Lotion, Serum, and Moisturizer: What is the Difference?

Lotion, Serum, and Moisturizer: What is the Difference?

It has become a common thing to see false advertisements in the skincare industry. Some brands that look to make quick profits use gratifying words to cover and describe their cosmetics line.  This has stirred havoc in the skincare industries leaving the average consumer confused.

The truth is products are different when it comes to texture, ingredients, and purpose. Lotions, serums, and moisturizers are the most confusing products because they play a big role in the daily skincare routine. Over the last few years, people have been referring to these products interchangeably. This confusion translates to the wrong use of serums, lotions, and moisturizers.

Learning the differences helps one to take better care of their skin. This article will cover the differences, when to apply them, and their benefits.


Some skin experts will say that a lotion is a moisturizer. But the truth is that not all lotions can moisturize the skin. Unlike most moisturizers, lotions are easy to apply because they have a low viscosity. It has a high percentage of water; hence they feel very light on the skin. This also explains why lotions are the most economical option. It hydrates without feeling sticky since it’s lighter on the skin.

The problem with a high percentage of water in lotions is that it makes it easy for bacteria to form. To counter this, lotion manufacturers add preservatives such as benzyl alcohol, parabens, and salicylic acid. 

Additional chemicals do not offer a pleasant smell. That is why fragrances are added but in minimal amounts. For instance, the fragrances can consist of anywhere from 0.to 5% of the total ingredients. 

Due to these preservatives’ addition, lotions are mostly preferred for the body, while creamier moisturizers are used on the faces. The runny consistency of the lotion allows it to go onto the skin easily. 


  • Rehydrates dry skin
  • Feel and smells good
  • Replenish rough or extra dry spots on the skin
  • It makes the skin glow
  • Help yourself relax


Serums have a gel or liquid texture, which makes them very runny. They contain a higher concentration of skin care vitamins, minerals, acids, and antioxidants since they are light and fast-absorbing liquids. Serums are tailored to penetrate deep into the skin and deliver the contents that help repair the skin cells. They can penetrate very deep to the dermis layer of the skin.

Since they are supposed to get deep into the skin, serums are applied before a moisturizer during a skincare routine. Depending on its ingredients, the serums are capable of many things. For example, they are helpful when it comes to anti-aging, drying out the oily skin, and boosting collagen production. 

Serums are not to be confused as a substitute for moisturizers. Because drier skins still require oilier moisturization. The same case with the winter months because, at this time, the skin may require constant rehydration.

Types of serums

  • Calming serums
  • Resurfacing serums
  • Antioxidant serums
  • Brightening serums
  • Pore-minimizing serums
  • Clarifying serums
  • Anti-aging serums


  • Absorbs in the skin quickly due to a thinner viscosity
  • Improves the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles if formulated with ingredients like retinol
  • Soothes sensitive skin
  • Serums feel light on the skin.
  • It provides better visible results thanks to the high number of active ingredients.
  • Protects the skin from future damage and free radicles


Moisturizers have the most straightforward purpose. They help in hydrating and preventing moisture from escaping the skin. The main difference between serums and moisturizers is how deep they penetrate into the skin. Serums penetrate very deep, while moisturizers only penetrate three outer layers. 

The reason why moisturizers do not get past three layers is that they have a thicker consistency. This is because of the combination of nutrients, oils, and water. There are three types of moisturizers in skincare. i.e., Humectants, occlusives, and emollients.


Humectant moisturizer products are those that counteract the drying effect caused by by-products such as alcohol and soap. They are hygroscopic substances that moisturize the skin by forming hydrogen bonds with water molecules. Humectants pull water from the dermis to the top layer of the skin called the Stratum Corneum. The skin becomes less prone to conditions like chafing, cracking. 

Another great advantage of the humectants is that they boost the shedding of the skin. This happens through a process known as desquamation, which is breaking down proteins holding the cells together. Humectants can also gather water from the air to moisturize the skin. The common examples of humectants include glycerin and hyaluronic. 


Occlusives create a physical barrier that prevents existing moisture from evaporating. But apart from preventing water loss, occlusive also protects the skin from irritation caused by external factors. Occlusive agents usually feature a thick texture, which is why most of them include waxes and oils. 


These are moisturizers that help in the restoration of the natural lipid barrier. After repair, the skin cells can be able to retain moisture effectively. The lipid barrier starts depleting with old age. Hence it is important to use emollients to bring back the natural barrier. Moreover, they also improve the skin by enhancing the fine lines and wrinkles.

Natural lipids are depleted by old age, UV radiation, make up removers, and sun exposure. Some examples of emollients include Shea butter, isopropyl palmitate, and colloidal oatmeal.


  • Soothes the sensitive skin
  • Prevents dryness
  • Slows down the signs for aging
  • Protects the skin from the sun
  • It helps to fight acne.
Product Purpose Texture Skin Type
  • To moisturize dry skin.
  • Enhances water retaining abilities
Creamy texture Oily combination and normal skin
  • To deliver the nutrients deep into the skin.
Gel-like texture

Thin texture

Dehydrated skin,


Combination and normal skin

  • Hydrating
  • Preventing moisture from escaping the skin
Thick texture
Suitable for all types of skins depending on the ingredients

Final thoughts

Lotions, serum, and moisturizers are very different. They have different textures, skincare benefits, and skin type preferences. Lotions are mostly used on the body because they usually consist of preservatives that can react with the face skin. Serums and moisturizers are closely related, but they work in different ways. Serums are designed to penetrate deep into the dermis and deliver nutrients. Moisturizers, on the other hand, use various techniques to ensure that the skin stays hydrated. In skincare, regimen serums come first before moisturizers because they go deep in the skin. 

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