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    February 09, 2022 7 min read

    Easy Water-Based Serums


    Water-based serums are light textured, water-like serums that are quickly absorbed into the skin so that actives can get to work. Water based serums allow for the delivery of water soluble actives to the skin. They’re hydrating and rather versatile to use.

    You can use them directly on your skin, layer them under your moisturiser, add them to your moisturiser, or even add them to your facial mask to reap the benefits there. Makeup is also easy to apply on top of water based serums, so don’t be scared to use them in the morning.

    While oil serums are richly moisturising, great for winter skins and typically used at night, water based serums are light, hydrating, ideal for any time of the year, are makeup friendly and can be used at any time of the day or night. They’re ideal to layer with other products.


    Breaking Down A Water-based Serum

    As the name denotes, water is the base ingredient in a water-based serum. But we can substitute plain old water for more exciting alternatives that are also water based such as hydrosols or aloe vera liquid.

    We are rather partial to hydrosols as our water base because they smell lovely and impart other benefits of the plant to the skin, so we'll be using those in our recipes.

    The main reason for using a water serum is to deliver water-soluble actives to the skin. Let’s learn a little bit more about these actives:


    Niacinamide - otherwise known as nicotinamide or Vitamin B3, it is a powerhouse for skin: treats hyperpigmentation, regulates sebum production, reduces fine lines and water loss in the skin, and has anti aging and anti inflammatory properties.


    Hyaluronic acid - hyaluronic acid is one of the most well known and best loved skin actives. It is famous for its ability to hold water and its skin-plumping and hydrating properties.


    Marine collagen - the only non-vegan active here, marine collagen is derived from deepwater fish and is a protein. It helps maintain an optimum moisture balance in skin and hair care formulations.


    Vit C - probably the most famous skincare active, ascorbic acid is brilliant for rejuvenating and brightening the skin. It is a potent antioxidant and anti-ager. It is a small molecule and is able to penetrate to deeper levels of the skin to really get to work.


    Lactic acid - much loved for its skin brightening properties, lactic acid is an AHA (alpha hydroxy acid). It helps stimulate collagen and strengthen the skin, which equals fewer fine lines and wrinkles. The hydroxy acids exfoliate the top layer of skin, helping smooth and even complexion, keep pores unclogged, brighten skin and even fade dark marks and discoloration


    Malic acid - another AHA (alpha hydroxy acid), malic acid is one of the more gentler acids. It exfoliates the top layer of the skin, helping to smooth and even complexion, keep pores unclogged, brighten skin and even fade dark marks and discoloration.


    Inulin - a prebiotic that supports the skin’s microbiome and skin-friendly bacteria which keep everything balanced. It offers moisturising properties, and is a natural humectant and conditioner


    Panthenol - otherwise known as Vitamin B5, D panthenol is a natural conditioner and makes the skin feel wonderfully smooth and hydrated.


    Proteins - proteins such as hydrolyzed wheat protein and jojoba protein add moisture, conditioning properties and film forming properties, helping improve the appearance of fine lines, maintain an optimum moisture balance and replenish the skin.


    Allantoin - soothing and protective, allantoin is quite a nice ingredient to include in any skincare product. It is water soluble up to around 0.5% so don’t use more than that or you’ll have some residue sitting at the bottom of your serum.


    Other nice ingredients to include in a water based serum:

    While I’m not really phased about it personally, some may prefer a slightly more viscous or gel-like texture as opposed to a watery serum. You can thicken up your serum by including a small amount of a gum such as  xanthan gum or  guar gum.


    Adding colour: you can get creative and make a coloured serum by including colourful glycerites  (learn how to make them here), such as hibiscus, spirulina, rose etc. 


    Humectants: while many of the actives do have humectant properties already, if you want to add in an additional layer of hydration to your serum you can include a humectant such as glycerine, a glycerite or propanediol. Keep in mind that humectants tend to feel slightly sticky on the skin if you use too much, so adding in extra may affect how your serum feels. This shouldn’t matter if you are layering products over it however. You can learn more about  humectants here. If you want to add in some glycerites for example, I would recommend sticking to 1-2% max.


    Lastly you will want to preserve water based serums because they contain water/water based ingredients. You can use Geogard 221, Saliguard BDHA, Geogard Ultra, or you can use potassium sorbate (not a broad spectrum preservative though, so not recommended to use on its own). As these serums are going onto your face, I suggest using a preservative you are quite comfortable with. Some people (myself included) have a sensitivity to sodium benzoate, so if you do too, it may be best to avoid Geogard Ultra as it contains sodium benzoate. Most skins can happily take Geogard 221 and Saliguard BDHA so we'll use those in our formulations.


    Can we use all of the actives together in one super-formula? 

    Well yes but you probably wouldn’t want to, as some ingredients work more optimally without the others. For example niacinamide likes a pH closer to 6 so it won’t work so well with acids such as ascorbic acid, lactic acid or malic acid which have very low pH levels. Inulin also prefers a slightly higher pH (or rather, doesn’t like a low pH below 4.5) so it also isn’t great with higher amounts of the acids, but it can work well with niacinamide.

    If you use too many actives in one formula you also run the risk of the serum feeling sticky or tacky. Therefore we prefer to make more individualized serums and layer them.



    These formulas are all made in a single bottle and are supper easy to make! Feel free to play around with mixing and matching different actives.


    Niacinamide & HA Serum

    5%  hyaluronic acid solution

    5%  niacinamide

    89%  hydrosol of choice

    1%  Geogard 221


    Optional: you can add a colourant like a glycerite to make it look pretty (I used hibiscus and only a few drops are necessary to achieve a stunning pink colour!)


