The Complete Guide To Having The Best Skin Of Your Life — At Any Age

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
From the time we usher in puberty by popping our very first pimple, it becomes painfully clear how much our skin can change with age. What many of us don’t know is exactly what’s happening on a cellular level — and what we can do about it. From adult acne to sunspots and crow's feet, navigating the changes in our skin can be overwhelming. And, though we wish we could attain perfect complexions by washing our faces, slathering on moisturizer, and calling it a day, it isn’t that simple. Especially when we’re trying to sort the buzzy, new “miracle” ingredients from the time-tested, scientifically proven treatments. 

So, we consulted the experts — New York-based dermatologist and author Amy Wechsler, MD, and Miami-based dermatologist, author, and researcher Leslie Baumann, MD — for their advice on how to keep up with your skin’s changes with the right techniques, products, and ingredients. Read on for our decade-by-decade take on how you can have the best skin of your life, at every age.   
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
For most, the 20s are a time for exploring career paths, figuring out life, and maybe making a few ill-informed decisions along the way. For our purposes, it’s also the time to lay the groundwork for preventative skin care. And, your top priority, per Dr. Wechsler? “The most important thing in this decade is sunscreen, to help protect yourself and ensure your skin in the future.” Yep, that’s sunscreen every single day, rain or shine — not just when you’re at the beach.

Dr. Baumann seconds that notion, telling her twentysomething patients, “Sun protection is a must. Using SPF every day in your 20s will delay skin aging.” And, given the fact that she practices in sunny South Florida, we’re taking her word for it. Another pro tip: Even though your skin is probably in pretty good shape, you’ll also want to establish a relationship with a dermatologist. That way, you can get ahead of problems before they get serious (plus, with ever-rising rates of skin cancer in the U.S., it can’t hurt to have another pair of eyes on mole patrol).
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
20s: Get Serious About Sunscreen
Fortunately, you don’t have to lather yourself into an oil slick to get serious about your sun care. There are plenty of matte-finish, makeup-friendly sunscreen options are out there. Dr. Baumann recommends the broad-spectrum sun care from EltaMD. We’re partial to Korean brand Missha Safe Block Sun Milk, which isn’t the slightest bit greasy and wears perfectly under makeup. No matter which you reach for, just make sure you use enough. Some skin-care experts recommend using a shot glass-size amount on all exposed areas, and a nickel-size amount for just the face. Unlike most beauty advice, in this case, more is more.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
20s: Establish A Legit Skin Care Routine
In addition to protecting yourself from harmful sun exposure, the 20s are also the time to establish habits that will ensure a lifetime of great skin. “Develop good skin-care habits: Wash your face every night before bed, moisturize, [and] exfoliate as needed,” Dr. Wechsler says. Think of it as one big high-five from past self to future self. Get yourself in the habit of taking off your makeup every night (even after the late-night ragers), and get a skin-care regimen in place. (If you aren’t sure where to start, check out our breakdown here.)

Dr. Wechsler recommends using a gentle cleanser, like Dove’s Ultra Caring Gentle Cream Face Cleanser, and a basic moisturizer, like the ultra-gentle products from Cetaphil. And, for heaven’s sake, if you smoke, stop. “Not only is it terrible for your overall health, but it can lead to long-term, visible damage to your skin,” says Dr. Wechsler. Good lifestyle habits — like staying hydrated, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of sleep — may not reap immediate, instant-gratification results, but in the long run they’ll do more than any miracle cream can.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Being in your 30s is awesome. You probably have a more sharply defined sense of yourself than you did in the last decade; perhaps you’re finally making some real strides in your career; maybe you can even afford to spring for extra guac at Chipotle every now and then. (Luxury!) But, with all these positive shifts comes plenty of change for your skin, too. First, the not-so-good news: This is the decade when prior sun damage can begin to rear its ugly head, in the form of fine lines and brown spots, while a slowing cell turnover rate may render your skin dull. The good news: There’s still time to nip those issues in the bud. “This all may seem a bit overwhelming,” says Dr. Wechsler, “so take it one step at a time.” We’ll help you out, ahead.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
30s: Embrace The Power Of Peptides
For a tactical approach, explore adding anti-aging serums to your nightly routine. “You may want to include serums with peptides to help combat any signs of aging,” says Dr. Wechsler. Researchers claim that, when applied topically, these amino-acid chains may increase your skin’s collagen production, and may even assist with healing wounds, in the form of tissue regeneration.

