Other than toner, there is perhaps no more hotly debated skincare step than eye cream. You are either firmly ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ – there are those of us who never miss an application and believe that the delicate eye area requires a more targeted treatment, while others are skeptical of the smoothing, firming, and brightening claims and/or see no reason to invest in another product. For what it’s worth, we believe in the benefits of eye cream (you can check out our roundup of tried-and-true favorites), though we also know that not every formula is worth its weight in gold. So, if you are interested in treating the skin around the eyes and feel like your eye cream isn’t cutting it, there is another category of eye care worth considering: Eye serums.
Much like the serums we use on the rest of the face, eye serums are generally lighter and more potent than creams. But, unlike the serums we use on the rest of the face, eye serums are formulated with concentrations of active ingredients that are safe and non-irritating enough to use around the eye. To better understand the benefits of eye serum, how to incorporate it into an existing eye care routine, and what ingredients to look for, we tapped two experts for their take. Plus, we’re rounding up the best eye serums on the market, organized by what they are best for (think: crow’s feet, dark circles, puffiness, and more), to simplify your search.
Eye Serum vs. Eye Cream: What’s the Difference?
To understand the benefits of eye serum, you first have to understand how they differ from eye creams. “They do have similarities in that they are both considered treatments for the eye area, however, there are some differences,” says Renée Rouleau, a celebrity aesthetician and creator of Renée Rouleau Skincare. The formulation is a big one.
Generally speaking, creams contain a higher concentration of oils and a lower concentration of water, which is what makes them, well, creamy. “An eye cream is always an opaque, lotion-type texture that is a blend of oil plus water plus actives,” Rouleau explains. “It is almost always more moisturizing than a serum because of the oily components associated with a cream.” A serum, meanwhile, is typically more water than oil. “An eye serum is usually a clear gel plus actives,” she shares. “It can deliver active ingredients better into the skin due to the small molecular structure and the fact that it is generally water-based, so it can get deeper within the skin.”
In either case, the product needs to be well-formulated in order to work. “It doesn’t really matter if it is a cream or serum, if it delivers the right concentrations of right ingredients,” says Michele Koo, MD, a board certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon and creator of Dr. Koo Private Practice. “Personally, I prefer a gel serum because it feels so much lighter and more refreshing on the eyelids than a cream.”
Just like your facial skincare routine can contain both a serum and a cream, your eye care routine can, too. While we’ll get into which order to apply them in a little bit, think of them as serving distinct purposes. “[A serum] will have a concentrated amount of active ingredients, so it can be more performance-oriented than a cream,” Rouleau shares. “Because it’s mainly water-based, it can deliver hydration but not the moisturization (oil) of a cream.” So, if moisture is what the skin around your eyes crave, there is no replacing a cream.
The Benefits of Eye Serum
If you feel like the eye area is more delicate than the rest of the face, you’re not imagining it. “The skin around the eyes is much thinner than the rest of the face and hence more easily damaged by UV rays and environmental aggressors,” Dr. Koo explains. “The eye skin also typically contains fewer melanin cells at the basal layers, which lessens the protective function melanin provides against wrinkles and damage in general.” As such, there isn’t just one concern that affects the area. Dr. Koo says she often sees patients concerned about:
- Dark circles under the eyes
- Crow’s feet around the eyes
- Upper eyelid hooding as the eyelid skin loses elasticity
- Looking tired
We’ll say it before and we’ll say it again, skincare can’t replace surgery or other in-office procedures – but it can delay them and/or help maintain the skin after them. “A quality eye serum designed specifically for the more fragile and thin eyelid skin will protect the skin and slow and lessen eyelid skin damage,” she shares. “Starting the eye serum early is key to preventing damage.”
How to Choose an Eye Serum
As with any skincare product, the quality of the formulation matters more than anything. “The concentration of the active ingredients, in addition to the type of ingredients, is key to skin product success,” Dr. Koo says. When shopping for an eye serum, you want to be sure the actives are targeting your specific concerns. Dr. Koo and Rouleau offer this break down of what to look for from an ingredient perspective:
- Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs): “When looking for an eye serum that will exfoliate the under eye area, try to look for ingredients such as glycolic and lactic acids to target unwanted texture issues that come from things like fine lines, dryness, and milia,” Rouleau shares.
- Caffeine: Not just for your coffee, the topical application of caffeine constricts blood vessels to combat puffiness and dark circles.
