Aging gracefully is the goal of hopeful, optimistic milennials everywhere, isn't it? We know that wrinkle-free isn't an option -- unless you're a Real Housewife -- but we'd like to look healthy, and damn good, as the decades go by. Well, as professionals (and capitalism!) tell us, the key to a beautiful complexion is daily care and smart prevention.
We get it: You already knew that! But, don't you get confused about how exactly you should be "preventing" things? (Is Botox preventative?) How can we weave anti-aging products into our routines without prompting an onslaught of clogged pores and acne? And, more importantly, at what point do we need to get Olivia-Pope levels of serious about fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation?
To answer these very important questions (and help phase you into real adulthood), we consulted one prominent dermatologist and two aestheticians. Here, they take us through the early, middle, and late chapters of our 20s, and then give us a sneak peek at our 30s. But, before you start clicking, we want you to note: At no point is it too late to start taking good care of your skin. And, if you have any questions about what you see here, feel free to leave a message in the comments, and we'll be sure to get back to you.
The Early 20s
Adulthood is just beginning for you, children of the future! Unfortunately, while life speeds up, your body does the opposite. "Skin-repair replacement mechanisms begin to slow by age 20," says celebrity dermatologist Harold Lancer, MD. "In women, there are hormonal shifts -- estrogen declines, and testosterone increases." This might come as a surprise for someone who's just beginning to enjoy the best skin of their lives: "Your skin, right now, looks like it's in its prime," says Caroline Hirons, a London-based aesthetician. "But, what you do right now will determine how it looks later on."
So, your early 20s are kind of like facial bootcamp: It's the time to build up the proper discipline and habits that will help you age gracefully -- without going totally overboard and causing your face to become a red, irritated mess.
Swap the Acne Wash
"Americans treat their skin like it's the enemy," says Hirons. "It's not! Get rid of any foaming acne cleansers, because they're too stripping." Unless you're under specific instructions from your derm to use a medicated daily wash, choose a gentler alternative. "A cleansing milk will balance the complexion and remove the day's grime," she says.
And, of course, washing twice daily is absolutely necessary, as is adapting an oil cleanser for nighttime to remove makeup before you start your routine. "I always tell my clients that cleansing before bed is non-negotiable. Now is the time to be responsible," says celebrity aesthetician Joanna Vargas. (And, don't try to be sneaky after you've had a few too many cocktails at happy hour. "Cleansing wipes absolutely don't count as washing your face!" Hirons says.) You should, however, keep all your clay masks and spot treatments handy, and use them as needed -- especially at night.
Ren Evercalm Gentle Cleansing Milk, $28, available at Nordstrom.
Start Exfoliating Three Times a Week
"You have to stimulate your skin in order for it to repair itself," explains Dr. Lancer. "It's just like exercise -- you have to get the muscles burning in order to promote cardiovascular muscular growth. Make sure to use a scrub at night, so your skin has time to recover." Since you're still young and beautiful (as Lana Del Rey sings), you'll want something gentle with just the right amount of grit: You don't want to rub your face raw. This product should do the trick.
Swap Your Toner
That's right: It doesn't always have to sting! "I always recommend my younger clients stay away from astringent toning products [in favor of] something more balancing," Vargas says. "Rose is incredibly hydrating and good for circulation -- it works on any skin type."
Éminence Organics Rosehip Tonique, $38, available at Buy Natural Skincare.
Start Using an Eye Cream
"The skin around the eyes is very thin and gentle, which means signs of aging are likely to start there," says Vargas. You should apply a basic, hydrating eye cream both day and night to keep fine lines at bay. Just pat it in with your ring finger, and make sure you leave time for it to sink into the skin.
Embryolisse Secret de Maquilleurs Artist Secret Radiant Eye, $45, available at Beautyhabit.
Get Diligent About SPF
The biggest no-brainer, though, is starting to use SPF, ASAP. "Daily sun protection will go a very long way in terms of preventing the signs of aging," Hirons says. Dr. Lancer notes: "You should be using [SPF] 15 to 30, because much more than that is [just] marketing. Just make sure to apply it liberally -- that's the one mistake a lot of my patients make with sunscreens." We love this all-natural wonder from Canada.
Consonant The Perfect Sunscreen, $45, available at Consonant.
Get to Know Glycolic Acid
Renowned for both its resurfacing and purifying properties, glycolic acid helps regenerate the skin and treat pesky acne and blackheads. "It will also help with pore size and improve overall skin texture," Vargas says. The best part? It comes from all sorts of delightful, naturally-sourced ingredients, so you can feel good about using it. (Yup, raspberries can help you battle wrinkles!) Start by using this product only on the nights you exfoliate, and then build your way up to once a night. You'll wake up with a glowing, polished visage.
Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum, $90, available at Sephora.
Get to Know Antioxidants
"There's a huge lifestyle component to skin care," says Dr. Lancer. "At this age, you're wolfing down your lunch, going to parties, imbibing too much alcohol, and being surrounded by tobacco products. That's why antioxidants are key." You can only counteract the damage done by living la vida Lohan with the proper cocktail of ingredients, which helps ward off environmental stressors. This daily cream does the trick without being too heavy.
When you're applying it, says Hirons, be sure to save some for the neck and décolletage. "Americans are the only people who think the face stops at the chin," she says. Save yourself from a future of turtlenecks by spreading the love.
Tammy Fender Antioxidant Creme, $95, available at Beauty Bar.
Try a Facial Oil
Oils are the true gold standard of skin care, mostly because they contain potent ingredients and optimum moisturizing properties. "The right oil can also help mend acne scars and breakouts," Hirons says. She recommends this blend by Sunday Riley, which contains a purifying lemon-myrtle oil. "Just be careful: A couple of drops across the forehead and cheeks should do it. Avoid the chin!"