Though the cosmetic benefits of peptides haven’t been studied to the same extent as ingredients like retinol or vitamin C, certain forms of topically applied peptides may have “notable effects on photo-damaged skin,” according to a 2009 article published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science. They may not be miracle workers on their own, but as long as you’re combining them with other established effective ingredients, they're worth a try. Jan Marini Age Intervention Peptide Extreme offers a concentrated blend of peptides, while Olay Regenerist Regenerating Serum provides a lightweight, peptide-packed serum at a more wallet-friendly price point.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
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30s: Brighten With A Breakthrough Product
Once you hit your 30s, you might find your skin beginning to look a little...lackluster. Blame your slowing cell turnover rate, shifting hormones, or just the many, many stresses we encounter simply by being a functioning adult human. In any case, at this particular age, it’s not unusual to lose that youthful glow you had (and probably didn’t fully appreciate) in your 20s. We can help you get some of the radiance back by using StriVectin Intensive Illuminating Serum — which, as far as we’re concerned, might be the closest we’re getting to time travel.

This nutrient-packed potion quickly absorbs into the skin, enhancing that inner glow we all crave thanks to a cocktail of active ingredients, like Bellis perennis extract (a natural skin-lightener and age-spot reducer). But, the star player here is the NIA-114, StriVectin’s proprietary technology that strengthens the skin barrier and makes all the other ingredients more effective. The combination of the two visibly boosts skin clarity for a brighter complexion. Hey, if that means we can go back to the skin of our mid-20s without revisiting the whole “quarter-life crisis” part, count us in.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
30s: Get Adult-Onset Acne Under Control
If you thought you’d outgrown pimples around the same time you outgrew braces and boy bands, your 30s could prove you wrong. For some people, a combination of naturally shifting hormones with career stress or pregnancy can result in unwelcome breakouts, thanks to adult-onset acne.

While it may seem like a cruel joke to experience zits in your 30s, a combination of good lifestyle habits and the right skin-care ingredients can keep flare-ups at bay. Continue to be extra-diligent about washing your face, even on days you don’t wear makeup. Dr. Wechsler recommends looking for a cleanser with salicylic acid. “You may also want to consider a glycolic or salicylic acid peel, which can reverse early signs of aging and reduce acne scarring,” she adds.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
30s: Start Using Retinol For Fine Lines (And, Well, Pretty Much Every Other Skin Problem)
The existence of one single “miracle ingredient” might be a myth, but retinol comes pretty darn close. As a vitamin A derivative, this workhorse encourages cell turnover, diminishes fine wrinkles, acts as a powerful antioxidant, and can even help with acne. And, thanks to the amount of research conducted, it’s one of the few ingredients with enough cold, hard science to back up the claims. Dr. Baumann tells us that adding retinol to your regimen in your 30s will speed collagen synthesis, leading to skin with a more youthful appearance.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
If House of Cards’ Claire Underwood has taught us anything (aside from how to slay it in a sheath dress), it’s that women in their 40s can pretty much conquer the world if they want. For many women, it’s a decade when self-doubt and fear are replaced by confidence and self-assuredness. It’s also a time when your body is transforming. Again. Thanks to decreasing estrogen levels and perimenopause, your 40s can bring some of the most dramatic physical changes you’ve experienced this side of puberty (but, happily, sans the teen angst and bad outfits). Nowhere are these changes more outwardly apparent than on your skin.

