Maybe this sounds familiar: You find a photo taken a decade ago at the bottom of a drawer. It shows you barefaced, grinning, while hiking with family or friends. Back then, you thought that without makeup, eye crinkles clearly visible, this photo made you look old. If only you could get that look back now! Plastic surgeons, dermatologists, and the makers of many face creams will tell you that you can, but their wares can be expensive and invasive. We asked dermatologists what affordable, at-home steps will help restore your more youthful appearance. Here are six moves that research proves can deliver; two are even free!
Step 1: Shun the Sun
Why this works: Repeated sun exposure eventually leads to brown spots, fine wrinkles, deeper creases, and sagging skin. If you need proof, just look at the skin on the underside of your arm where the rays are less likely to reach. Does it look smoother and less blotchy? “What the sun does is fast-forward your aging clock,” says Doris Day, M.D., clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City. “Around age 40, you cross that line — your collagen and elastic tissue have experienced enough damage to really start showing a change. You look in the mirror, and uh-oh, you can no longer ignore it or easily cover it up.” Protecting your skin year-round will help prevent you from further accelerating your age.
What to try: To start, make sure you always have broad-spectrum protection with an adequate long-wave UVA shield, says Richard Glogau, M.D., clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco. “Those UVA rays give you the wrinkles and the muddy skin tone that ages you,” he says. Dr. Glogau recommends UVA filters like Mexoryl and Helioplex, which provide longer-lasting protection. Try Neutrogena Age Shield Face Sunblock SPF 90+ ($9.49, drugstores) or Lancôme UV Expert 20 Sunscreen SPF 20 ($35, department stores). Also use a product — like these — with an SPF of 15 or higher to protect against burns. Get even better coverage by including antioxidants like vitamins C and E and pomegranate extract in your protection. “Antioxidants boost the benefits of sunscreen. They help neutralize the damage caused by UV light,” says Ranella Hirsch, M.D., a dermatologist at Boston University Medical Center. Try C.O. Bigelow All-in-One Protective Day Lotion SPF 25 ($19.50, Bath & Body Works), which contains vitamins A, C, and E, antioxidant-rich berry extracts, and UV protection. Of course, behavior counts, too: Whenever possible, avoid midday rays. Wear a hat and sunglasses (less squinting). If you want some color, try self-tanner. We like Jergens Natural Glow Health Complexion Daily Facial Moisturizer SPF 20 ($9, drugstores). Or go with your own glow. “It will definitely help you look younger,” says Dr. Day.
Years younger: 5. Within six months, your sun-protected skin should appear smoother and more even-toned, says Jeffrey Dover, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine and coauthor of The Youth Equation. The catch: You have to continue protecting skin daily and avoiding the harsh rays, or you’ll redo the damage.
Next: The power of retinoids
Step 2: Smooth Lines with Retinoids
Why this works: In studies dating back over the past 20 years, they have been shown to help soften the look of fine lines and brown spots by increasing collagen production and normalizing skin-cell activity. “These vitamin A derivatives have a better-established track record than any other wrinkle-reduction creams,” says Dr. Glogau. Even the milder, nonprescription-strength retinol may reduce the effects of chronological aging — albeit more gradually. When University of Michigan researchers applied a .4 percent retinol lotion to one of the study participants’ upper inner arms as many as three times a week for 24 weeks, skin biopsies revealed that that arm had more of the building blocks that make skin smooth and resilient than the untreated arm.
What to try: The biggest challenge with retinoids is dealing with the potential side effects, such as redness and peeling skin. Your skin will, however, build up a tolerance, usually within six to 12 weeks. Retin-A is still the gold standard in prescription strength, though there are several less-irritating options — costing $100 per tube on average — including Retin-A Micro, Differin, Avage, and Tazorac. Researchers continue to seek ways of making retinoids more tolerable; one theory currently being tested at the University of Michigan is that using an ultra-mild facial cleanser and moisturizer will help calm the irritation. (The study findings are still a few years away.) Dermatologists also suggest you ease into using one: Apply a pea-size amount at night (sun exposure makes retinoids less effective), and try it every second or third night until your skin handles it better. If that’s still too irritating, go with an over-the-counter retinol. These formulas are less potent, but are still effective. Try L’Oréal Paris Advanced Revitalift Deep-Set Wrinkle Repair Night Creme ($20, drugstores) or DermaDoctor Poetry in Lotion Intensive Retinol 1.0 ($75, Sephora).
Years younger: 6-7. You should start to see an improvement in a matter of weeks with a prescription formula, but don’t stop there. “Keep using it,” says Dr. Dover, who claims he can always spot a woman on a prescription retinoid because her skin looks “too good” for her age. Over-the-counter retinol converts to the active form, called retinoic acid, at a lower concentration — but the benefits will start to show up after a few months if you stay with it.
