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Is There a Miracle Acne Serum?

A serum is a liquid that is lighter on your face than a cream, gel, or lotion, but thick enough to stay on your skin. Thousands of skin care products are labeled as serums, but only a few will help clear up acne.

acne serums
Serums are a good acne treatment because they don’t clog pores and will usually work on all skin types.


  • Wikipedia defines serums as cosmetics that are more expensive than creams. There are actually serums that are less expensive than creams, and that are much lighter on the skin.
  • Creams are incompatible with oily skin.
  • Gels can be used on any skin type, but they bind potentially irritating ingredients to the skin.
  • Serums are acceptable on all skin types. Serums won’t clog pores.
  • Many serums are made with glycerin or propylene glycol. These non-toxic ingredients spread botanical extracts, such as witch hazel, licorice, green tea, and tea tree oil, evenly over the skin.
  • Exposed Skin Care offers acne care serums that cost less than many creams and lotions. Visit Exposed Skin Care for more information about their acne care serums offered with a money-back guarantee.

The Problems with Creams, Gels, and Lotions

The problem with many products that are supposed to help clear up acne-prone skin is that they actually make acne problems worse. A cream, for instance, is great for sticking to your skin, but there are two major problems with any “creamy” acne care product. One problem with a cream is that it can clog pores. The other problem with any kind of cream is that irritant ingredients stay on your skin and do maximum damage1, and many misguided formulations for acne care contain multiple irritants—and charge you more for them.

Gels are designed to keep certain ingredients on your skin. The antiseptic benzoyl peroxide, for example, is often applied as a gel. Gels are semi-liquid2 because of the way they use proteins, rather than oils, but if you put the wrong ingredient on your skin, a gel is going to ensure that it stays there.

A lotion is lighter on your skin. It is easier to spread across your skin, but it is thick enough to stay on your skin. Lotions don’t contain the high concentrations of oils and emollients that can clog pores3, but lotions often do contain emulsifiers that can irritate your skin.

Most lotions contain an ingredient called cetearyl alcohol, which is also known as cetostearyl alcohol and cetylstearyl alcohol. The addition of cetearyl alcohol to a mixture of oil in water or water in oil helps keep oil and water components blended. Some healing ingredients are water-soluble, and others are soluble in fat. With cetearyl alcohol to keep the whole mixture emulsified, lotions can deliver more different kinds of healing ingredients to the skin.

Even so, there are two major problems with most lotions4. One is that the water-soluble vitamins and antioxidants that you are added to many lotions degrade as soon as the container is opened, or even before the container is opened if it made of clear glass or plastic.

The other problem with most lotions is that cetearyl alcohol itself can irritate the skin. One way this lotion ingredient can cause skin problems is by making lotions too foamy. Big bubbles “grab” the skin. They break down the skin and provide tiny passageways for staph and strep infections to enter the skin.

The other way cetearyl lotion can irritate the skin is by activating the immune system in the skin. Chemical byproducts of the interaction of cetearyl alcohol and the air form a kind of homing signal for a group of white blood cells known as the macrophages.

The term macrophage literally means “big eater.” A macrophage can surround a bacterium and consume it5. That sounds like a good thing, but macrophages tends to get stuck in blood vessels and stuck in pores.

The more often the immune system sends macrophages to the skin6, the more likely they are to cause localized swelling. When the macrophages eventually die, the immune system sends still more macrophages to recycle them. These macrophages can get stuck, too. The result is puffiness in the skin that is not caused by allergy or infection and that is very hard to treat.

What Makes Serums Better for Your Skin?

Serums have advantages over both creams and lotions. Wikipedia defines a serum as a “cosmetic that is more expensive than a cream,” but not all serums are more expensive than creams and lotions and there are reasons serums may work much better on the skin.

What makes a serum a serum is its lightness. Serums stick to the skin without smothering pores. They keep healing ingredients on the skin but they don’t lock the ingredient into the skin.

Serums usually contain glycerin to give them the ability to stick to the skin. Glycerin is a food. (Glycerol, which was the main ingredient in antifreeze before the widespread use of ethylene glycol, is toxic.) Glycerin absorbs moisture from the air and helps keep moisture in the skin. It slowly releases the botanical ingredients or medications dissolved in it, without forcing them into pores.

