Courtesy of fluctuating hormones, your skin changes a lot after 40. All that sunbathing you thought you’d gotten away with starts to deliver results in the form of dark spots and uneven tone. The blue troughs under your eyes don’t go away with a good night’s sleep. Your face cries out for moisturizer, even if you’ve always had oily skin. And your complexion seems to have forgotten how to glow on its own.
To cope, you’ve assembled an arsenal of products that may overlap and even cancel one another out. But even if they don’t, is all that rubbing and wiping and re-creaming really necessary? "I’m an advocate of a pared-down approach," says Lance H. Brown, MD, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine, and we agree. Great skin at midlife is actually simpler than you think, so follow this easy strategy: Use just two or three products when you get up, and three before bed. Do that — and see the dermatologist occasionally — and we guarantee that you’ll age better than gracefully.
When to use it: Morning and night
Washing your face is necessary, but many women claim to be too tired, stressed, busy, or ______ (insert your favorite excuse) to bother before they collapse into bed. However, if you can make time to pour a glass of wine and curl up to watch TV, you can manage to scrub off the makeup, pollution, and grime that have accumulated during the day.
Solutions: The truly time-crunched can go for premoistened face wipes (use them while you watch Grey’s Anatomy on DVR); try Olay Daily Facials Express Wet Cleansing Cloths ($6; drugstores) or Skyn Iceland Glacial Cleansing Cloths ($15; sephora.com). Or use an oil-based cleanser like Lancome Huile Douceur Deep Cleansing Oil, above ($35; lancome-usa.com), which removes all your makeup (concealer, long-wear lipstick, even waterproof mascara) and cleans your skin in just one step. (Despite its "oily" name, it won’t clog pores.) Note: If you can only bring yourself to cleanse your face once a day, do it in the evening, when skin is dirtiest. But starting the day off with a wash is worth the time it takes. You’ll slough off dead cells, making the skin look smoother and enabling better penetration of your daytime products.
When to use it: Morning
You wouldn’t think of leaving home each day without applying deodorant; now try to be as religious about sun block. Sunscreen not only helps prevent skin cancer, it "minimizes your skin’s exposure to free radicals in UV rays, which cause the breakdown of collagen," says Vivian Bucay, MD, a San Antonio dermatologist and melanoma survivor. Bucay suggests you choose a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 that is also broad-spectrum, meaning it blocks both UVB rays (those that burn) and UVA rays (those that cause cancer and accelerate aging).
To save time and money — and space in your medicine cabinet — it’s smart to opt for a formula that’s also hydrating, since most of us need a moisturizer during the day. Try L’Oreal Advanced RevitaLift SPF 15 Day Lotion ($20; drugstores).
Tip: Clinical studies show that antioxidants such as vitamins C and E help to fend off the kind of free radicals found in UV rays — and improve your sunscreen’s ability to do the same. So to maximize your sun protection, consider choosing a hydrating sunscreen with antioxidants. We like Clinique Youth Surge SPF 15 Face Cream ($49; clinique.com, available in March), with vitamin C.
When to use it: Morning and night
You already know the eye area ages first. "That’s because its skin is thinnest, driest, and most susceptible to wrinkling," says Susan Taylor, a Philadelphia-based dermatologist. The undereye is also among the first spots to sag, and when this area stretches out, blue blood vessels (aka dark circles) become more obvious. Finally, because circulation slows as we age, most of us also suffer some blood pooling under the eyes, creating a perma-puff effect.
The hard truth: Short of an eye-lift, there’s no miracle cure for these complaints. But certain creams and serums can minimize them. For wrinkling, sagging, and dark circles, your best bet is an eye cream with peptides, a chain of amino acids that have been shown to boost collagen production. (More collagen equals plumper, firmer skin — which fills out fine lines and thickens skin enough to make blood vessels less prominent.) To shrink puffiness, you need an ingredient such as topical caffeine, which constricts blood vessels and diminishes pooling.