Sunday Riley Artemis Hydroactive Cellular Face Oil, $125, available at Barneys New York.
Okay, so you've built the foundation for good skin. Congratulations! Now, it's time to start getting a little more serious. Twenty-five is, in the beauty world, a tipping point: "By age 25, the skin has decelerated its repair mechanisms, and that affects your entire body," says Dr. Lancer. This is also when you can accurately evaluate what damage has been caused -- and, with the help of a dermatologist, plan how to treat it. "Everybody should be seeing a board-certified dermatologist at least once a year by this point in their life," says Vargas. Together, you and your derm can discuss concerns like hyperpigmentation or hormonal acne. At the quarter-century mark, you should allow for splurges now and then, which means one thing: "Monthly facials are essential for detoxing the pores and doing a mini-peel," Vargas says. "You should also look for a service that provides oxygen for the skin, which promotes healing." And, this is just the beginning.
Keep Your Cleanser, But Upgrade Your Scrub
"The 'no pain, no gain' rule also applies to skin," insists Dr. Lancer, whose Polish exfoliant is beloved by Victoria Beckham. "By your mid-20s, your skin is more like a couch potato: It has potential, but it's lazy. This will help get it up and running." Try using this three times a week before bed in order to super-charge the rest of your routine. (There's a formula for blemish-prone skin, too.)
As for the rest of your regimen? Make sure to maintain the nightly double-cleansing, the daily SPF, the eye cream, your oil, and your antioxidant moisturizer.
Lancer Skincare The Method Polish Exfoliator, $75, available at Nordstrom.
Upgrade Your Serum
"Moisturizer is for skin type, but serum is for skin condition," explains Hirons. That means it's time to start treating whatever's bothering your complexion with some seriously revved-up ingredients -- a.m. and p.m. "Alpha-hydroxy acids will help to dry up hormonal breakouts and lightly exfoliate," she says. "Antioxidants, like vitamin C, will help to protect and brighten spots and acne scars." For the former, try the pictured product. For the latter, we love Eminence Organics Citrus Kale Potent C+E Serum. Not sweating anything in particular? Keep clicking.
Ole Henriksen Invigorating Night Treatment, $45, available at Sephora.
Not concerned about breakouts or pigment issues? That doesn't mean you're off the hook: Skipping serum is like skipping your daily vitamins! Instead, try the universally-friendly Joanna Vargas Daily Serum for a radiance-boosting cocktail of antioxidants and hyaluronic acid. It'll perk up a tired complexion in a pinch.
Joanna Vargas Skincare Daily Serum, $85, available at Beauty.com.
Update Your Toner
You let go of the alcohol-based acne toners for a few years, but now you need to get serious. "Acid toning is essential, because it gives you a gentle, mild exfoliation," Hirons says. This product, known among beauty junkies simply as "P50," is what Hirons calls "the Rolls-Royce of toners." She says to use it nightly, but we suggest easing into it: For the first few times, it tingles and stings, and might leave you a little pink. (It gets better -- promise!) The reason? It has a high AHA content, which regulates oil production and maintains the skin's pH level for a balanced, even complexion.
Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 1970, $57, available at Rescue Spa.
Update Your Masks
Now's the time to invest in an anti-aging treatment. But, is there one that can also help with pimples, just in case? "I'm a huge fan of lactic acid because it lightly exfoliates, but also minimizes the pores," Vargas says. Her Exfoliating Mask (shown here) is a soon-to-be cult beauty product, beloved by her celebrity clients (and this writer). "It's gentle enough that you can put it under your eyes for a quick pick-me-up," she says. "Or, you can sleep with it on blemishes to treat them overnight."
This overnight mask tightens skin as you sleep and drenches it with moisture, so you'll wake up looking a little more contoured than usual, and feeling a whole lot softer.
Fresh Black Tea Firming Overnight Mask, $92, available at Sephora.
Add Night Cream
The days of one moisturizer are over: You have officially joined the legions of women who use night cream. "Sleep is an important time for the skin," Vargas says. This is especially true if you're using products like Polish and P50 -- you'll need a healthy dose of moisture before bed when active ingredients are at play. "You can use just your facial oil, or you can put on a night cream and then an oil, depending on your skin type," Hirons suggests. "But, start with something light, and avoid anything with shea butter -- this one is gentle enough for daily use."
Kate Somerville Nourish Daily Moisturizer, $20, available at Kate Somerville.
The Late 20s
"By 29, you really need to get serious about stuff," says Vargas. "Your skin goes through a complete transformation between the ages of 22 and 29. Your body's ability to produce new skin cells slows down completely." Look at your late 20s as an opportunity to really crack the whip on your complexion before the big 3-0: You can start using retinol, learn that "plump" is a good thing when it comes to your skin, and learn how to protect your skin barrier in a major way. All of this hard work will hopefully delay the need for more serious things, like Retin-A and chemical peels, until they're absolutely necessary. You should, however, see a facialist once a month for a peel and an LED light treatment, which will help maintain your skin's texture.
Update Your Cleanser (Again), Exfoliate Daily
We know: It's the millionth time you'll have done this in a decade, but a cleansing balm is totally worth it. "They destroy makeup without being stripping, and they still leave the skin feeling soft and supple," Hirons says. She loves this one for an ultra-nourishing feel. But, if you're combination, you might prefer Nude's Cleansing Jelly, which is safe for eyes and face.
Unless you have sensitive skin, you should also try exfoliating every night. But, choose a cleanser-scrub hybrid, and save the Polish for the days in-between. Try Tata Harper Regenerating Cleanser.
Sarah Chapman Skinesis Ultimate Cleanse, $75, available at Bloomingdale's.
For more skin-care tips, visit Refinery29.
By Phillip Picardi.