If your skin is in good shape—that is, it’s fairly even in tone and wrinkle-free—you need a basic, preventive routine that will help keep it that way. A rule of thumb from Tina Alster, a Washington, D.C., dermatologist: “Use daytime for protecting the skin and nighttime for repair.”
A daytime moisturizer with sunscreen: “The easiest, most inexpensive way to prevent skin aging is to use sunscreen,” says Philadelphia dermatologist Susan Taylor. “Wrinkles, sagging, and brown spots are created and worsened by the sun, so protecting yourself can have dramatic benefits.” Look for “broad spectrum” or “UVA and UVB protection” on the label, which means the product addresses both UVB rays, which burn the skin, and UVA rays, which penetrate more deeply and cause skin to age.
How to use: Get in the habit of applying moisturizer with sunscreen not only to your face but also to your neck and upper chest, says Ava Shamban, a dermatologist in Santa Monica: “Otherwise you’ll have a 30-year-old face and a 50-year-old neck.” And choose an SPF of 30 or higher, which will give you the protection you need. “When sunscreen is tested for SPF, it’s spread on as thick as cake frosting,” says Ellen Marmur, a dermatologist in New York City. A lower number might not do the trick, especially the way most of us apply it. Try: Prevage Day Intensive Anti-Aging Moisture Cream SPF 30 ($129, elizabetharden.com).
A night cream: Hydrated skin is supple skin, says New Orleans dermatologist Nia Terezakis. So it’s important to replenish the natural oils and water that you lose daily. Nighttime moisturizers contain humectants (such as glycerin and hyaluronic acid), which attract water to the skin, and emollients (such as squalene and jojoba oil) to lock that moisture in.
How to use: Night creams tend to be rich, so if you’re prone to breakouts, choose one labeled “noncomedogenic.” Gently tap it in while skin is still damp from cleansing. And give the cream time to be absorbed—up to 10 minutes—before you hit the sack. Otherwise your pillow will soak up more of the active ingredients than your face does. Try: Avène Sérénage Nutri-redensifying Night Cream ($49, aveneusa.com for stores).
An exfoliator: “Exfoliation removes dead skin cells and smooths texture,” says Miami dermatologist Fredric Brandt. Chemical exfoliants, typically creams or cleansers that contain ingredients such as alpha hydroxy acids, dissolve dead cells, while physical exfoliators (a.k.a. scrubs) gently buff them away.
How to use: Exfoliate up to twice a week. If you prefer a scrub, use it in the morning instead of a cleanser. And if you like a chemical exfoliant, swap one in for your nighttime cleanser or moisturizer a couple of nights a week. Try: LaseResults Exfoliating & Hydrating Cleanser ($36, laseresults.com).
2 of 3Greg Delves
Level 2: Intermediate
If you’re noticing a few brown spots or fine lines, upgrade your basic routine with key products that go even further toward erasing sun damage and boosting the production of collagen, which helps keep skin firm. Incorporate all four into your regimen, or pick and choose the ones that suit you.
An antioxidant serum: A broad-spectrum sunscreen is a great first line of defense, but it’s not an impenetrable shield. And that’s where antioxidants—for example, green tea, resveratrol, and vitamins C and E—come in. A serum with antioxidants will help prevent and repair environmental damage from sun and pollution that destroys skin cells and collagen. Bonus: Vitamin C also stimulates collagen production.
How to use: Layer one under your moisturizer with sunscreen during the day for added protection. “There are sunscreens that contain antioxidants, but a separate product usually has a higher percentage,” says Brandt. Try: Clarins Vital Light Serum ($86, clarins.com).
A retinoid product: Retinoic acid, a vitamin A derivative, penetrates deep into the skin to stimulate collagen production, causing cell turnover. “If I had to pick the most effective anti-aging ingredient, it would be a retinoid,” says Terezakis. Retinoids are available by prescription, but their gentler over-the-counter cousins, called retinols, can work just as well, she says, and are “much less irritating to the skin.” Not to mention cheaper.
How to use: Start by applying a retinoid two to three nights a week, and build up to every night. (You can put your night cream right on top of it.) Retinoids exfoliate, so skip any other exfoliator that night. Try: La Roche-Posay Redermic R ($57, laroche-posay.us).
A peptide cream or serum: “Peptides are short chains of amino acids that form proteins such as collagen,” says Brandt. “In the skin, these protein segments act as sneaky messenger signals. Because they appear to be a breakdown product of collagen, peptides fool the body into making collagen.”
How to use: Peptides can be used in tandem with retinoids, so apply them on nights when you’re not using your retinoid. Try: StriVectin-TL Tightening Face Serum ($89, strivectin.com).
An eye cream: “The skin around the eyes has few oil glands to keep it hydrated, so that’s usually where wrinkles appear first,” says Debra Jaliman, a dermatologist in New York City. “That’s why you need a special formula to address just this area.”
How to use: Look for an eye cream that contains retinol or peptides, plus a hydrating humectant, like glycerin or aloe. Apply morning and night with your ring finger, rolling the cream over crow’s-feet. Try: Kiehl’s Midnight Recovery Eye ($36, kiehls.com).
3 of 3Greg Delves
Level 3: Advanced
Unless you’re living in an antigravity chamber, you’ll eventually see a few signs of aging that don’t respond to topical treatments alone. “Then professional treatments can give you more dramatic results,” says Alster. Here are some you might consider.
Best for: Sun damage, brown spots, fine lines, and a dull and leathery texture.
How they work:A combination of acids—lactic, glycolic, retinoic, salicylic, or the stronger trichlorocytic (TCA), depending on the severity of your problem—is applied to the skin to dissolve the top layers. Light peels feel like lots of little pinpricks, while stronger ones can be painful. Sometimes your dermatologist will apply a numbing cream first, and she may use a fan to cool your face and relieve the sting. A mild peel incurs one to three days of redness and a little flaking; a deeper one can require a week of recovery time. Doctors usually recommend a series of three, one per month. Prices start at $100.
Best for: Fine lines and wrinkles, sagging skin, and hollows under the eyes.
How they work: Injectables come in two forms: fillers and neuromodulators. Fillers, like Radiesse, Restylane, and Juvéderm, are gels or liquids that are injected into the deep layers of the skin to add volume, which we lose as we age. “And research shows that fillers may also spur collagen production,” says Marmur, so you may need less with each treatment. You might feel throbbing when the filler is injected. The results last for six months to two years. Cost: $350 to $1,600 a treatment. Neuromodulators, like Botox and Dysport, work on nerves to relax crease-causing muscles (for example, between the brows and on the forehead). “Done properly, they can also lift the brows and soften a sagging neck,” says Brandt. The cost is on par with fillers, and the results last as long.
Best for: Fine lines, sagging, sun damage, rough texture, and uneven tone.
How they work: Tiny laser beams exfoliate the top layers of skin and create microscopic holes, triggering collagen production, says Shamban. You can choose to target a single area, such as around the eyes, or treat your entire face (and even your neck and chest). You’ll get a numbing cream first, but the procedure will hurt (a pre-session dose of pain reliever might help). Expect about four days for recovery time. A series of three treatments is recommended. Each one costs $750 to $1,500.