Beauty for a Lifetime
How to look your best during each decade of your life
Whether you’re 25 and still using the same products you did in high school, or 45 and caring for your skin the same way you did on your wedding day, chances are you’re in need of a skin-care and cosmetics makeover.
Experts say that plenty of women are stuck in a beauty time warp. They may be trying to re-create the look they had during a time when they were happiest, or simply unaware of what’s new in skin care and makeup.
To help you get up to speed, WebMD asked some experts to clue you in on how skin ages and what you need to look your best during each decade of life.
Your 20s and 30s
For many, this is a time to say goodbye to teen acne angst and hello to a brighter, more radiant complexion. Unfortunately, experts say, this is also the time when many women make the biggest all-time skin care mistake: They don’t use sunscreen.
“Women think that because their skin looks great, they don’t need to do anything to protect it, and that is a big mistake,” says New York plastic surgeon Darrick Antell, MD. The younger you are when you commit to wearing sunscreen every day, the more you cut your risk of skin cancer — and the more years you’ll stay wrinkle-free, Antell says.
“Nothing ages the skin more than the sun, and even if you don’t see that aging in your 20s or 30s, it’s happening,” Antell says. “What you do at 22 will become evident within the next two decades.”
Dermatologist Joshua Fox, MD, agrees. “Protecting your skin from the sun won’t stop the aging process completely, but it can certainly expand the number of years during which your skin will look younger and more healthy,” says Fox, a spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology.
If you choose a moisturizer with a built-in sunscreen, both experts say, you’ll be even further ahead of the game.
“You should start using moisturizer in your 20s if for no other reason to get into the habit, which becomes even more important as you age,” says Antell. Additionally, Fox says, you can start dipping into the anti-aging jar as early as your 30s.
“There is some evidence to show that anti-aging ingredients might have some preventive effects as well,” says Fox, director of Advanced Dermatology and The Center for Laser and Cosmetic Surgery on Long Island.
What you can try now: Products containing alpha-hydroxy or beta-hydroxy acids, and microdermabrasion products including scrubs and skin polishers.
Makeup tips: Your 20s and 30s are the decades to let your natural beauty shine, says former Hollywood makeup artist Barbara Fazio. The biggest mistake women in this age group make: trying too many trends at once.
“These are still the years when women want to look trendy and modern, but too often they try too many trends all at the same time,” says Fazio, now director of the B. Fazio salon in Lakewood, Ohio.
To stay on-trend but not overdone, she says, pick one item from a particular trend — say, metallic eye shadow or glitzy lips — and never wear more than one trend on your face at a time.
Even women who are the same age may have different skin needs. This is particularly true when you hit your 40s, since many problems that pop up during this decade hinge on what you did in your 20s and 30s.
“If you wore sunscreen, if you did some preventive care, then you may not notice any major difference in your skin,” says Fox. “If you didn’t do those things, then fine lines and wrinkles are definitely on the upswing once you hit 40.”
The problem is a breakdown of collagen, natural fibers that form an invisible network of support underneath the skin and help it stay plump and firm. As collagen stores begin to break down — a process that is accelerated by sun exposure — skin loses its moist, dewy look. In its place is drier, more fragile skin, with fine lines and small wrinkles appearing around the eyes and in the nose-to-mouth area.
Further, as the years pass, we shed old skin less frequently. That means your complexion looks not only drier, but also more dull and uneven. Solutions, says experts, include products aimed at helping to increase cell turnover, like alpha-hydroxy acids and wrinkle-fighting ingredients like retinol.
“The 40s is definitely the time to start using a retinol product,” says Antell. “The professional versions are the strongest so you’re going to see the most dramatic results, but even some over-the-counter solutions can work well.”
Retinoids work by helping to stimulate collagen production, so fine lines and wrinkles are less noticeable, he says.
Fox says home peels are also appropriate for 40-plus skin. They can help remove dead skin cells and encourage new cells to come to the surface. Depending on how quickly your skin is aging, Fox says, don’t be afraid to look toward professional treatments to help increase your window of youth.
“This is the decade when you should seriously consider some of the less aggressive but very helpful dermatologic procedures such as Thermage (a radio frequency treatment) or Fraxel (a laser) to tighten the skin and/or stimulate collagen production,” says Fox.
Additionally, many women in their 40s experience hormone-related skin problems, including adult acne. But, Fox says, don’t borrow your teenage daughter’s acne products until you consult a dermatologist and a gynecologist. “Adult-onset acne can sometimes be the result of a gynecological problem like an ovarian cyst, so that should always be ruled out first,” says Fox.