Step 3: Load Up on Antioxidants
Why this works: Antioxidants act as scavengers that neutralize free radicals — the particles that, in skin, cause sun damage and wrinkles, and can lead to skin cancer. They can also help protect against damage from environmental assaults like pollution and smoking, says Dr. Hirsch. Though there is still some debate about whether they can reverse sun damage, at the least they deliver modest skin brightening, says Dr. Dover, since better-protected skin appears more even-toned.
What to try: Some foods are loaded with antioxidants that are beneficial to the body overall, “but most people don’t eat enough of them to benefit skin,” says Dr. Hirsch. She recommends ingesting them and applying them topically. Look for vitamins C and E, pomegranate, idebenone, soy, green tea, niacinamide, and coenzyme Q10 in the top half of a product’s ingredient list to get the most benefits from these often-pricey potions. Try Vichy Liftactiv CxP Bio-Lifting Care ($43, drugstores) or Desert Essence Organics Age Reversal Pomegranate Face Serum ($15, Whole Foods).
Years younger: 1-2. If your skin immediately radiates youthfulness after slathering on an antioxidant-rich cream, thank your moisturizer; antioxidants won’t work that fast. You have to keep using them for five or six months, says Dr. Dover, to see the benefits. After that time, not only should your skin tone be more even, but some of the fine lines may smooth out, and drier-looking skin will appear revitalized.
Next: Why sleep is so important
Step 4: Sleep Well
Why this works: Lack of sleep definitely saps your glow, instantly aging you (think puffy, red eyes). But it also affects your skin in stealth ways: Fatigue causes cortisol, the stress hormone, to rise sharply. “If cortisol is chronically high, it can age you by breaking down collagen in skin,” says Amy Wechsler, M.D., dermatologist, psychiatrist, and author of The Mind-Beauty Connection. Just one nighttime sleep disruption can prompt your immune system to turn against healthy organs and tissue: When researchers at UCLA interrupted volunteers’ shut-eye from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., they found that sleep loss triggered the body’s inflammation response; curiously, this effect was found in women only.
What to try: “The one thing that seems to ring true for everyone is to pick a bedtime, and then an hour beforehand, no more BlackBerry-ing, e-mailing, or TV news,” says Dr. Wechsler. “Instead, read a novel, watch something funny on TV, or have sex.” Cortisol is at its lowest when you’re sleeping, during exercise, and after sex, she says. Then, if you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep, do something that bores you, like reading your least favorite section of the newspaper (hello, sports page).
Years younger: 2-3. If your skin is aging due to lack of zzz’s, improving your sleep habits will definitely give it a youth boost. “It’s hard to know exactly how much younger you will look by sleeping more,” says Dr. Dover, “but when someone who doesn’t get enough sleep or tends to stress a lot comes back from a relaxing holiday, she almost always looks a few years younger.”
Step 5: Exfoliate Gently and Often
Why this works: At-home peels or even a simple face scrub can make your complexion look much more youthful and radiant and may also boost collagen production, says Leslie Baumann, M.D., director of the University of Miami Cosmetic Medicine and Research Institute. “It’s one of the best ways to see a quick difference,” she says. As you age, skin tends to be drier and dead cells cling to the surface, giving it a rougher texture. When you shed those dead cells with a scrub or peel, it enhances the functioning of your skin: Water-retaining cells come to the surface, and active ingredients in your skin care — like antioxidants and retinoids — penetrate better. “Regular exfoliating is also therapeutic if you have acne-prone skin,” says Dr. Glogau. One caveat: People who have sensitive complexions or rosacea should skip this step — or at least exfoliate less often — since those dead cells actually shield skin from irritation.
What to try: The most effective, least expensive options are grainy scrubs that have small, round particles. Try St. Ives Elements Microdermabrasion ($7, drugstores) or SkinEffects Cell2Cell Anti-Aging Exfoliating Cleansing Scrub ($10, CVS). “The particles should be smooth and feel like sugar in your hand,” says Dr. Baumann. If they are too big or rough, they can tear skin. At-home chemical exfoliators work more slowly and may cost more, but they too help loosen dead cells. If manual scrubs are too harsh for your skin, choose a chemical wash with glycolic acid, or try a gentler salicylic acid formula (it may also treat acne). Try Aveda Enbrightenment Brightening Cleanser ($35, aveda.com). And if you’re also using a retinoid, try sloughing skin twice instead of three or four times weekly.
Years younger: 2-3. There are two provisos, say experts. First, you’ve got to stick with it to keep seeing improvement. You’ll get even better results by also doing monthly doctor’s-office peels (glycolic acid or microdermabrasion), which remove the upper layer of skin and may stimulate collagen production. Second, you’ll benefit the most if you combine this step with one (or more) of the others listed here.
Next: Replenish skin with moisture
Step 6: Add Moisture
Why this works: By menopause, the majority of women need a daily moisturizer. “It’s what gives skin that smooth, radiant look,” explains Dr. Glogau. In fact, most skin care that promises to improve the look of wrinkles in just a few weeks is probably doing it by moisturizing.
