(Oprah.com) -- For many of us, the way our skin looks in the morning dictates, like the weather, what kind of day we might have. We get out of bed, skip (or stagger) over to the mirror, and peer at our reflection as if we were peering out the window. What did the day blow in? A clear, calm complexion? A shower of breakouts? A mist of fine lines? A gloomy new cumulus of dark spots?
To help you in your quest for brighter horizons complexion-wise, we talked to top dermatologists across the country about what it takes to get gorgeous skin, and came up with this straightforward, thorough, easy-to-follow, bottom-line guide for every age.
Your No-Fail Plan: In your 20's
Use gentle products, and focus on damage prevention. "You don't need anti wrinkle creams or microdermabrasion in your 20's," says Ranella Hirsch, M.D., president-elect of the American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology & Aesthetic Surgery.
Cleanser: If you have normal skin, you need to wash it only before bed, says Lupo.
Use a mild cleanser -- either a gel, if your skin is oily, or a milky one, if it's dry.
Moisturizer: Pick a brand, any brand. But be absolutely sure that your moisturizer has SPF 15 or 20, and that it gives you both UVA and UVB protection. Apply it all over your face and on your neck and chest, says Lupo. (This is critical no matter what your age.)
Nighttime treatment: Use a hydrating fluid or an oil-free moisturizer. Many dermatologists recommend starting on the vitamin A-derivative prescription retinoids (like Retin-A, Tazorac, and Avage) -- the gold standard for reducing fine lines, stimulating collagen, and treating acne -- or products containing the less potent, over-the-counter retinol. Before bed, apply a pea-size amount all over your face and right up under your eyes, says Hirsch; then you don't need an eye cream.
Your No-Fail Plan: In your 30's
Even if you've taken good care of your skin, you'll probably start noticing fine lines and wrinkles, especially around the eyes and mouth, says Susan Taylor, M.D., clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Columbia University.
Cleanser: In the morning, use a cleanser with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) to encourage exfoliation. In the evening, wash with a creamy cleanser.
Moisturizer: In addition to SPF 15 or 20 with UVA/UVB protection, your moisturizer should contain antioxidants, like green or white tea, pomegranate, or vitamin C, which will protect your skin from damaging free radicals. Start wearing an eye cream daily. For dark circles, use one with hydroquinone, vitamin C, or botanicals that brighten, like kojic acid, soy, or licorice; for puffiness, look for one containing caffeine; for extra moisturization, use one with hyaluronic acid, says Taylor.
Nighttime treatment: "Once you're in your 30's, a retinoid or retinol isn't optional anymore," says Hirsch. So if you're not on a prescription retinoid, choose a night cream or serum with retinol.
Your No-Fail Plan: In your 40's
Those great beach vacations you took in your teens are showing up on your face: You're beginning to see cumulative sun damage in the form of blotchiness, red spots, and ruddiness. You're also losing more collagen and elasticity, and your skin retains less moisture. Because it doesn't reflect light evenly, your complexion is losing some of its glow.
Cleanser: Use a creamy (rather than gel) cleanser morning and night, unless you can tolerate one with a mild AHA or salicylic acid once a day, says Ava T. Shamban, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at UCLA. (Try NIA 24 Gentle Cleansing Cream, $30, or Lumene Radiant Touch Moisturizing Cream Cleanser, $10; Bliss Steep Clean Cleansing Milk with salicylic acid, $32, is also a good one.)
Moisturizer: Supplement your broad-spectrum moisturizer, which should contain SPF 15 or 20, with a couple of creams, lotions, or serums containing at least two types of antioxidants, such as lycopene, green tea, or soy, alternating them every other day, says Shamban. (Try Skin Effects by Dr. Jeffrey Dover Wrinkle Effects Relaxing Cream with Lycopene, $30; Boscia Balancing Facial Tonic, $18; and Arcona Gentle Solution Repair PM, $48.) You'll get a wider benefit from switching off, because different antioxidants address different problems, says Shamban. Or, if your skin is beginning to look crepey, try a formula with peptides, which have been shown to strengthen collagen, says Hirsch. Treat dryness with a rich moisturizing cream that contains hyaluronic acid, petrolatum, shea butter, or oils. (We like CeraVe Moisturizing Cream, $15; L'Occitane Ultra Rich Face Cream, $36; and Shiseido Bio-Performance Advanced Super Revitalizer Cream, $70.)
Nighttime treatment: A prescription retinoid is the way to go, say both Hirsch and Shamban. It reduces brown spots, increases exfoliation and collagen production, thickens the epidermis, and can reverse precancerous sun damage. If your skin can't tolerate a retinoid every night, use it every other night.
Your No-Fail Plan: In your 50's and beyond
Don't even think of retiring from the skin care game. It's never too late to prevent sun damage and to stop the progression of damage you may already have. Cell turnover is slow; the most significant change you'll notice in your complexion is dryness and loss of elasticity. Expression lines no longer disappear after you stop smiling or squinting; pores are more visible, especially on the nose and cheeks. You're likely to have developed spider veins and hyperpigmentation (age spots), and precancerous spots from sun damage.
Once you hit your 60's and 70's, basically all the issues that arose in your 50's become more extreme. Aren't you glad you're flooded with postmenopausal zest?
Cleanser: Wash morning and night with a non-soap cleanser (like Awake Deep Purity Gel Cream Wash, $30, or Dermalogica Special Cleansing Gel, $29) or a creamy, foaming one (we like Neutrogena Fresh Foaming Cleanser, $6, and Estée Lauder Soft Clean Moisture Rich Foaming Cleanser, $19).
Moisturizer: Apply a serum containing peptides or an antioxidant like vitamin C when your face is still damp (try SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic, $128, or Cellex-C High Potency Serum, $90). Serums, in general, are more easily absorbed than creams and lotions. Then apply a broad-spectrum moisturizer containing SPF 15 or 20, with UVA/UVB protection.
Nighttime treatment: Try Renova, a prescription retinoid, which is more moisturizing than others, says Wendy E. Roberts, M.D., assistant clinical professor of medicine at Loma Linda University Medical Center.
From "O, The Oprah Magazine," November 2007 E-mail to a friend
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