About face

This daily routine can help your aging skin stay healthy.

Published: November, 2020

Your skin goes through many changes as you age. All you need to do is look in the mirror.

Aging skin loses fat and becomes thinner and drier. Red and pimply spots can appear on the face (a condition known as rosacea).

Spots also can become waxy and pink, particularly around the nose, eyebrows, ear, and hairline (a condition called seborrheic dermatitis). Years of sun exposure can cause extra wrinkles and dark spots.

But your skin (and face) is not defenseless against the effects of time and life.

"Adopting a simple facial skin care routine, even later in life, can help reverse some skin damage and prevent further effects of aging," says Dr. Abigail Waldman, a dermatologist with Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. Here is a three-step daily process that she suggests.

Give me an A

Another way to help restore aging skin is to use lotions or creams with a retinoid, a compound derived from vitamin A. Retinoids increase collagen (the most abundant protein in the body) and help strengthen skin and reduce wrinkles and sun spots. Choose products with retinol or adapalene as the active ingredient. Use a pea-sized amount over your entire face before bedtime. Retinoids make skin sensitive to sunlight, so don't use them during the daytime. Apply every three days at first, as they can irritate the skin if overused. Monitor your skin for redness, significant peeling, or irritation. As your skin builds tolerance, increase applications to every night.

Step 1: Wash

Wash your face and neck once daily if your skin tends to be dry, and twice a day if not. "Avoid using regular bar soap," says Dr. Waldman. "It strips the skin of its outer layer and makes it harder to keep in moisture."

Instead, choose an over-the-counter product labeled as a gentle cleanser for sensitive skin. "But avoid facial scrubs with small particles, as they can irritate the skin and cause more rashes, dryness, or irregular pigmentation," says Dr. Waldman.

Wash your face the same way you would wash your hands to keep away germs. Massage a pea-sized amount of the cleanser onto your damp face and neck for about 20 seconds, or the amount of time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice, and then wash off with warm or hot water. "If you tend to get waxy red or pink areas around the nose, ears, eyebrows, and hairline, make sure to spend extra time washing those areas," says Dr. Waldman.

Keep your cleanser near the bathroom sink as a reminder to wash when you brush your teeth — after you wake up and before bedtime.

Step 2: Moisturize

After washing, apply a moisturizer lotion or cream. (Those with oily skin often can skip this.) "Moisturizing recreates the skin's outer barrier to prevent moisture from escaping and stop foreign substances from getting in," says Dr. Waldman.

While your skin is still damp, apply a dollop to your entire face and one to your neck until fully absorbed. Look for lotions or creams that contain fewer than 10 ingredients or are labeled for sensitive skin. "Fewer ingredients mean fewer chemicals or additives, especially fragrances that could irritate sensitive skin," says Dr. Waldman.

Key ingredients include hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, glycolic acid, and squalene, which help keep skin hydrated. Vitamin C or azelaic acid can help specifically with dark spots.

You may need a thicker moisturizer during the winter when your skin gets drier. "When you turn the bottle over, the lotion or cream should stay in place," says Dr. Waldman.

Although your arms, legs, and body may not reveal aging as much as the face and neck, you should also moisturize the skin all over your body to prevent dryness, itching, and rashes. Do a full-body moisturizing after bathing when your skin is still wet.

Step 3: Apply sunscreen

Finally, apply sunscreen to your face, especially around the eyes, as well as your neck, and ears. Sunscreen not only guards against skin cancer and the aging effects from sun exposure, but also helps to prevent brown spots and to keep existing ones from worsening.

Use sunscreen with at least a 30 SPF (sun protection factor). Also, look for products labeled for sensitive skin or children. Avoid spray sunscreens, which contain alcohol that can burn.

"For efficiency, a combination moisturizing and sunscreen product works well," says Dr. Waldman.

Image: © Ryan McVay/Getty Images

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