Your skin is your body’s largest organ, and it’s constantly evolving and changing. It may seem obvious that your skin in your 20s will not be the same as your skin in your 40s, or in your 60s—yet many people use the same skincare routine for decades, which isn’t doing them any favors.
“During the aging process, our skin needs change significantly because we stop producing collagen and begin to break it down more rapidly,” explains Jessica Weiser, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York.
In our earliest years, our bodies produce collagen quickly, as evidenced by the rapid healing seen in young children. As we get older and our skin is exposed to more and more sun, the health of our skin is affected.
“The sun damage we accrue in the first 20 years of life is the earliest predictor of adult skin health for both skin cancer risk and skin aging,” says Dr. Weiser. That’s why prevention—meaning sunscreen—while you’re young is the single most important component to a healthy skincare routine, dermatologists say, and a product you should continue to use diligently throughout your life.
Keeping daily sunscreen in mind as a common denominator (which, by the way, should have a SPF of at least 30 and contain physical barrier ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium oxide), here’s how your skin care should evolve throughout each decade of your life, according to dermatologists.
What is the Best Skincare Routine for Every Decade?
In your 20s…
These are generally the years when most people are not taking as much care with their skin as they should, leading to otherwise preventable sunburns, acne breakouts and in some cases, the earliest signs of aging like fine lines, says Dr. Weiser. To combat all of these, you should be using products such as:
- Salicylic acid, tea-tree oil and niacinamide (an anti-inflammatory) for acne
- Retinoids (like Differin gel) to prevent blackheads and clogged pores
- Vitamin C, an essential antioxidant that scavenges free radicals, which break down skin cells and cause wrinkles (This must be applied topically for maximum efficacy, says Natalie Curcio, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Nashville.)
- Lightweight moisturizers with non-comedogenic ingredients
- Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) for exfoliation (Products containing AHAs better prepare your skin to absorb other products, says Dr. Curcio.)
In your 30s…
During this decade, your skin begins to show signs of prior damage—such as sunspots, broken capillaries, fine lines and wrinkles, and early signs of skin laxity (i.e., skin feeling loose, perhaps under your eyes). This is also the first time where you may notice collagen production is notably slower. Product recommendations include:
- A morning antioxidant to protect your skin from UV radiation and environmental free radicals (Dr. Weiser says to look for ingredients like vitamin C, argan oil, polyphenols, tocopherol and ferulic acid.)
- Over-the-counter retinol or Retin-A (prescription only) creams, which help stimulate collagen production (For those who are sensitive to retinols, plant-based bakuchiol has similar effect with less irritation, says Dr. Weiser.)
- Hyaluronic acid (HA), which hydrates skin to help it feel tighter and look smoother
- Vitamin C
In your 40s…
As estrogen levels begin to wane, you may start experiencing dryer, duller skin. Now is the time to begin using retinoids, says Dr. Curcio (or, if you really want to get ahead, you can start them in your late 30s). The term retinoids refers to vitamin A compounds, such as retinol and retinoic acid, which can reduce fine lines and wrinkles, repair sun damage and help unblock pores. Skin continues to improve the longer you use retinoids. “I tell patients, ‘You will look better in two months, better in two years and even better in two decades,’” says Dr. Curcio. Here’s what else to add to your routine:
- A skin brightener, which improve the appearance of brown spots, sun damage and hyperpigmentation
- Peptide serums that boost collagen (During this decade, collagen breakdown far outweighs collagen production, says Dr. Curcio.)
- Vitamin C
In your 50s and beyond…
You’re continuing to lose collagen in these decades, and combined with bone resorption (where bone tissue is broken down), you may experience more advanced skin sagging and loss of skin volume. This is when you may want to consider prescription retinoids, such as Renova or Altreno (which both contain tretinoin), to help stimulate collagen production without excessive drying or irritation, says Dr. Curcio. You can also experiment with products such as:
- Creams containing ceramides, which are proteins that help replete a compromised skin barrier
- Emollients rich in essential fatty acids to help repair skin (Look for ingredients such as jojoba, squalene and sunflower oil, says Dr. Curcio.)
- Defensin creams and serums, which stimulate new cell growth in the epidermis (top layer), helping to approve appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, texture, sagging and pore size
- Skin brighteners
- Vitamin C
The bottom line is to remember that having good skin in middle age and beyond starts with the care you put in during your younger years. If you haven’t been practicing a healthy skin care routine in the past, now is the perfect time to start.
Disclaimer: The products linked in this article have not been specifically endorsed by the dermatologists quoted.