- Peptides: Both of our experts are fans of peptides. “These can penetrate easily through the skin’s barrier and may help send a signal to your skin to create more collagen, as well as help reduce the appearance of puffiness,” Rouleau says of the amino acids. There are many different types of peptides, and they can be used for “skin smoothing” and “strengthening the dermis and dermal epidermal junction for a more plump youthful appearance,” Dr. Koo adds.
- Retinol: Yes, retinol can be sensitizing, which is why Dr. Koo says to look for it in a product that is “gentle enough for eyelid skin yet effective to build firmness in delicate eyelid skin.” The vitamin A derivative's ability to accelerate mitosis, increase enzymatic activity, and enhance cell renewal processes is unmatched, she notes.
- Sodium Hyaluronate: This form of hyaluronic acid can better penetrate the skin and enter the deeper layers. As Dr. Koo explains, the humectant “binds water (moisture) to plump and firm eyelid skin.”
- Tetrahexyldecyl (THD) Ascorbate: Dr. Koo likes this oil-soluble vitamin C derivative because it “delivers 50 times more vitamin C compared to ascorbic acid to increase collagen synthesis and to lighten dark circles via tyrosinase inhibition.” It’s also less likely to cause the irritation often associated with the potent antioxidant.
- Vitamin K: In skincare, vitamin K is best known for its brightening abilities. “It stabilizes vascular conditions, like broken capillaries, which cause redness and under eye dark circles,” Dr. Koo shares.
With these ingredient recommendations in mind, below are 12 eye serums that treat the most common eye-related concerns:
Best All-in-One: ByRoe Truffle Eye Serum
This gel-like serum does it all. Treating dry, dark, and delicate under eyes, the unique truffle complex (it features a blend of black, white, and summer truffles) delivers essential fatty acids and antioxidants into the skin to firm, brighten, and depuff, while hyaluronic acid, avocado peptides, and lupine proteins boost water retention and strengthen the skin barrier. Use A.M. and P.M. to enjoy the full scope of the rejuvenating benefits. $114, byroe.com
Best Treatment: Renée Rouleau Overnight Eye Serum
Exfoliating under the eyes is tricky business, but Rouleau cracked the code. “So many of my clients complain about the under eye area looking crepey, and what I know about crepiness is that it is often the result of having dry skin cell buildup,” she notes. “The goal of this serum is to gently dissolve and digest surface dry skin cells to the under eye area so that an eye cream, when applied after, can be more effective for its moisturizing benefits.” Apply the AHA blend to the under eye, outer corner, and brow bone (not the upper eyelid) two to three non-consecutive nights a week and top it off with an eye cream, like the Total Eye Repair Creme, that does not contain retinol or exfoliating acids to wake up to smoother skin. $50, reneerouleau.com
Best Post-Op Maintenance: Dr. Koo Private Practice Replenishing Eye Serum
A pea-sized dot split between both eyes is all you need of this multitasker to reap the benefits. Formulated with a retinol that is gentle enough for use in this delicate area – plus many of the good-for-you ingredients outlined above – Dr. Koo says she created this product to “delay your surgery, if possible” by stimulating collagen and elastin production (to thicken and firm the skin), smoothing fine lines, and lightening dark circles. It's also great for maintaining your skin in between in-office treatments. $200, drkooskincare.com
Best Brightener: Kiehl's Powerful-Strength Dark Circle Reducing Vitamin C Eye Serum
Not all dark circles are created equal, but this serum is clinically proven to visibly reduce the appearance of both blue and brown discoloration in seven days. L-ascorbic acid (a.k.a. vitamin C) improves skin tone and texture and protects against future free radical damage, while a tri-peptide complex minimizes the appearance of darkness and puffiness and fragmented hyaluronic acid instantly plumps and smooths. $50, kiehls.com
Best Holistic Rejuvenator: NassifMD Dermaceuticals Age Defying Eye Renewal Serum
Board certified facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon Paul Nassif, MD, developed this creamy formula with a proprietary combination of peptides and hyaluronic acid that can treat the entire eye area (yes, including the upper eyelid). Often called ‘Botox in a bottle,’ acetyl hexapeptide-8 smooths crow's feet and complements the depuffing and brightening benefits of acetyl tetrapeptide-5. HA, pullulan (a natural polysaccharide), and aloe vera extract work together to soothe, hydrate, and lock-in moisture. $60, nassifmdskincare.com
Best for Puffiness: Charlotte Tilbury Cryo-Recovery Depuffing Eye Serum