Glycerin is safe for all skin types, and it is preferable for serums used to treat normal, oily, and slightly dry skin. A similar chemical, propylene glycol, is not a foodstuff but is even lighter on the skin. Triglycerides and alkyl benzoates act in a similar way and are also safe for all skin types. But even serums can go wrong.

Serums You Need to Avoid

There is always a way to make a good acne product bad, and that happens with some serums. Some serums include sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate (labeled in the UK and Australia and sodium dodecyl sulfate). This ingredient helps serums spread smoothly over the face, but it also irritates the skin. Tiny red pimples break out, especially at the corners of the mouth. The addition of sodium lauryl sulfate7 to a serum makes it a product you should avoid.

Serums You Should Try

On the other hand, some serums are very well balanced for treatment of acne-prone skin. Exposed Skin Care Acne Treatment Serum, for example, uses a glycerin-like ingredient called propylene glycol in purified water to spread green tea extracts and tea tree oil over the skin8. You really would not want to eat this product (you would get diarrhea), but it is non-toxic and light on this skin9.

Exposed Skin Care Clear Pore Treatment uses propylene glycol and purified water to carry witch hazel extract, which helps bind “loose” skin cells to the surface of the skin10, as well as licorice extract11, which reduces the effects of testosterone on the skin12. Witch hazel, by the way, is not for treating acne. It is for preventing infection with staph and strep bacteria that can cause blemishes that are far worse than acne.

Serums can be an important but inexpensive part of your daily acne prevention program. For more information about acne treatment serums that come with a money-back guarantee, see Exposed Skin Care.


  1. Over-the-counter acne products: What works and why. Mayo Clinic. 2019.
  2. What is the Role of Benzoyl Peroxide Cleansers in Acne Management?: Do they Decrease Propionibacterium acnes Counts? Do they Reduce Acne Lesions? J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2008 Nov;1(4):48-51.
  3. Mesquita-Guimarães J, Ramos S, Tavares MR, Carvalho MR. A double-blind clinical trial with a lotion containing 5% benzoyl peroxide and 2% miconazole in patients with acne vulgaris. Clin Exp Dermatol. 1989 Sep;14(5):357-60.
  4. Alkilani AZ, McCrudden MT, Donnelly RF. Transdermal Drug Delivery: Innovative Pharmaceutical Developments Based on Disruption of the Barrier Properties of the stratum corneum. Pharmaceutics. 2015 Oct 22;7(4):438-70.
  5. Liu PT, Phan J, Tang D, Kanchanapoomi M, Hall B, Krutzik SR, Kim J. CD209(+) macrophages mediate host defense against Propionibacterium acnes. J Immunol. 2008 Apr 1;180(7):4919-23.
  6. Kim J. Review of the innate immune response in acne vulgaris: activation of Toll-like receptor 2 in acne triggers inflammatory cytokine responses. Dermatology. 2005;211(3):193-8.
  7. Marrakchi S, Maibach HI. Sodium lauryl sulfate-induced irritation in the human face: regional and age-related differences. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2006;19(3):177-80. Epub 2006 May 4.
  8. Nooshin Bagherani, Bruce R. Smoller. Role of tea tree oil in treatment of acne. Dermatologic Therapy. November/December 2015Volume28, Issue6 Pages 404-404
  9. Bagherani N, Smoller BR. Role of tea tree oil in treatment of acne. Dermatol Ther. 2015 Nov-Dec;28(6):404.
  10. Rodan K, Fields K, Falla TJ. Efficacy of a twice-daily, 3-step, over-the-counter skincare regimen for the treatment of acne vulgaris. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2017 Jan 4;10:3-9.
  11. Yokota T, Nishio H, Kubota Y, Mizoguchi M. The inhibitory effect of glabridin from licorice extracts on melanogenesis and inflammation. Pigment Cell Res. 1998 Dec;11(6):355-61.
  12. Grant P, Ramasamy S. An update on plant derived anti-androgens. Int J Endocrinol Metab. 2012 Spring;10(2):497-502.
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