Serums vs. Ampoules: The Difference & How To Use Them
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Serums vs. Ampoules: The Difference & How To Use Them

Aug 14, 2023

While the details can get a bit meticulous, pretty much every skin care routine comprises the following buckets: cleanse, treat, moisturize. Within that middle step? Serums reign supreme—those concentrated formulas can tend to just about any skin concern, from exfoliating dead skin cells, tempering inflammation, smoothing fine lines, brightening skin tone, plumping the skin with hydration (we could go on and on).

On your hunt for these targeted treatments, you might have come across a slight tweak to the product category: ampoules. Granted, they're pretty similar to serums, but they come with a unique set of skin care guidelines (and, oftentimes, in a much tinier size). It's all in the details, which we asked an expert to break down.

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Considering both serums and ampoules are concentrated formulas to target specific skin care concerns, it's easy to get them mixed up. Plus, these are not regulated beauty terms, so usually it's up to the brand to decide whether to market their product as a serum or ampoule.

But generally, you can think of ampoules as potent, supercharged serums. In most cases, they have a higher concentration of actives without any fillers or preservatives—as such, they tend to come in single-unit doses housed in tiny vials, meant to be used sparingly for special occasions.

"I compare it to working out," says Alicia Yoon, celebrity esthetician and founder of Peach & Lily. "Think of serums as your daily workout routine; meanwhile, ampoules are that intensive fitness course you're really leaning into to target a stubborn area."

But again, there are no stringent guidelines for what's considered an ampoule versus a serum. "Whatever the active is, if it's on the higher end of the spectrum, in my mind I would treat that as more of an ampoule, even if the brand calls it a serum," adds Yoon. On the other hand, you can find products marketed as "daily ampoules" that are actually formulated a bit closer to serums.

Because ampoules are so highly concentrated, you don't want to use these treatments on the regular. Save these vials for when your skin needs more of a boost—like, say, if a few late nights leave your complexion looking especially dull. "Pay attention to when you have a situation in your life that's not your norm," notes Yoon, and use those ampoules accordingly.

Of course, your skin might be able to tolerate a purely hydrating ampoule (supercharged with hyaluronic acid, like this Barbara Sturm set) as opposed to one with harsher actives. Just keep a watchful eye on your skin while you use the treatments, and know that even if it comes with a set of single doses, you can stop whenever you feel like your skin has had enough. "If your skin is starting to look worse for the wear, even if it's not full-blown irritation, you can actually start to do less," says Yoon. And if you start to face some irritation or reactive skin? ""Those are obvious signs to slow it down."

Again, you don't want to use these treatments every single day. You can either use them for a short period of time (like for three to five days) or on a more consistent schedule, say, once a week. "But it really should be spaced out between days so that it's not being overdone," says Yoon.

As for how to incorporate ampoules into your routine? Since they're your treatment step, they'll go right where your serum would: after cleansing, before moisturizing. (And followed up with sunscreen, if you use them in your morning regimen.) Although, some ampoules do have special guidelines to follow, so it's always a good idea to peek at the instructions before slathering on. This Meso Ampoule from Eco Your Skin, for example, contains micro-spicules that penetrate even over a moisturizer and should be used as your very last step.

Both ampoules and serums are concentrated formulas meant for your treatment step; ampoules, however, are much more potent, so you don't want to use them every single day. Rather, save these little vials for special occasions when your skin needs that extra kick (and find our list of favorites here).

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Jamie Schneider is the Beauty & Wellness Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare. In her role at mbg, she reports on everything from the top beauty industry trends, to the gut-skin connection and the microbiome, to the latest expert makeup hacks. She currently lives in New York City.