If you're still young and want your skin to stay that way as long as possible, you owe it to yourself to know what's helpful and what's not.
Prevention in Your 20s
A hefty body of research shows that the most important steps people in their 20s and early 30s can take to maintain their skin is avoid smoking and wear sunscreen faithfully.
"I can’t stress enough that the No.1 thing young adults can do to limit the signs of aging is use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays with an SPF 30 or higher every single day," says Adam Friedman, MD, director of dermatologic research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Robin Ashinoff, MD, the chief of dermatologic surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center, agrees. "Prevention," Ashinoff says, "is absolutely the best medicine against skin aging. And that means staying out of the sun."
As for smoking, studies show that it hampers the body's ability to make collagen and also leads to premature wrinkling. Combine a heavy cigarette habit with a lot of sun exposure and you’re more than 10 times more likely to develop wrinkles than people your same age who don’t smoke and who do stay out of the sun.
Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at New York’s Mt. Sinai Medical Center, says, "Control the environmental causes of aging and, while you might see fine lines in your early 30s, you can minimize dilated blood vessels, deeper wrinkles, and loss of elasticity into your late 40s or 50s.”
The Downside of Anti-Aging Products
Dermatologists say that with a few good skincare habits, there’s little reason to invest in anti-aging creams that promise to speed cell turnover and build elasticity.
For starters, there’s scant evidence that these creams work. Because these products are cosmetics and not drugs, they don’t need to go through the rigorous clinical studies that the FDA requires of drugs, Zeichner explains. "You have to take the claims that beauty companies make with a very large grain of salt," he says.
Secondly, using these products in your 20s may be unnecessary. "Some skin care products claim to increase cell turnover or to repair collagen breakdown," Zeichner says. "In your 20s, you have excellent turnover without any help, and your skin is fully capable of repairing itself. The downside is that these products may irritate your skin or make it more sensitive to the sun."
Claire Duplantier, a YouTube beauty vlogger from Atlanta in her early 20s, discovered the toll of pricey skincare creams on both her wallet and her complexion. She was bothered by forehead crinkles and the beginning of crow’s feet. "It was nothing major," she says, "but enough to notice in pictures and when I’m tired." She says she has spent over a thousand dollars on her "proactive" anti-aging skin care regimen in the past nine months, including three purchases of a $195 "skin defense cream."
"At first, I liked the idea that I was rubbing something that was practically gold on my face day and night," Duplantier says. "But luxurious face creams hurt your bank account and make your shoe collection dwindle."
A pile-up of rich ingredients can actually cause the biggest skincare woe for young people -- breakouts. "My acne wasn’t improving," Duplantier says. "Instead, come midday, my skin was oily and aggravated." These days, she’s replaced the skin defense cream with a $13 SPF 30 moisturizer, and she says, "I have fewer blemishes and it feels good to sign a bill that’s less than $20."
After Sunscreen, Your Best Skin Care Bets
When Zeichner sees young adults who want to know how they can maintain their still-dewy skin, he suggests they add a daytime antioxidant moisturizer or serum to their regimen. These products contain ingredients such as vitamin C, vitamin E, green tea, niacinamide, and alpha lipoic acid. They may minimize the oxidative damage caused by stressors such as sun exposure and pollution.
Friedman believes that after sunscreen, a prescription retinoid or over-the-counter retinol is the next most effective product a 20-something can buy. "I think every young adult should use one," he says. "There is a ton of solid research showing that retinoids work to regulate skin function."
Retinoids can reduce acne, shrink enlarged pores, even out skin tone, treat precancerous skin lesions, and build collagen while speeding cell turnover.
Retinoids, however, should not be used by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Retinoids can cause redness, dryness, and flaking during their first few weeks of use. "They should be introduced into a skin care regimen gradually and cautiously," Friedman says.
A Wrinkle in Botox Injections
Not long ago, Friedman's 23-year-old cousin approached him about getting Botox injections. She had heard that injections of the botulinum toxin, which are used to smooth horizontal forehead furrows and the vertical "11" lines between the brows, were also effective in preventing these wrinkles from ever forming.
Friedman turned her down. "I don't believe in treating wrinkles you can't see," he says, "and there’s no evidence that Botox is effective as a preventative tool." He says, "Long-term overuse of the drug could possibly lead to atrophy of the muscles. That can cause the face to appear inadvertently aged, despite the lack of wrinkles."
Zeichner says he sometimes turns away 20-something Botox seekers because they’re seeing flaws that aren’t apparent to anyone else. "We live in an age of photo shopping," he says, "and some young people believe the retouched images of celebrities they see in magazines are attainable. They're not."