The simple, science-backed routine for more youthful skin

The simple, science-backed routine for more youthful skin

Q: Can I keep my skin looking young and healthy without paying for expensive procedures?

A: After doing a deep dive of the medical literature, my advice is to follow a simple routine:

  • In the morning: Use a face cleanser, then apply a moisturizer and a broad-spectrum sunscreen.
  • At night: Cleanse your face again, then apply a retinoid and your moisturizer.

The brand doesn’t necessarily matter. Chose what works for your budget and skin type — such as sensitive, dry or oily.

Be skeptical of social media and ads

Look, I’m not immune to the bait of fancy lotions extolled by people with absurdly dewy skin on TikTok. But I also don’t want to waste my time and money.

Ads for anti-aging products often tout a clinical study backing them, which might make you think they’re worth your money. But there are few strong placebo-controlled, blinded randomized trials in humans for over-the-counter products — much less ones that weren’t sponsored by the brand profiting from them. Outcomes are often based on a subjective appearance of improvement, not on something measured microscopically. Personally, I’d like to see both.

For example, products like alpha hydroxy acids and antioxidants like vitamin C could help with aging skin, but the data behind them is not as solid as that for retinoids and sunscreen.

Lots of trendy moisturizer ingredients, like ceramides or natural moisturizing factor, have more theoretical than hard data backing them. Hyaluronic acid, a potent skin hydrator, does have a placebo-controlled randomized trial that showed improved skin elasticity and roughness, but that study was sponsored by industry.

Keep in mind that none of these products are the fountain of youth. But if you set realistic goals, incorporating topical treatments and focusing on prevention can get you on the path toward healthier, smoother skin.

What to know about retinoids

Retinoids, which are compounds derived from vitamin A, have been well studied to reverse some of the damage from UV rays, boosting cell turnover and stimulating collagen to smoothen wrinkles and even out irregularities. They range from prescription-strength tretinoin to the less potent over-the-counter versions retinal and retinol.

  • You only need a pea-sized amount.
  • Many people find retinoids irritating to the skin so start applying it a few times a week and work up to a higher frequency.
  • It’s very important to use sunscreen and moisturizer alongside retinoids.
  • Retinoids take months to work, so set your expectations accordingly.
  • Don’t take a retinoid if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • Check the product’s instructions to make sure you’re applying it appropriately.

What to know about sunscreen

You’ve probably heard you should wear sunscreen religiously before going outside and don wide-brimmed hats or clothing with built-in protection.

Look for a sunscreen that is SPF 30 or more, and wear it every day — even when your plan is to sit in front of your computer working.

“Remember, most sun damage is due to incidental exposure,” said Charlene Lam, an associate professor of dermatology at Penn State Health, in an email interview. “So not the times you are going to the beach, but when you are randomly out running errands or even sitting inside because UVA rays can still penetrate windows.”

Here’s what else to know:

  • Especially if you have a darker skin tone, look for a sunscreen with iron oxide, which Lam recommends to protect against visible light damage. We always talk about UV light, but visible light — from the sun, lightbulbs or electronic devices — can damage DNA in our skin through oxidative stress. People with darker skin tones are more likely to experience hyperpigmentation because of it.
  • Pricey doesn’t mean better. “I will see patients purchasing very expensive sunscreens and then only use a drop of it — that is counterproductive,” Lam said. A general guideline is to use about a half teaspoon for your face and neck.
  • Don’t forget to apply sunscreen to your chest and hands.
  • Already overwhelmed? Try a moisturizer with SPF built-in and save yourself a step.

Skin care tips for all ages

  • Despite the advice from TikTok gurus, you don’t need to exfoliate — that’s something your body does naturally. If your skin is dry and flaky, focus instead on moisturizing.
  • If you aren’t already in a good exercise routine, this is your sign to start lifting weights: A study of sedentary middle-aged Japanese women found that even 16 weeks of regularly exercising improved the elasticity and bolstered the extracellular matrix of facial skin. Lifting weights in particular boosted the dermal layer of the skin.
  • Avoid smoking. Smokers have characteristic changes associated with accelerated skin aging, including lower eyelid bags and upper lip wrinkles that may be driven by poorer skin elasticity. Air pollution has also been shown to be associated with premature skin aging in epidemiological studies.
  • Sunglasses are not just for your eyes. You should wear a pair that offers UVA and UVB protection to protect the delicate skin around your eyes that is so prone to wrinkling.
  • Mature skin tends to become drier (our sebaceous glands produce less oil with age) so a rich moisturizer can help.

What I want my patients to know

When we’re talking about skin aging and sun damage, cancer is the most worrisome possibility we want to intervene on early. Pay attention to any changing spots on your skin, new moles or growths that seem red, tender or not healing well. If you notice any changes, see your doctor for an evaluation.

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