Younger, firmer, smoother, brighter, clearer skin - what's not to like? Those are just some of the promises that so often accompany skincare's favourite anti-ageing weapon, the serum.
Serums were once rarefied products, but now they are commonplace, even beginning to make an appearance on supermarket shelves. They have been added to beauty routines as an extra step before moisturising each evening. In some cases they are also advised for use in the morning. A few companies even suggest a layering approach using several serums, with one product treating, for instance, tone and another texture, or one for preventive care and one for visible needs.
This strikes me as a bit rich. Either give us multi-tasking women a good all-rounder or let us specialise as we see fit, but don't expect anyone but the skincare obsessive to want to pay for a double dose. Also, please don't prattle on about things working at the cellular level. We're all cells, so what exactly does this mean? (What they are trying to tell us is their little magic elixir penetrates deep down, where it is said to spark youth proteins and the like. Umm, maybe ... )
That said, I like serums. I've pretty much given up bothering with rich night cream - unless your skin is dehydrated, try letting it breathe - but I like the feel of a good serum on my skin. This feel-good factor is, I think, not just because serums can cunningly contain silicones which superficially smooth things over. They generally comprise smaller molecules than moisturisers, so do penetrate a bit deeper into the epidermis, and they generally contain a higher concentration of active nutrient ingredients, some of which we know are beneficial and some of which are promising.
A serum is basically a souped-up liquid, gel or creamy gel designed to do a bit more than just moisturise. Certain ingredients can help with certain of those magic words in the introduction. Where it gets tricky is determining how much help they give. Furthermore, unless serums are structured to deliver their active ingredients in the right stabilised formula they don't have much hope of making inroads beyond the surface anyway.
Botanically based oils are often similarly rich in anti-oxidants and vitamins. But serums are a more engineered product and they cost more than other skincare, though thankfully a little usually goes a long way. The cost can be due to the presence of peptides and now stem cells, the buzz words in anti-ageing skincare.
Medical research using humanely derived stem cells is an exciting new frontier for tissue regeneration, but in skincare terms any widespread effective applications are a long way from proven. Plant stem cells are already in use, derived from apples, roses, rice plants and more. These are a good source of antioxidants, so that's handy, but how, and more importantly if, they relate to skin stem cells is by no means certain.
Peptides have a recognised role to play in stimulating collagen production. Collagen, a type of protein, is what gives skin its support and structure and, as it thins, with time skin goes downhill. Thinning collagen naturally forms peptides - molecules which tell skin it is damaged and needs to get back to work making more. By adding synthesised peptides to the mix the idea is that skin will produce extra collagen to help restore at least some of its youthful bounce.
One of the most common peptides is palmitoyl pentapeptide (matrixyl) which is found in many products. So if we know some peptides show interesting actions on skin cell structures and possibly fine lines, which of the many should we look for? Copper peptides seem to help with skin healing and neuropeptides may help relax wrinkles, but the scientific jury is out on the latter although the products are already out there too.
Given the commercial propensity of some companies to come up with fancy names for their peptides and other ingredients and insist, perhaps correctly, that certain mystery ingredient combinations - theirs of course - are superior, it can be pretty confusing even isolating what a product's active ingredients are. Companies are also prone to drawing a long bow between the recognised usefulness of an ingredient like vitamin A, when applied topically in controlled tests, and the effectiveness of this once in their products. That said, vitamin A skincare does deliver good results in some women, though others are sensitive to it.
Depending on your skincare needs, look also for the likes of hydrating hyaluronic acid, exfoliating glycolic acid, glucans to reduce breakouts, and gentle brightening ingredients. The correct use of these can improve skin's appearance.
The grandmama of serums is Estee Lauder's Advanced Night Repair, surely the first put into widespread production and still going strong, with a few tweaks along the way, 30 years later, which surely attests to how good its users find it.
Of the newer generation serums, one of the most interesting to appear is Bioeffect, from Iceland. It contains what the company claims to be the first plant-derived epidermal growth factor - which it harvests from barley grass grown in greenhouses on lava fields.
Beat that for a back story - though those containing the extracts of pioneer plants and rare Swiss apples that age at an unnaturally slow rate, sure do try.
