Jul 24, 2023

Eye Cream Vs Eye Serum

What the heck is the difference between eye cream and eye serum?

Formulate user Anna has some questions about eye creams and eye serums:

So I know that eye creams and eye serums are marketed as two different types of products. But are they actually that different? What are the differences in their formulations, and their goals? I'm also kind of weird about how products feel on my skin - is there one that will feel lighter than the other? Or is one more likely to give me raccoon eyes than the other?

Thanks for writing, Anna! 

If you've ever had a skincare routine in which you first put on a serum, and then applied a moisturizer to seal in the serum, well, you've already got a basic understanding of how eye serums and eye creams are designed to function. Eye serums deliver ingredients, and eye creams seal the ingredients in and moisturize the skin. These are two products that work best when paired together. 

Eye serums

An eye serum is a product that absorbs quickly into the skin, and contains a high amount of active ingredients. Active ingredients can be natural, naturally derived, or man-made - a few popular examples include peptides, vitamin C, caffeine, retinol, and niacinamide. 

The active ingredients chosen for an eye serum are ones that are known to be effective for eye related concerns - for example, caffeine is believed to temporarily reduce puffiness around the eyes and help the user to appear well rested and useful, and peptides are known to reduce the appearance of dark circles. Thus, these two ingredients make frequent appearances in the ingredient lists of well-formulated eye serums.

While the active ingredients in an eye serum are responsible for most of the expected change to the skin after the application of the product, you can't have an eye serum that contains only active ingredients and nothing else. If you do, that serum would struggle to penetrate your skin and would quickly spoil. This is why you've got other helper ingredients in the formulation, such as:

  • Ingredients that help the actives penetrate into the skin. Without these guys, the actives might sit on the surface of the skin and do nothing.
  • Ingredients that stabilize the formulation and prevent it from going rancid. Some active ingredients are delicate, and can go bad or stop working quickly. They need a little help to remain shelf-stable.
  • Ingredients that thicken the formulation to make it easy to apply. 
  • Ingredients that make the serum enjoyable to use. While this may sound silly, it's actually pretty important - some active ingredients are very stinky on their own, and the last thing you want is for your face to smell like you haven't showered in a week. 

Eye creams

While the primary purpose of an eye serum is to deliver active ingredients, the job of an eye cream is to moisturize the skin and create a protective barrier. If applied after an eye serum, it'll also help to seal in the active ingredients from the serum, rendering them more effective. 

Because the primary purpose of an eye cream is to hydrate, a good bit of the formulation space is taken up by ingredients that will moisturize the delicate skin around the eyes. Eye creams contain occlusives, humectants, and emollients to accomplish this task.

Occlusives create a protective barrier on the surface of the skin, preventing the moisture already in the skin from seeping back out into the environment. This type of moisturizer is particularly useful in the winter time, when the air is extra dry and prone to sucking the life right out of your skin. Popular occlusives include petrolatum, silicones, and lanolin.

Humectants function by attracting moisture to the skin from the environment surrounding the skin. They function opposite to the way that dry winter air does - instead of pulling moisture out of your skin and into the air, humectants pull moisture out of the air and into your skin. The moisture attracted doesn't go deep into your skin - instead, it is bound to the outermost layer of your skin, which strengthens it by preventing it from becoming dried out and cracked. Humectants that make frequent appearances in eye cream formulations include glycerin, hyaluronic acid, propylene glycol, and sorbitol. 

Emollients fill in the gaps between skin cells. They ultimately function somewhat similarly to occlusives, since they also prevent moisture from seeping out of your skin and into your environment, though they don't form the same type of protective barrier. Emollients are more spot specific than occlusives - they seek out the cracks and fill them in. Common emollients include butters and oils.

Just like eye serums, eye creams also have to include ingredients that stabilize, thicken, and make the eye cream easy and pleasant to use. And between those ingredients and the occlusives, humectants, and emollients, there's generally not a ton of extra room in the formulation left for active ingredients. Some eye creams include a low dosage of a few active ingredients, such as antioxidants or retinoids, but eye serums definitely have a lot more actives. 

Again, the job of the eye serum is to deliver eye-specific active ingredients, while they job of the eye cream is to deliver eye specific moisturizers and seal in the active ingredients from the eye serum. The two products work as a team.

Differences in product feel:

Eye serums tend to feel lighter on the skin. They tend to absorb pretty quickly, so you generally don't feel a residual stickiness or heaviness in the way that you do after applying a cream. That doesn't mean that eye serums contain fewer helpful ingredients than an eye cream - it just means that less of the product sits on the surface of the skin, and more of it penetrates. 

Eye creams, meanwhile, can sometimes feel heavy on the skin or cause the skin around the eyes to be a little bit shiny. Again, this doesn't mean that the cream is superior to the serum or vice versa, it's simply doing a different job. The purpose of the cream is to provide a protective barrier on the skin, so of course it's not going to absorb in the same way that the serum would. 

If you're concerned about feeling icky or sticky after applying an eye cream, we encourage you to grab several different sample sized eye creams, and see which feels best to you! Look at product reviews, and see which eye creams are described as being sticky vs which are described as being easily absorbed - we're sure that you'll eventually find one that feels good to you. 

And speaking of that heavier feel - eye creams sometimes don't mix well with makeup. This is one of the many reasons that it's typically recommended to use eye creams at night, rather than during the day - because an eye cream adds moisture to the skin rather than functioning to primarily add active ingredients, the added moisture can sometimes cause makeup to smudge and bleed into areas that you didn't intend it to go. So if you're concerned about smudging your mascara during the day, you'll want to plan to apply your eye cream at night, rather than in the morning.

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