Next, he says, check with a dermatologist about whether your “pimples” are really acne.
“Many women confuse acne with rosacea, another skin problem that can occur in the 40s and 50s,” says Fox.
While the breakouts can look similar, Fox says, they may require different treatment.
Makeup tips: Toss away your cakey face powder, Fazio says.
“This is the decade when skin is really dry, and most powders will dry it further and accentuate fine lines and wrinkles,” she says.
If you must use powder to tame oily areas, choose one that is finely milled, and apply it sparingly, using a brush instead of a puff.
Depending on what you did to care for your skin in the decades leading up your 50s, you could end up needing a little — or a lot — of extra care. That said, there are some rites of passage that will affect your skin no matter what you do. Among the most significant is menopause.
As estrogen levels drop, collagen production takes a dive, and, Antell says, the skin shows the changes fairly quickly. “A loss of collagen is one of the major causes of skin aging,” says Antell.
For those who protected their face from sun damage, the impact of menopause may be less severe. For those who didn’t make the effort, the aging process can be more rapid.
The good news is that no matter where you are in the process, there’s something you can do. The first product to start with — if you’re not using it already — is retinol, says Fox. What may also help: Products designed to increase collagen production, including antioxidants like idebenone and vitamin C, and copper peptides.
Fox says research on the new pentapeptide formulations is less extensive than that on retinoids, but there is some evidence to show they might help as well.
“It all depends on what you are trying to accomplish,” Antell says, “but yes, most of these anti-aging products will improve your appearance to a certain degree, and they can definitely expand the youth corridor — that window of time when it can be difficult to guess your age.”
This may also be the time to consider professional restorative care, particularly injections of cosmetic fillers like collagen or Restylane, or wrinkle relaxers like Botox.
“This is also the time when many women should consider a relatively new approach to facelift surgery called the ‘vertical lift,'” says Antell. Much less drastic than the traditional full facelift, this “mini lift” picks up loose skin from the jowls and cheeks to recreate a more youthful contour.
“If you have it before there’s too much sagging, it can really expand your youthful appearance for many years,” says Antell. “For many women, it’s the only procedure they will ever need.”
Makeup tips: For women in their 50s, less is definitely more.
“You want to minimize the amount of product you put on your face,” says Fazio. “Foundations should be lighter and applied only where you need it; avoid powders; and don’t overdo it on the eye makeup.”
In fact, she advises bypassing heavy eye shadow altogether. Instead, smudge a soft pencil liner in charcoal gray or soft brown close to the edge of your upper lid. Then use mascara only on the upper lashes.
For the biggest boost, use an eyelash curler. “It’s like giving yourself a temporary eye lift,” says Fazio. “If you haven’t used one since your 20s or 30s, now is time to use it again.”
When it comes to your “golden years,” experts agree there are two approaches to skin care. The first is to live with the idea that aging is inevitable, and do what you can to make the most of what you have.
That means focusing on products with super-moisturizing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, as well as wrinkle-fighters like pentapeptides and idebenone. Firming creams may also work to streamline facial contours. And, of course, you should continue to use sunblock
“Although most sun damage occurs when we are young, don’t stop using sunscreen at any age,” says Antell. “The more you protect your skin, the less you will see the signs of photoaging.”
The second approach, say experts, is to enlist professional help in your fight against looking older.
“There are two things that happen,” says Antell. “There are quality-of-skin problems like uneven skin tone and fine lines and wrinkles — which can be helped by topical products — and then there are quantity-of-skin problems, jowls and loose skin under your chin, and drooping — which can only be corrected by surgery.”
Makeup tips: If you’re not ready to go under the knife, or simply want to accept the aging process with grace, makeup can help, Fazio says. The key, she says, is to keep your look simple.
“The older you get, the less you need to look gorgeous,” says Fazio. The biggest makeup mistake older women make, she says, is wearing too much eye make-up — and still trying to find and darken the crease in the eye socket. “By the time you reach 60, the only way you’re going to find that crease is with the help of a good surgeon,” says Fazio. “So instead, just use a soft pencil to smudge some color near the lid and leave the crease alone.”
She also says to go easy on foundation, and to wear a pink-toned blush and moisturizing lipstick. If you want to color your hair, go lighter, not darker. And never darken your brows.
“Going darker with hair or brow color is a big mistake,” says Fazio. “It creates a harsh look that emphasizes lines and wrinkles.”
The best advice, she says, is to let your natural beauty shine, and “be strong and be confident!”