What You Need To Know About Skin In Your 40s

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
So, you’re turning 40! It's a landmark year to celebrate many milestones, both career and personal. You’ve had adventures and fun. You’ve made mistakes, and have learned to laugh about them (we hope!). You’ve gained things like “perspective,” “experience,” “wisdom,” — you know, those words grown-ups like to bandy about. Wait, you are (gasp) a grown-up (How did that happen? you ask yourself.) And, you can be proud to have your own special, grown-up-like things to show for it, like a killer résumé, 401K, mortgage, and yes, wrinkles and sun spots.

By now, you’ve seen the first signs of skin aging (blame the sun), but honestly, it’s not so bad. Before you freak out, no one woman is going to experience every single one of the facial changes we listed ahead in her 40s. If she did, she’d have the luck of Job. It’s likely you’ll have one to maybe three issues that will be prominent. And, you don’t have to play a guessing game. Genetics play a large factor, so look at photos of your mom or other female relatives to see how they looked during this decade.

If you consider your wrinkles a badge of honor and scoff at our anti-aging culture, more power to you. If you’re an interventionist, there are more options than ever, and we’ll spell them out. Either way, we applaud that women have more and more choices every day, including how to approach aging. Your 40s will be as unique as you are. And, we want you to sail through the decade with the same devil-may-care, I’ve-got-this attitude you’ve always had. So, here’s your guide to some of the changes you might see — and how to deal with them.
1 of 9
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
“Hey, my skin still looks pretty good,” you think, and you’re right.
You may be thinking all this fuss about aging is just that — fuss. To a certain extent, you’re right. “Men age continuously, but women don’t age as much until menopause, when their estrogen really dips,” says Anthony Rossi, MD, a dermatologist and assistant attending dermatologic surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “Estrogen keeps your skin soft and luminous. It makes the dermis robust and tight, so you have less wrinkles.” Your hormones do decline before menopause, and you’ll see the impact of those fluctuations (we’ll get to that). But, for now, your hormones are your skin’s ally.

To maximize and retain smoothness, you need to get on a skin-care regimen (if you aren’t already), and no, it doesn’t need to be complicated. There are three products you should use every day: an antioxidant serum, like one with vitamin C (in the a.m.); a moisturizer with an SPF of 30 or higher (also in the a.m.); and a vitamin-A derivative like an over-the-counter retinol cream or a prescription retinoid (in the evening).

Why? "These three things are scientifically proven to ward off the signs of aging," says Mona Gohara, MD, a dermatologist and associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine. Three to try: Neocutis ReACTIVE Antioxidant Serum, RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream, and Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer with SPF 50+. Daily sun protection is, of course, also a must to prevent skin cancer. These steps will also soften the appearance of sun-induced wrinkles and spots you already have, albeit slowly and with consistent use.
2 of 9
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Wrinkles take up permanent residence.
It used to be that you’d only see those crow’s feet when you smiled. Then, one day, you weren’t smiling, and the fine lines were still there — your repetitive facial movements etched them in for good. In your 40s, they’ve got company. Other lines that were once “dynamic,” meaning only discernible when you made certain facial expressions, are now shifting to “static,” or visible 24/7, thanks to a decline in the skin’s collagen and ability to bounce back.

“The classic ones are your 11s, the two lines between your eyebrows that you’d once only see when you furrowed. Once they become static, they can make you look upset or like you’re frowning even when you’re not,” explains Dr. Gohara. To eliminate the furrow, the treatment of choice is an injectable botulinum toxin like Botox every three to six months to relax the underlying muscle.

If the thought of needles freaks you out, start by checking your facial expression right now as you look at your smartphone, tablet, or computer. Are you squinting? That repetitive facial movement is training your muscles to create wrinkles. Luckily, undoing that training is easy — and free. Practice relaxing your facial expression when you’re using your devices, and also in the sun (be sure to wear those sunglasses).
3 of 9
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Your cheeks may start drifting south a bit.
The fat pads in your cheeks are responsible for giving you that youthful, heart-shaped face, and, as gravity takes its toll, they may start to lose their plumpness and slide south. The movement makes your face look gaunter and contributes to the smile lines (also known as “parentheses” or “nasolabial folds”) around your mouth. As with the lines around your eyes, the repetitive movement of smiling can contribute to the deep wrinkles around your mouth. But, pause before you send us hate email: We don’t recommend cutting back on laughter. (Also, even if you’re the smile-free sort, the weight of your cheeks dropping will create those lines.)