For best results, apply eye cream day and night. Two with both peptides and caffeine: Dr. Brandt R3P Eye Cream ($80; sephora.com) and Olay ProX Eye Restoration Complex ($42; drugstores).
When to use it: Night
"If you choose only one anti-aging product, this is it," says Zein E. Obagi, MD, a dermatologist in Beverly Hills, California, and every specialist we interviewed agreed. In fact, according to a study published in the May 2008 Archives of Dermatology, a retinoid is the best route to accelerating your skin’s natural sloughing process (which slows down considerably as we age). The result is a complexion that’s brighter, plumper, more even in tone, and less prone to breakouts.
A variety of prescription formulas do the job; choose the one with the right extras for you: Renova is moisturizing; Tazorac combats acne; Retin A Micro is better tolerated by sensitive skin; and TriLuma fades dark spots. Because a retinoid cream can cause redness and flaking (typically during the first three months), most dermatologists recommend applying a moisturizer first and using the retinoid only two to three times a week. After three months, you may increase application to four or five times a week.
If you find that your skin simply cannot tolerate a retinoid, consider retinol, its gentler over-the-counter cousin. One to try: ROC Multi-Correxion Night Treatment ($25; drugstores).
When to use it: Night
"The biggest change in your skin after 40 is its sudden lack of moisture," says Gregory Bays Brown, a Louisville, Kentucky-based plastic surgeon and founder of ReVive Skincare. "Perimenopausal hormone changes have a direct impact on your sebaceous glands. Even women who’ve battled oily skin all their lives can become dehydrated," he says.
For optimum hydration, he recommends using the richest moisturizer you can tolerate at night. Two we like (that won’t make you break out): Clarins Hydraquench Cream ($48; clarins.com) and Elizabeth Arden Perpetual Moisture 24-Hour Cream ($42; elizabetharden.com).
Tip If your skin is very sensitive, you may also want to look for a night cream with lipids to rebuild your skin’s barrier level. (If the barrier has been compromised by, say, cold weather or over-exfoliation, irritants get in and moisture slips out.) In addition, "The body becomes so preoccupied with repairing its broken barrier that it neglects other functions, like collagen production and skin cell turnover," says Rosemarie Osborne, PhD, a scientist for Procter & Gamble. Try Osmotics Cream Extreme ($75; osmotics.com).
Beyond the Day-to-Day
To get best results from your new routine, take advice from the pros.
Get peeled monthly. "Using a retinoid is like a three-mile run. A deep peel in a doctor’s office is the 10-miler," Dr. Lance Brown, of NYU’s School of Medicine, says. You’re exfoliating regularly with a retinoid; if you supplement that with a professional-strength peel, your skin will become even smoother and more radiant. Not seeing a derm? At home, try Patricia Wexler’s Glyco Peel System ($65; bathandbodyworks.com).
Give dry skin a drink. Been skiing — or sick in bed? A moisturizing mask revives your skin with an extra helping of hyaluronic acid (an ingredient that attracts and holds on to moisture). Try Aveda Intensive Hydrating Masque ($20; aveda.com).
Visit a dermatologist yearly. When you go in for your annual mole check, ask your doctor to evaluate your facial skin too. "You may think your complexion’s just really dry, when in fact you have seborrheic dermatitis, a condition that often needs to be treated with a prescription strength product," Dr. Lance Brown says.
Splurge on a pro treatment. Your at-home regimen makes the most of your skin as it ages, but if you want to turn back the clock (erasing wrinkles and brown spots), you need Botox, lasers, or fillers like Restylane, says Francesca Fusco, a cosmetic dermatologist in New York City. What delivers the most dramatic change? The verdict of the dermatologists we canvassed: Botox for erasing lines; pigment-targeting lasers (such as Fraxel) for age spots. Both start at $500 per visit.
Originally published in MORE magazine, February 2009.