For years, dermatologists have drilled it into our heads to nix the tanning beds, get regular skin checkups, and (the mother of all skincare tips) load up on sunscreen. And - hallelujah! - it worked. Now there's a generation of savvy 20- and 30-something women who aren't about to let their faces wrinkle, mottle, or sag before they take action. In fact, a study by dermatologists Dr. Kathy Fields and Dr. Katie Rodan found that 84 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds are afraid of the effects of aging on their skin. Hence the recent rush to skincare counters and, in some cases, cosmetic docs - 2009 saw under-35 Botox users rise to 15 percent. But the best strategy for age prevention in young skin isn't always the most potent. As dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross explains, "Keep in mind that it's best to begin with the least aggressive products and procedures."
So when should you realistically start? "At 20," says Fields. "Prevention is so much easier than reversal. But even if you cooked yourself in the sun from age 5 to 35" - or subsisted on ciggies and Dunkin Donuts in college - "your skin can still bounce back, at least some of the way." Which means (broken record alert!) daily sunscreen, along with an age-appropriate cocktail of antioxidants and vitamins, is nonnegotiable. Here, the best strategies for tackling early aging so your skin can go the distance.
Problem: Tired Eyes
"The first signs of aging often show up around the eyes," says plastic surgeon Dr. Gregory Bays Brown. "By the time you reach 30, the lower lid no longer blends seamlessly into the cheek, and there is a slight line of demarcation due to volume loss." In layman's terms? Your once-plump cheeks are starting to deflate, so you get lovely rings under your eyes - even after a full night's sleep. What's more, the skin around the eyes is so thin that it's prone to early lines caused by sun and squinting, which together cause elastin to break down.
- Baby-step solution: Big UV-protective sunglasses (to prevent squinting and filter sunlight) and a moisturizing nighttime eye cream with antioxidants and retinol will do a lot to prevent and treat early crow's-feet.
- Serious fix: If the rings under your eyes are pronounced to the point where you look tired all the time (thank genetics for that), a derm or plastic surgeon can inject a hyaluronic acid filler along the circles to create a smooth surface between your cheeks and eyes. "I love hyaluronic acid fillers like Restylane and Juvaderm because they contain small particles ideally sized for smoothing out superficial issues," says dermatologist Dr. Hilary L. Reich.
Problem: Not-So-Cute Brown Spots
When your childhood freckles morph from a sweet sprinkling across the nose to uneven tan splotches, you've got sun-induced hyperpigmentation. "Commonly, one of the first signs of aging is sunspots on the face, back of hands, and chest," explains Reich, "especially if you play golf or tennis, or often wear V-necks or tank tops."
- Baby-step solution: Anyone who has come home from the beach sporting a splash of new freckles knows that sunscreen is most crucial to people prone to sunspots. "The sun exacerbates the pigmentation immediately," explains Brown. Layer on protection any chance you get - vitamin C serum under daily sunscreen and topped with mineral powder is a sweet trio. At night, help the fade with alpha hydroxy, beta hydroxy, or kojic acid.
- Serious fix: Ask your derm about mild acid peels to increase cell turnover and get rid of blotchy surface skin, or Intense Pulsed Light treatments, which target spots but are gentler than zappy lasers.
"When a teenager raises her eyebrows, horizontal lines appear across her forehead, but then disappear immediately when she relaxes the muscles," explains Reich. "As she heads into her early 30s, it takes increasingly more time for the lines to disappear." The same thing happens in between the eyebrows (stop furrowing!) and in the lines that go from the outside of the nose down to the corners of the mouth (from years of smiling and talking - but don't stop doing those). Expression lines result from a combo of UV damage and the skin's elastin wearing out from repetitive use.
- Baby-step solution: At home, use vitamin A derivatives like over-the-counter retinol or prescription retinoids like Retin-A Micro to "prevent and minimize fine lines by increasing collagen," says Reich. Gross' grassroots solution is this: "Retraining ourselves to not make some very basic facial expressions - like scowling - can make all the difference. Whenever you feel tense, consciously take a moment to breathe deeply, which will force you to relax your facial muscles."
- Serious fix: The only way to stop expression lines from forming is to refrain from making the expression, which requires Botox. But derms are divided over using preventive Botox. "Is Botox too much for a 25-year-old? It depends," explains Fields. "If you have an anatomically aggressive wrinkle, Botox at 20 makes sense. But if your skin goes back to smooth after making an expression - get out of here."
Problem: Pores of Plenty
Before you get true wrinkles, you might notice your skin starting to look blah because your pores are getting bigger. "Pores sag because of UV damage - the collagen walls start to crumble," says Fields. Makeup, pollution, and your skin's natural oil can stretch out your pores over the years beyond the point where they can shrink back - and, according to Gross, folks with oily skin are even more prone to stretched pores because their skin produces more ... gunk.
- Baby-step solution: Clean out and tighten your pores so they can't hold as much. Peptide creams and serums strengthen and firm the skin, salicylic acid products dissolve the oil in your pores, and face scrubs with round beads smooth away surface dullness - just steer clear of scrubs that contain ground seeds or pits because jagged edges can microscopically tear skin, making the problem worse in the long run.
- Serious fix: Enzyme facials are great for jump-starting a pore-minimizing regimen. Hit up Bergdorf Goodman or Nordstrom for the Elemis Modern Skin Facial - designed for 20-something skin, it uses papaya enzymes to gently coax crud out of the pores. For a more drastic approach, Isolaz is a no-downtime laser procedure that literally vacuums out your pores and kills bacteria, which also makes it great for getting rid of pore-stretching acne - a condition that many women don't outgrow until their 40s.
Originally published September 16, 2010