Inspired by the anti-inflammatory benefits of cryotherapy and the celebrity makeup artist's own backstage trade secrets, this serum treats tired, puffy peepers in more ways than one. The formula features brightening and blurring bio-tech extracts from Swiss glacial soil and ice wine, a plumping peptide complex, and fast-acting caffeine to wake up the eyes. And then there is the metal-tip applicator that cools on contact for an instant pick-me-up. $68, charlottetilbury.com
Best Multitasker: Vichy LiftActiv Serum 10 Eyes and Lashes
Why have three products on your vanity when you can have one? This tube functions as an eye, lash, and brow serum. Revitalizing peptides and rhamnose (a sugar molecule that has been shown to thicken the epidermis and amp up collagen and elastin production) combine to lift and tone the entire eye contour area – from sagging lids to crepey under eyes. Over time, it also enhances the volume and health of sparse lashes and brows. $35, dermstore.com
Best Botox Extender: Fresh Black Tea Firming Eye Serum
This isn’t the first time we’ve waxed poetic about this firming fluid, and it won’t be the last. The brand's Black Tea Complex, which blends elasticity-boosting botanicals (i.e. black tea extract, black tea ferment, blackberry leaf extract, and lychee seed extract), is paired with a bag-busting peptide, plumping goji fruit extract, and calming uji tea extract to help you stretch out your Botox appointments – we speak from experience. $72, sephora.com
Best Quick Fix: Mario Badescu Brightening Eye Serum
Long-term benefits are great, but sometimes we need a more immediate result. This serum offers both. Caffeine, glycerin, squalane, and niacinamide are just a few of the powerhouse ingredients that join forces to soften fine lines, tone crepiness, and brighten dark circles over time. But it’s the pearlescent finish of this multitasking formula that delivers the instant blurring and illuminating effect. $24, ulta.com
Best Retinol: Dr. Dennis Gross Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Triple Correction Eye Serum
Designed with the skin tone and texture concerns of aging eyes in mind, this potent product blends retinol with soothing botanicals to minimize irritation and maximize results. Encapsulated retinol and bakuchiol (often touted as a less sensitizing alternative to the vitamin A derivative) smooth the skin and boost collagen production. A plant-based antioxidant, ferulic acid is known for its anti-inflammatory and free radical-fighting properties, making it a soothing and protective addition. $69, dermstore.com
Best Line Eraser: Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair Eye Concentrate Matrix Synchronized Multi-Recovery Complex
Minimizing lines of all kinds is the name of the game with this eye-specific version of the brand’s beloved Advanced Night Repair Serum. This concentrate targets crow’s feet, glabellar lines between the brows, under eye wrinkles, and a general loss of firmness thanks to a combination of hyaluronic acid, peptides, and marine (think: algae) and botanical extracts (including chamomile, barley, lady's thistle, cucumber, and more). Put it on before bed and awaken to softer, smoother skin. $74, sephora.com
Best on a Budget: The Ordinary Caffeine 5% + ECGC Depuffing Eye Serum
Puffiness and dark circles are far and away the most common under eye complaints, and this budget-friendly solution tackles both. When applied topically, caffeine works to constrict blood vessels and epigallocatechin gallatyl glucoside (EGCG), a natural antioxidant found in green tea leaves, brightens existing pigmentation and protects against future damage. The two work synergistically in this water-based serum to visibly reduce puffiness and dark circles. $8, sephora.com
How to Apply an Eye Serum
How you apply your eye serum is just as important as the eye serum you choose. Layer your eye care the same way you layer the rest of your routine. “The general rule with products is to apply lightest to heaviest,” Rouleau explains. “So, since a serum is a lighter texture, it would go underneath a thicker cream.” No matter which step you are applying, always use your ring finger when working around the eye. It is the weakest and, therefore, gentlest digit and can be used to tap (not rub) the serum into the skin.
While some serums on this list are designed to be applied to the entire eye area (read: under eye, corner of the eye, upper eyelid, and brow bone), others are not. Be sure to follow the directions to avoid unnecessary irritation. In any case, do not apply it too close to the lash line, as it may cause some of the formula to end up in the eye. The last thing you want to be doing is rubbing or blinking excessively, which can actually exacerbate signs of aging and puffiness.
All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.
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