“Wrinkles deepen, and skin gets drier and less firm because estrogen, which maintains collagen and elastin, is on the decline,” Dr. Wechsler says. But, don’t abandon all hope. Prescription treatments, in-office procedures, and good old-fashioned moisturizing can help you look as youthful on the outside as you feel on the inside.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
40s: Got Wrinkles? Time To Bring Out The Big Guns
We’ve already explored the amazing benefits of retinol, which can be delivered in over-the-counter topical products and even found in drugstores. But, when it’s time to bring out the big guns, prescription retinoids can be your secret weapon. These potent forms of vitamin A can work faster and harder at brightening, softening, and smoothing out your skin. Retinoids can irritate sensitive skin, so talk to your dermatologist about choosing the right strength and working it into your routine over time.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
40s: Lighten Brown Spots With Vitamin C
Since childhood, we’ve chugged orange juice to stave off colds, but when the citrus’ vitamin is applied topically, it can work wonders on the skin. Not only has it been proven to protect skin from free-radical damage, it’s effective in treating a host of issues, including hyperpigmentation (a.k.a. those annoying brown spots that crop up after years of sun exposure). Dr. Baumann recommends adding vitamin C to your regimen with products like Jan Marini’s C-ESTA Serum or SkinCeuticals’ C E Ferulic.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
40s: Start Exploring In-Office Treatments (If You Want To)
Even the best creams, serums, and potions can only do so much. At this age, those fine lines that started showing up in your 30s are becoming a bit deeper. For some of us, that’s not a big deal. For others, the prospect of seeking treatment that will soften those lines might be alluring — and that’s totally okay. “If the wrinkles are becoming bothersome,” Dr. Wechsler says, “explore injectables that can reduce their appearance.” From dermal fillers like Juvederm to wrinkle-relaxing Botox, there are plenty of in-office treatments that can help restore your skin’s appearance. And, despite the dated stigmas these methods can stir up, there’s no shame in going this route if it’s what makes you feel good. Just take it from our own editor-in-chief.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Need proof that your 50s and beyond are an amazing time? How about this: Prince is 56. Congrats — you’ve arrived to the decade which some women proclaim to be the best and happiest time of their lives. To quote Rosanna Arquette, though, “Menopause is not for sissies.” Preach, sister. Though each woman will experience menopause and its symptoms differently, there are some things most everyone can expect: “[Menopause] can wreak havoc on your hormones and emotions,” says Dr. Wechsler. “You will notice that your skin is really starting to thin, and collagen breaks down, leading to a slightly sagging complexion. You may also see visible brown spots, and your skin will become drier.” Ahead, get the products made just for women over 50.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
50s & Above: Defend Your Barrier
The skin’s barrier, or surface layers, is your body’s first line of defense for keeping your skin healthy and hydrated. In short, the barrier’s job is keeping the good stuff in and the bad stuff out. But, as you age, those layers become less efficient at doing their job, as sebum-secreting glands slow down and transepidermal water loss increases. (Translation: fewer of those protective natural oils on your face, and more dehydration.) Both Drs. Wechsler and Baumann recommend using products specifically aimed to restore your skin’s safeguards.

“If you are noticing your skin’s dryness is becoming problematic, reach for safflower oil,” Dr. Wechsler says, noting that the oil’s moisturizing properties are boosted by its high amounts of linoleic acid, a fatty acid that acts as an emollient and may be helpful in repairing the skin’s barrier. She suggests applying the oil as a body moisturizer, and allowing a few minutes for it to fully absorb before getting dressed. Dr. Baumann recommends a dermatologist-prescribed moisturizer from Zerafite.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
50s & Above: Zap Brown Spots With Lasers
If your 20s involved plenty of outdoor frolicking, sunbathing, and minimal (or more accurately, zero) sunscreen, these are likely going to be the years in which those sunny sins of the past will become evident, particularly in the form of dark spots. Fear not: There’s a 21st-century technological innovation for that.

“To combat the brown spots that have popped up, you may want to consider lasers, which can eradicate them in as little as one to three treatments,” says Dr. Wechsler. Indeed, lasers can be intimidating, but they’ve come a long way over the past two decades. With options like Fraxel and even non-laser treatments like Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) therapy becoming more and more common, there’s a host of options out there in a widely varying range of costs. These treatments will heal signs of aging faster and more effectively than any miracle cream, but each comes with its own pros-and-cons list, so be sure you have multiple in-depth discussions with your dermatologist if you want to pursue treatment.
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