What do baking and skincare have in common? They’re both a science … and both come down to the ingredients. You wouldn’t expect a fluffy cake if you used the wrong kind of flour, so you shouldn’t expect a clear complexion unless you create a skincare routine that suits your needs and desired outcome.
If what you’re after is to maintain smooth, even-toned skin for as long as possible, start with three things: SPF, retinol, and vitamin C, says Dr. Farah Moustafa, a Boston-based dermatologist with Tufts Medical Center. If these are old news for you, she also suggests ingredients to boost your anti-aging skin routine even more.
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Step 1: Always use sunscreen
Using sunscreen on exposed skin, even in the colder months when you’re spending less time outside, is the most effective way to prevent the wrinkles, brown spots, and discoloration we associate with looking older. “If you [wear] sunscreen consistently starting in your 20s, you are going to look decades younger when you’re in your 50s,” Moustafa says. “If you want the biggest bang for your buck, that’s what you would do.” But don’t fret if that’s impossible without a time machine: Adding sunscreen into your routine at any age is a win for your skin to prevent any further UV damage.
Even if you aren’t leaving your house at all one day, it’s still important to wear a minimum of SPF 30, as sunlight (and therefore UV rays) still comes through the windows and causes photo damage. And if you head outside, even for a quick commute, you’re exposing your unprotected skin if you’re not wearing sunscreen. SPF (or sun protection factor) relates to the sunscreen’s ability to block UVB light, which is the wavelength responsible for sunburns and the number indicates how well it does that and for how long. An SPF of 30 blocks 97 percent of UVB rays and boosts sun exposure time by a factor of 30 (your skin starts to burn after 10 minutes, so SPF 30 brings the time to 300 minutes). It’s best to choose a sunscreen labeled “broad spectrum” to ensure that it covers UVA rays, which are the ones linked to premature aging, as well as UVB.
If you’re in the market for a new sunscreen, try the La Roche Posay Anthelios Melt-In Sunscreen Milk, which has an SPF of 60, broad-spectrum protection, and claims to absorb quickly for a non-greasy, lightweight feel. As a chemical sunscreen, this works by absorbing into the skin and converting the sun’s UV rays into heat that’s then released into the air.
If you prefer a physical (a.k.a., mineral) sunscreen to a chemical one, try the Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50, which protects by sitting on top of the skin and deflecting the sun’s rays, but won’t make your skin look ghostly.
- Get the La Roche Posay Anthelios Melt-In Sunscreen Milk on Amazon for $21.99
- Get the Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 on Amazon for $10.97
Step 2: Introduce retinoids into your regimen
Whether you’re adjusting your routine for preventative measures or looking to diminish skin damage that’s already occurred, the next step is to add a retinoid into your nightly skin repertoire. (Some retinoids deactivate in the sunlight, so applying to a clean face at night is best practice.) If you’re new to retinoids or have dry or sensitive skin, Moustafa recommends an over-the-counter retinol, which will be less potent than its prescription counterparts but still derived from vitamin A. Retinol helps stimulate the production of collagen (a protein in the skin), reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and fade brown discoloration. “That should be kind of a gentle way to ease into the routine,” Moustafa says.
As long as you stick with an OTC retinol and integrate it slowly into your routine (once or twice a week at most to start), irritation should be minimal and your skin should adjust. If you feel intense burning or itchiness, or if your skin is red or flaky, you want to reduce or halt your use of the product and consult a doctor. If you’re looking for a top-notch product, try the LilyAna Naturals Retinol Cream, which claims to reduce wrinkles, fine lines, and an uneven tone and texture while also moisturizing with ingredients like aloe, hyaluronic acid, shea butter, and jojoba oil.
If you’ve already used a retinol for awhile, it’s possible to become “retinized,” as Moustafa calls it, which means that your skin adjusted to the product and could use something stronger to continue seeing a positive effect. When this happens, she recommends consulting a dermatologist about using a prescription retinoid, such as tretinoin or tazarotene. From there, your dermatologist can oversee adjustments to help you transition onto a stronger product with minimal irritation. You especially want to consult a dermatologist if you have drier skin or if you’re interested in transitioning to a stronger product during the cooler months when your skin is already adjusting to the dry weather.
Get the LilyAna Naturals Retinol Cream on Amazon for $22.99
Step 3: Give skin a dose of vitamin C
Once you’ve integrated sunscreen and retinol into your daily routine and irritation (if you experience any) ceases, consider adding vitamin C, an antioxidant that also helps to combat UV damage, such as brown spots and discoloration. Unlike retinol, a vitamin C product can slide into your morning skincare routine, in between washing your face and applying a sunscreen.
The trickiest part of vitamin C (a.k.a., ascorbic acid) is that it’s an unstable ingredient, meaning it loses its effect easily with exposure to sunlight and air. (You’ll know your vitamin C is past its lifespan when the product containing it appears darker in color, a telltale sign that the C has oxidized.) For this reason, you want to do your homework before making a purchase, and know that the cost of a vitamin C product may be higher because of the measures a brand takes to preserve the ingredient.
“If someone is selling vitamin C in a container that’s not airtight and not opaque, that means that vitamin C product is likely not stable,” Moustafa says. You also want to look for products that contain ingredients ferulic acid and vitamin E, both of which are antioxidants that stabilize vitamin C. “If you see a brand that has that, that’s another good sign that this is a more kind of stable vitamin C product.” You can also look for a product that uses vitamin C ester, a derivative of vitamin C that’s (you guessed it) more stable. Lastly, look for a vitamin C that clearly labels the percentage of ascorbic acid—15% is Moustafa’s recommended minimum concentration needed for efficacy.
One product that checks all those boxes is the Paula’s Choice C15 Super Booster, a 15% vitamin C serum in an opaque bottle that also contains vitamin E and ferulic acid.
Get the Paula’s Choice C15 Super Booster on Amazon for $49
Step 4: Consider experimenting with other ingredients
Just using the three types of products listed above—SPF, retinoids, and vitamin C—make a killer anti-aging routine for anyone. They’re the three pillars of Moustafa’s own skincare routine, and she believes those will work the best for the majority of people. However, there are some other ingredients worth considering that tout anti-aging benefits, depending on your specific needs and skin concerns. These include:
Niacinamide: A type of vitamin B3, it can help strengthen and protect the skin barrier and reduce redness and acne as well as fine lines and wrinkles. “Niacinamide is nice to add if you have a little bit of redness or if you’re rosacea-prone,” Moustafa says.
Alpha hydroxy acids: AHAs, such as glycolic or lactic acids, chemically exfoliate the skin by breaking up the bonds that hold dead skin cells together, which then allows them to shed away. These can work nicely with retinoids, but Moustafa warns that both retinoids and AHAs can be irritating to the skin on their own, so they may cause even more irritation when combined.
Peptides: Peptides are amino acids that make up proteins in the skin necessary for its elasticity. “[Peptides] have been shown to build not only collagen but elastin in the dermis, so that helps kind of give your skin that bounce and prevent laxity, or sagging, over time,” says Moustafa. This isn’t a necessary step if you don’t see the signs of a loss of elasticity—crinkly or sagging skin—but it won’t hurt, either.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.