Plumpness makes drifting fat and wrinkles less obvious. In fact — prepare yourself for the ick factor — plastic surgeons and cosmetic dermatologists used to mainly address facial thinning by taking the fat from a woman’s butt and injecting it into her face. Today, the preferred treatment is a hyaluronic-acid filler. “These injectables are made in a lab, but hyaluronic acid is a substance naturally found in skin,” says Dr. Rossi. Juvéderm Voluma XC is FDA-approved to perk up cheeks and can last up to two years, and lifting cheeks has the added benefit of softening smile lines.

Still, deep ones may also need direct injections — Juvéderm XC, Belotero Balance, and Restylane are all FDA-approved options. More creams and serums are also being developed to plump up cheeks, like Estée Lauder New Dimension Shape + Fill Expert Serum, usually with hyaluronic acid, too; results will of course be more subtle than those of an in-office procedure.
4 of 9
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
You’ve got acne — the 2.0 version.
If it looks like a zit and acts like a zit, it must be a zit, right? In your 40s, it’s not always that simple. “Your hormone levels are not as robust as they had once been. That fluctuation and common triggers — stress, changes of temperature, changes of emotion, hot or spicy food, red wine — are like a one-two punch that can lead to rosacea or perioral dermatitis, both often mistaken for plain acne,” says Dr. Gohara. Eruptions on your cheeks with redness or flushing are signs of rosacea, and pink bumps around your mouth (or your nose or eyes), often with itchy, flaky skin, indicate perioral dermatitis.

The problem with this acne fake-out: You think, Hey, I got this, and run to the drugstore to buy your usual zit-zapper. The rub is, “Acne treatments can irritate and exacerbate these conditions,” says Dr. Gohara. You need to see a dermatologist for prescription remedies. A topical antibiotic, like Metronidazole, treats both kinds of flare-ups. Other prescription gels and lotions that treat rosacea are Finacea, which delivers azelaic acid to curb acne, and Mirvaso, which temporarily constricts blood vessels to reduce redness. In-office lasers also help minimize redness.

Until you see your doctor, treat skin gently with a non-soap cleanser like CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser and CeraVe Lotion, and skip scrubs and powered skin-cleansing tools, which can irritate these conditions. The good news: A good, consistent treatment regimen can calm out-of-whack skin.
5 of 9
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Your pores become more obvious.
At this age, you may no longer need a magnifying mirror to see your pores. Your pores can get lax, and become especially prominent on your cheeks and chin. A decline in collagen is the culprit here. The outer edge of the pore, often compared to a rubber band, gets stretched out and doesn’t snap back as well, making it look bigger.

Good daily skin care helps; retinoids speed cell turnover, which aids in de-gunking. Prescription versions work best, but can be irritating; you can find easier-to-tolerate retinols in drugstore buys like Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Night Moisturizer.

If you want to up your pore-shrinking game, see an aesthetician or dermatologist. “A peel or facial every six to eight weeks gets the stuff out of pores and helps them recoil back. Microdermabrasion can also make the pores appear smaller by causing a bit of inflammation and plumping up skin,” says Dr. Gohara.
6 of 9
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
The most noticeable changes will be around your eyes.
Your 30s are the busiest decade of your life: No wonder you come out of them looking a bit more tired. “The signs of aging are most visible in the eye area,” says Dr. Gohara. “You’re coming out of the haze of your 30s when you’re finishing up school, getting a job, having kids, whatever. That stress and sleep deprivation shows up in your eyes.” Couple that with sun damage and squinting, and chances are this is the first spot you’ll see aging-related changes.