What to try: Effective hydrators include those, like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, that draw water into the skin, and others that prevent water from escaping, such as petrolatum and lanolin. Try Dove Deep Moisture Facial Lotion SPF 15 ($7.49, drugstores) with glycerin. Natural moisturizers, like olive, sunflower, and coconut oils, can also hydrate skin; skip them, though, if you’re prone to acne. Try: Kiss My Face Obsessively Organic Under Age Ultra Hydrating Moisturizer ($21, Whole Foods) with sunflower and grapeseed oils. What won’t work: drinking more water. There’s little evidence that staying hydrated internally can do anything to reduce wrinkles, though if you’re dehydrated, water will definitely give your skin a smoother look.
Years younger: 2-3. Though they have to be reapplied in order to keep up the benefits, moisturizers can help you look a few years younger almost immediately, says Dr. Glogau.
Can light make you look younger?
Handheld LED machines — scaled-down versions of the ones in dermatologists’ offices and spas — promise to stimulate collagen, improve skin texture and tone, and smooth fine lines when their red and/or infrared light is directed at your face. True? The Good Housekeeping Research Institute put five recently introduced devices and their anti-aging claims to the test. Volunteers followed each manufacturer’s protocol, using the handheld gizmos daily to once a week for four to six weeks. But with very few exceptions, testers’ fine lines and wrinkles were unchanged after the prescribed periods. The bright spots: Evis M.D. Platinum Red LED Rejuvenating Facial Light ($295, department stores) and Tända Regenerate Anti-Aging Starter Kit ($275, Sephora) improved sunspots, pores, and skin texture in lab evaluations. The bottom line: Though you may get some skin benefits from at-home LED devices, these costly, time-consuming treatments appear no more effective than a good face cream at turning back the clock.
What’s your skin’s real age?
This is no ordinary beauty quiz. It was created for The Mind-Beauty Connection by Amy Wechsler, M.D., by two scientists — Axel Goetz, M.D., Ph.D., and Harriet Imrey, Ph.D., both researchers with RealAge, an anti-aging Website in San Diego — who pored over a decade’s worth of peer-reviewed scholarly papers to find a scientifically valid way to measure how old you look versus how old you are. Before you answer the 13 questions on the next page, either shower or wash your face; then dry off and rub in some moisturizer (it won’t affect your visual exam). Look in the mirror without smiling. Finally, add up your score using the box below. (Note: You must be between the ages of 27 and 81 to get a valid result.)
Next: Take the quiz!
How Old Is Your Skin?
1. Is the skin of your cheeks (and maybe your forehead, too) smooth or sagging?
B. Somewhat sagging
C. Sagging and forming jowls on my jawline
2. Do you have bags under your eyes?
B. Small ones
C. Distinct bags
3. Are your upper eyelids drooping, almost touching your upper lashes?
4. Do you see fine lines on your forehead and/or cheeks?
C. Quite a few
5. Do you see deep wrinkles on your cheeks?
B. Yes, some deepening wrinkles
C. Yes, several deep wrinkles
6. Do you see smile lines leading from the corners of your nostrils to the corners of your mouth?
B. Yes, soft lines
C. Yes, very clear lines
7. Do you see crow’s feet at the outer corners of your eyes?
B. Yes, slight lines
C. Yes, marked lines
8. Do you see wrinkles under your eyes?
B. Yes, fine wrinkles
C. Yes, very marked wrinkles
9. Are there any frown lines running horizontally across your forehead and/or vertically between your eyebrows?
B. Yes, slight lines
C. Yes, very marked lines
10. Do you see fine vertical lines above your upper lip?
B. Yes, a few
C. Yes, many
11. Do you see fine up-and-down lines on your lips?
B. Yes, some
C. Yes, many
12. Instead of the coloring on your cheeks or forehead being even, do you have any small red dots or uneven coloring?
B. Some dots or uneven coloring
C. A lot of dots and uneven coloring
13. Do you have any milia on your forehead or cheeks (milia are small bumps that look like little whiteheads but don’t go away)?
Determining your skin’s age
To figure out just how young or old your skin really is, circle the points for each answer, then add them up.
1. a=0; b=3; c=6
2. a=0; b=1.5; c=3
3. a=0; b=1.5; c=3
4. a=0; b=1.5; c=2.5
5. a=0; b=1; c=2
6. a=0; b=0.5; c=1.5
7. a=0; b=0.5; c=1.5
8. a=0; b=0.5; c=1.5
9. a=0; b=0.5; c=1.5
10. a=0; b=1; c=2
11. a=0; b=1; c=2
12. a=0; b=7; c=14
13. a=0; b=5
TOTAL POINTS+ 27 =THE AGE OF YOUR SKIN
Did your skin turn out to be younger, equal to, or older than your chronological age? If it’s older, don’t panic. Just imagine how good you’re going to feel when you take up to seven years off your face with the plan in this article. If this quiz shows that your skin is younger than the number on your driver’s license, use the plan as maintenance. Ironically, the longer you’ve been neglecting your complexion, the bigger the difference you will see when you take this quiz again in six months.