Why You're Seeing Serum Foundations Everywhere — & Why You Should Try Them
In the interest of further streamlining our beauty regimens with minimalist makeup brands, hybrid beauty products are emerging — and providing both skincare and cosmetic benefits. Case-in-point? Multi-tasking serum foundations, the most popular newcomers to the skincare-meets-cosmetics niche.
The gist of the beauty trend can be defined as a shift towards healthy, glowing skin that is achieved by alternate means than caked-on cosmetics. Differentiating themselves from the tinted moisturizers of years past, they also take BB creams a step further by incorporating the treatment-element of skincare serums into quotidian coverage. Their surge in popularity makes sense, too, as brands respond to a market preference for "healthy" ingredients and a growing public association between beauty and wellness.
"Brand founders are responding to the pendulum swing away from the heavy foundation looks that have dominated Instagram for the last too-many years," celebrity makeup artist Katey Denno, Credo Brand Ambassador and Lead Makeup Artist, tells TZR. "Formulators have been able to really up the ante when it comes to creating great texture, long-wear, and spot-on color-matching in good-for-your skin, sheer formulas."
Serum Foundations: What They Are
Some are straight-up tinted oil blends — delivering nutrients (i.e., barrier-protective lipids, antioxidants, and vitamins) found in beauty oils that hydrate while providing light coverage. Others apply more like your typical water-based serum, often incorporating added silicones to function like built-in primers for a smooth finish that does not bead on the skin. Added active ingredients, like hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, and even SPF, allow users to target various skin needs throughout the day.
"I think the main benefit is streamlining the beauty routine," dermatologist Hadley King, M.D. explains. "This one product can hydrate, protect, repair, and provide coverage." Coverage is versatile and often buildable, able to be adjusted according to preference, she notes.
Serum Foundations: The Key To No-Makeup Makeup
Their roots can be traced to the no-makeup makeup look, a reigning beauty trend that insists less-is-more — blurring imperfections, but still letting your freckles shine through. "[No-makeup makeup] is the look I have always received the most requests for, from celebs and models, to every other makeup wearer," says Denno.
Characterized by a certain effortlessness ("laissez-faire" beauty, if you will), the end goal is a natural-looking glow hinting that the wearer simply has really good skin. For all the #LOTDs that are painted on via layers of primer, foundation, artificial highlighters (and let's be honest — Instagram filters), the appeal of serum-foundations is their single-step application to moisturized skin.
Due to their inherent sheerness, you can apply concealer to cover up breakouts, melasma, or other imperfections in skin tone as a final step. ("You can dab on concealer [while still] keeping skin looking pretty darn natural," says Denno.) While available in both dewy and semi-matte finishes, you can always blot with rice paper or set with powder to combat shine.
Serum Foundations: Who Should Use Them
The general rule comes down to the level of coverage you desire. "Serum foundations look dewey on the skin, but don't provide much coverage," Dr. Lily Talakoub M.D., owner of Mclean Dermatology and Skincare Center, explains. "Traditional foundations have more pigment density, give better coverage of skin imperfections but can feel heavier on the skin."
Dry skin types can also obtain extra hydration from these skin-first formulations. "For years, I have encouraged my clients to combine their face oil with foundation for added hydration," says celebrity esthetician Cecilia Wong, founder of Cecilia Wong Skincare. "Tinted oil foundations are convenient and performance-driven products [because] you get the nutrients, hydration, and vitamins all in one product."
As skin expert and celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau notes, they can also be better for skin that is dealing with flaking — perhaps as a side effect from a prescription retinoid. "[Serum-foundations] can make the skin look less dull, dry, and more light-reflective. In this instance, they can be better for the skin than traditional foundations," Rouelau offers.
Serum Foundation: Who Shouldn't Use Them
Not every skin type benefits from the use an oil-based serum-foundation, however. Naturopathic doctor Stacey Shillington, ND of Naturopathic Beauty points out that sufferers of fungal acne — flesh-colored bumps often found on the jawline, cheeks, and forehead caused by an overgrowth of the yeast, Malassezia — should steer clear of all oils in their skincare regimens. "Malassezia feeds on oils, so applying any type of oil to skin that is prone to fungal acne can be disastrous," she warns.
Rouleau also has reservations about recommending tinted oils to her clients whose skin types do not absolutely need it. "My concern for a product that uses too much oil, even if it claims that it doesn't leave a greasy feel, is that the oils will dissolve their sunscreen moisturizer underneath," she warns. "The skin's own natural oil that is secreted during the day is already dissolving away sunscreen, so I would be concerned that [oil-based serums] will add to this."
Finally, Talakoub adds a word of warning for silicone-containing formulas which can clog the pores and cause acne. "If you choose a serum-foundation with a silicone or dimethicone, then you have to be very careful about washing the makeup off before you sleep, and not wearing it during exercise."
Serum Foundation: How To Apply
Unless your skin is really oily, Denno suggests that you prep the skin by first applying your daily moisturizer and allowing it to absorb. Then you apply your serum foundation with a brush, a damp beauty blender (particularly if you have large pores, rosacea, or textured bumps), or simply your fingertips.
"I like to take a few drops on my finger tips, rub them together, and begin pressing around the sides of the nose, onto the cheeks, and assess where else coverage is needed," Denno says. "Go light with your application, knowing that your real coverage, if you need it, will come from the concealer you strategically dab on next."
Here are nine serum foundations to try, from tinted oil serums to bonafide foundations-with-benefits.
"I saw a gap in the market for a product that fuses skincare, makeup, and sun protection," explains Sasha Plasvic, founder and Chief Creative Office of Ilia. Hence the development of sixteen shades of balancing squalene oil-based serum-foundations with SPF 40.
The clean beauty brand's top-seller is their tinted oil blend of jojoba, avocado, and meadowfoam seed oil, which were selected to be non-aggravating for acne. "It took two years to develop this formula and I actually cried when I got it just right," Sheena Yaitanes, the brand's founder, shares.
Cult French brand launched this ultra-sheer, silicone-free, tinted serum in 2020. Available in five shades, the butterfly bush flower extract and an anti-pollution polysaccharide protects the skin, while prickly pear seed oil hydrates.
Luxury clean beauty brand GRESSA turns to broccoli seed oil and a proprietary blend of botanical extracts that include neem, barberry, milk thistle, sea buckthorn and licorice root for velvety coverage that is surprisingly matte.
"I use serum foundations if I want a 'just woke up looking like this' skin," notes Talakoub. "Diorskin Nude Air is lightweight serum foundation that gives you hydrated dewey skin with a light coverage."
Eight shades of fragrance-free, semi-matte pigment are enhanced with daisy flower extract and neuropeptides that provide an anti-aging, smoothing boost.
Beauty icon Bobbi Brown developed twenty-two shades of coverage that incorporates cordyceps mushroom extracts, lychee, and bamboo grass into the brand's iteration of the trend. Their Active Skin Energizing Complex also fends off UV-damage and other environmental stressors to prevent premature aging.
Made of 97% naturally-derived ingredients — including actives like red algae, tara gum, and cocoa bean extracts — a dermatological study found that use of this foundation evens skin tone and refines pores. All 29 shades nailed "light coverage meets luxury" results.