If wrinkles are your top concern, “it’s important to keep the skin moisturized. It’ll help with any crepe-iness,” says Dr. Rossi. Your daily skin care — the sunscreen, antioxidant serum, and retinoid — are all you need. If the retinoid is too irritating under your eyes, you can use a gentle moisturizer like Cetaphil.

But, if you want to minimize concerns like dark circles or puffy bags, then you’ll need the additional firepower of targeted ingredients. Puffiness comes from fluid that accumulates under the eyes, and a caffeine-based eye cream helps eliminate it. Try Clinique All About Eyes Serum. Sleeping on your back — not your stomach — also keeps fluid from pooling. Dark circles are from blood that accumulates in the vessels under the skin; an eye cream containing vitamin K or copper, like Peter Thomas Roth Power K Eye Rescue, can help.

Another reason your might look tired: “You can have a hollowness under the fat pad that has descended,” says Dr. Rossi. The result: a shadow the likes of which you haven’t seen since your last all-nighter. The only treatment is an in-office hyaluronic filler — it’s off-label (a non-FDA-approved use) but extremely common.
7 of 9
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Your pucker loses some pout.
Chronic dryness, less definition, and thinning — all due to a combo of sun damage and age-related collagen loss — are all things to watch out for around your mouth. “The skin on your lips and around your eyes is the thinnest and most subject to UV damage. Your lips don’t get wrinkly as a result, but very dry,” says Dr. Gohara. Good old Vaseline helps trap in water and plump, and there are plenty of SPF lip balms available to protect from ultraviolet radiation, like Yes to Pomegranate Lip Butter with SPF 15.

In case you need more reasons to stock up on them, here’s what Dr. Rossi says about the cumulative effects of UV damage: “You get something called solar elastosis — disarranged collagen — that causes that white roll on the edge of your lips, the vermilion border, to lose its sharpness. It starts to blend in with the body of the lip, which also becomes less full.”

A sign your lips could use some service: feathering lipstick or lip gloss. If you haven’t already, it might be time to invest in a good, neutral lipliner. Otherwise, the only truly effective remedy is an in-office treatment: injections of the FDA-approved hyaluronic filler Restylane Silk can plump the lips and firm up their borders.
8 of 9
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
There’s no need to feel bad about your neck.
By now, you know the general direction things — namely your fat pads — are going: south. Yep, this happens in your jaw, too, and, combined with skin that is loosening a bit, can give you the earliest hint of a jowl. Your daily skin-care routine can firm you up some, and there are plenty of neck treatments, like StriVectin Neck Cream, hitting store shelves to help with tightening. They deliver ingredients like hyaluronic acid to plump skin and polymers for a lifting effect. Just don’t expect them to do wonders on an already soft jawline — they're topical creams, not miracle-workers.

If it really bothers you, the key solution for lost fat is (if you’ve been following along, say it with me) filler. An injectable hyaluronic-acid filler replaces the structure lost underneath the skin, giving it scaffolding; it’s an off-label (not FDA-approved) use but extremely common in cosmetic dermatology.

For loosening and sagging under the chin, Ulthera treatment tightens using ultrasound energy. Don’t expect drastic change: “It works, but we’re talking about a lift in the range of millimeters,” says Dr. Rossi. That being said, a word to the wise that these noninvasive solutions work best on minor sagging and firming. If this is an area that you want to address, you’re better off seeing a dermatologist sooner rather than later; the only solution for drastic excess skin is surgery.

Neck aging doesn’t stop there. Some women get a slight double chin; a new noninvasive treatment called Kythera is an injectable that dissolves fat to reduce it. And then, there are those two bands some get from underneath their chin down to the base of their neck — the ones you usually only see when someone is angry. They’re caused by the platysmal muscle, and can be softened with Botox.

If these treatments sound plain ridiculous to you, but you still feel bad about your neck, learn to give it some love: You could start by reading I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, a lovely humorous essay collection by Nora Ephron. Acceptance is the true path to beauty.
9 of 9
Like this post? There's more. Get tons of beauty tips, tutorials, and news on the Refinery29 Beauty Facebook page. Like us on Facebook — we'll see you there!