    Weigh out the ingredients and combine everything in a pipette or spritzer bottle. Shake well to mix in the preservative. Check the pH to around 6 and adjust with a pH adjuster if necessary.


    Effects: evening skin tone, plumping, hydrating, reducing the appearance of fine lines over time with consistent use.


    Collagen & HA Serum

    5%  hyaluronic acid solution

    5%  marine collagen

    1%  Geogard 221

    89%  hydrosol of choice - I like rose water and geranium hydrosol

    Optional: 0.5% allantoin (reduce hydrosol by 0.5% to accommodate it)

    Optional: you can add a colourant like a glycerite to make it look pretty


    Weigh out the ingredients and combine everything in a pipette or spritzer bottle. Shake well to mix in the preservative and allantoin if using.


    This serum will feel ever so slightly sticky to the touch due to the collagen. This is normal and will also go away after a few minutes as the serum sinks into the skin. You can also layer other skincare products on top.


    Effects: hydrating, plumping and anti aging over time with consistent use.


    AHA Serums

    I find that due to the highly acidic nature of AHAs, a preservative may not be required if you thoroughly sterilize your utensils and the bottle. However you can of course add one if you would be more comfortable with that. AHA serums make great toners; layer them under your other skincare products.


    Simple Lactic Acid Serum

    2.5%  lactic acid

    97.5% water or  hydrosol of choice


    Combine everything in a spritzer or pipette bottle. Lactic acid can get a little sticky so it is best to apply this serum under a moisturiser. Use up to 3 times per week. Use in the evenings as AHAs can make your skin sensitive if used often. 


    Simple Malic Acid Serum

    2.5%  malic acid

    97.5%  hydrosol of choice


    Combine everything in a spritzer or pipette bottle. Use up to 3 times per week. Use in the evenings as AHAs can make your skin sensitive if used often.


    Combination of lactic and malic acids

    1%  malic acid

    1.5%  lactic acid

    97.5%  hydrosol of choice


    Combine everything in a spritzer or pipette bottle. Use up to 3 times per week. Use in the evenings as AHAs can make your skin sensitive if used often. I quite like to use AHA serums as a toner.


    Vitamin C Serum

    We don’t recommend making a Vitamin C serum the way these other serums are made. Ascorbic acid, while being one of the best ingredients for skin, is notoriously unstable once it combines with oxygen and water. So if you’ve ever noticed your vitamin C serum turning brown, that means it has oxidised and is no longer providing a benefit to your skin. 

    Therefore we suggest storing your ascorbic acid dry in a tin or container, and then when you want to use it, simply combine it with a little water or hydrosol for a ‘freshly made’ serum.


    Prebiotic Serum

    2%  inulin

    96.5%  hydrosol of choice

    1%  Geogard 221

    0.5%  allantoin (optional)

    Optional: you can add a glycerite for colour


    Weigh out the ingredients and combine everything in a pipette or spritzer bottle. Inulin may take a bit of stirring to fully dissolve and if you struggle, try gently heating the inulin and hydrosl mixture to help it along. Then shake well to mix in the preservative and allantoin if using.


    What You Can’t Add To These Serums

    Don’t add essential oils, carrier oils, Vitamin E or any other oil soluble ingredients to a water serum. These are water-based serums and as such you can only add water soluble ingredients to them. If you go adding anything oil soluble, it will form an oily layer on the top as it won’t blend with the water base.

    Don't add mica or other insoluble ingredients as they will sink to the bottom.



    Water based serums are best stored in a spritzer bottle or a pipette bottle for easy application.

    8 Responses


    March 28, 2022

    Hi Doret,
    I’m so sorry to hear you had a bad reaction to the Geogard Ultra. Sometimes people have a bad reaction to it because they can be allergic to sodium benzoate, other times because it is incorrectly used. I find Geogard Ultra needs to be buffered according to the instructions on the product page: https://essentiallynatural.co.za/products/geogard-ultra?pos=2&_sid=0b6a01e01&ss=r

    Because it contains a common allergen I never use Geogard Ultra in my published recipes, and I don’t recommend people substitute Geogard 221 for the Ultra unless they buffer it correctly and are certain they don’t have an allergen to it. Unfortunately I don’t think you will be able to fix this batch of serum and I would throw it out as you have had an adverse reaction to it. I recommend using Geogard 221 or Saliguard BDHA.

    Doret Marais
    Doret Marais

    March 28, 2022

    Good day
    I formulated the prebiotic serum, but I only had geogard ultra so I used it in place of the geogard 221 in the same ratio. But when I put it on my face after a while it starts to burn and my skin turns red. . If I leave it for a while the burning slowly subside and the red go away, but my skin feels tender. I can feel a slight rash as well. I converted the % to grams. Do you have any advice for me?


    March 22, 2022

    Hi Nokuphiwa, yes you can :)


    March 18, 2022

    Hi there, can i use a thickener like Xanthan gum to thicken the serum?


    February 21, 2022

    Hi Dana, unfortunately not as hemisqualane and squalane are oil soluble and we’re only dealing with water based serums here.
    You can make a serum with squalane but you’d need to use only oil soluble actives and extracts.


    February 21, 2022

    Good day,
    Can I use hemi squalane instead of a hydrosol or perhaps mix squalane and a hydrosol?


    February 14, 2022

    Hi Sam, yes they definitely could be used for hair as well. We also have a blog specifically on hair serums here:


    February 14, 2022

    Hi there can these formulations be used for hair serums too as there has been some research done that hyaluronic acid is good for hair too?

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