Here are a few of the newest serums and what they claim to be all about. Shop with the usual buyer-beware caveats about accepting marketing speak as scientific fact. Let your skin be the judge.
1. Bioeffect EGF Serum A$180
This stuff is said to be used by a fifth of Iceland's population and was a bit of a sensation upon wider European launch early this year. Unusually it contains just nine ingredients including what is said to be the first epidermal growth factor derived from plant rather than animal or bacterial sources. This is done by leveraging off biotechnology research that won a Nobel Prize to cultivate genetically modified barley grass in volcanic pumice and pure ice water in geothermal greenhouses on the lava fields of Iceland. EGFs have been used in hospitals to treat burns patients, but not previously in this strength in a cosmetic product, where the effect on collagen is said to lead to a fresher, more dewy complexion.
2. Lancome Visionnaire 30ml $148
Contains a much patented molecule dubbed LR-2412 to work on "12 key targets of aging", with the primary action said to be on wrinkles, pores and imperfections. It doesn't replace Lancome's hit serum Genefique which is sold more as a preventive rather than corrective measure. Lancome spent years on Visionnaire, seeking to mimic in skin the function of "signal molecules" in plant which trigger damage repair. Its surveys maintain that women using this will put off having beauty procedures including peels and laser.
3. Clinique Repairwear Laser Focus 30ml $114
The name comes out of claims that after 12 weeks of using this, the wrinkle-reducing power is 63 per cent that of a laser procedure. Less pain, bit less gain, sounds tempting for those looking to smooth skin and reduce the appearance of sun damage with a potent serum.
4. Shiseido Future Solution LX Ultimate Regenerating Serum, 30ml $490
I rate Shiseido's Benefiance serum highly, but haven't spent much time with this new one, though the texture and fragrance is pleasing. It contains an ingredient complex called Skingenecell 1P, said to target the causes of weakening skin, leaving it smoothed.
5. Dior Capture Totale Multi-Perfection Concentrated Serum 50ml $301
So-called "mother cells" are said to be at the heart of the skin and Dior's research into a revamped Capture Totale range, including an indulgent serum that aims to address firmness, tone and wrinkles.
6. Trilogy Age Proof CoQ10 Booster Serum 20ml $46.90
A richly emollient oil-style serum with antioxidants and CoQ10 to act on skin and tamanu oil to lubricate it. Trilogy has won international natural skincare awards for this one and has recently issued data showing high consumer satisfaction in small trials.
7. Murad Sleep Reform Serum 30ml $220
Another serum that Murad says taps into understanding of sleep cycles to work more effectively. Coincidentally it contains REM, only this doesn't have anything to do with dreaming, rather it stands for Repair Enhancing Molecule. That REM is Murad's magic bullet to shoot collagen into action, there is also a peptide, antioxidant blend and topical melatonin, there reputedly "to optimise skin's sleep cycle".
8. Chanel Sublimage Essential Revitalizing Concentrate 30ml $640
Sublimage is Chanel's top of the range line and this concentrate contains a purified plant extract from a Himalayan flower said to help restore skin to a more youthful state and make it ready to receive some Sublimage regenerating cream.
9. Estee Lauder Perfectionist Wrinkle Lifting Serum 30ml $139
Serums are something of a specialty at Estee Lauder, with a selection targeting different concerns, this one focuses on lines and age spots, with peptides to get collagen going. Try Idealist for luminosity and pore minimisation and Advanced Night Repair as an all-rounder.
10. Dermalogica Overnight Repair Serum 15ml $148
After studying how skin works by day and night, Dermalogica has come up with a night-time serum for maturing skin because it believes it will be better absorbed then to improve skin suppleness, firmness and brightness, while minimising fine lines. Peptides combine with plant oils for a pleasing feel from just a few drops. Includes Argan oil which is transitioning from use in hair products to skincare, and aromatic plant oils to lull you to sleep.
Stockists: Selected department store and pharmacy counters or as stated below. Trilogy also in health stores. Palmers at Farmers and selected pharmacies. Online at Murad and Dermalogica plus specialty skincare outlets. Bioeffect online only.