. Moisturizer works best on hydrated skin. When your skin is hydrated, it absorbs ingredients quickly and the ingredients help to seal in moisture better.

Can You Use Toner, Serum, and Moisturizer Together?

Yes, you can. A detailed skincare routine includes toner, serum, and moisturizer following each other in that order. It is best to use all three together to boost hydration levels and make your routine more effective.

Toner will prepare your skin and hydrate it to receive and absorb the active ingredients in your serum. After serum has delivered actives on a cellular level, the molecules in your moisturizer act as a seal over your skin.

It traps moisture and keeps the ingredients in your serum locked in. Overall, they work together to improve the health, appearance, and texture of your skin.

How to Apply Toner, Serum, and Moisturizer Together

When you have picked a toner, serum, and moisturizer that suit your skin type and concerns, follow these steps to apply all three in your routine:

  • Post-cleansing, dampen a cotton ball with your toner and gently wipe your face and neck
  • Hold on a few minutes for the toner to absorb into your skin
  • Afterward, take some drops of serum in your palm
  • Gently tap the serum all over your face and neck. When you apply serum, make sure you apply it around your eyes and nose area
  • Allow the serum to absorb into your skin for up to a minute
  • Then, take a pea-sized amount of moisturizer and gently rub it all over your face and neck to seal in moisture
  • Thereafter, apply any other cream or oils in your routine
  • Make sure you apply sunscreen before you step out into the sun
  • If it’s your night routine, you can finish with a face oil


Can you skip serum and use moisturizer?

It is better to use serum and moisturizer. Use serum before applying moisturizer because the molecules in serums are smaller and penetrate better to deliver ingredients that nourish your skin.

Besides moisturizers cannot act as serums. They work on the surface of your skin to keep it hydrated and improve the natural barrier of your skin.  

Is it okay to use serum without toner?

Toner may not always be necessary for you if you use a mild cleanser. Also, if your serum contains the same ingredients as your toner, you may use the serum alone. 

Should you use toner without moisturizer?

No, you shouldn’t. Toners cannot lock in moisture nor do they contain occlusives and emollients. Always apply moisturizer to your skin to seal in moisture and keep your skin hydrated. Moreover, moisturizing your skin improves your skin health.

Is it necessary to apply moisturizer after serum at night?

Yes, it is. You should not skip moisturizer if you want healthy-looking and youthful skin. You may alternate your day moisturizer with a night cream that contains more water if you don’t want the greasiness at night.


Comparing serum vs moisturizer or toner, you’ll find that one does not fill in the role of the other. They may seem to perform similar hydration functions, but they do this at different levels.

You may want to make a choice between serum vs moisturizer or wonder if weighing the differences between serum and toner will help you make a choice. However, why should you make a choice when you can use all three to improve your skin?

What is most important is that you apply your products according to the needs and demands of your skin.

Thanks for reading.

Check Serum101 for related comparison articles that help you to make the right choices on products.