How to get younger skin at any age

Real Simple

Dermatologists offer advice on how to keep skin beautiful, smooth and healthy.

Photo: Robyn Lehr

Growing old gracefully isn't a lost art―it's just a forgotten one. For all those women who think the scalpel or the syringe is the only way to stay "young," here's a news flash: "About 80 percent of aging is caused by environmental factors, things you have control over," says Leslie Baumann, a dermatologist and the director of the University of Miami Cosmetic Center, in Florida.

Real Simple went to eight female dermatologists to find out their own at-home anti-aging routines. They all offer a sensible approach: Protect your skin, use the right skin-care ingredients, and get on with your life.

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To help minimize damage and wrinkles, stay out of the sun and follow these tips:

• Wear sunscreen every day.
You've heard it before: Sun exposure is the number one cause of premature aging. Ultraviolet light from the sun―or a tanning bed―breaks down collagen and elastin, the substances that keep skin smooth and firm.

Apply sunscreen liberally. A too-thin layer of SPF (sun protection factor) 15 is equal to only about SPF 7. Use a shot glass-size amount to cover your body and a teaspoonful to cover your face.

Don't forget your legs. "We find more cases of malignant melanomas on women's legs than on their faces," says Heidi Waldorf, director of laser and cosmetic dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, in New York City.

Don't rely on SPF-enhanced makeup. Chances are you don't wear enough of it to defend your skin.

Choose sunglasses with UV protection. Good sunglasses help prevent cataracts, and they also keep you from squinting, which can, over time, break down the collagen around your eyes and cause crow's-feet.

Avoid smoky situations. If you smoke, quit. And nonsmokers should be aware that chronic exposure to secondhand smoke can damage skin. According to Karyn Grossman, a Santa Monica-based dermatologist, smoke, like the sun, bombards you with free radicals that make skin sallow, break down its collagen, and slow its ability to heal. To fend off damage, Grossman suggests products containing antioxidants, which neutralize free radicals. Her favorite antioxidants are vitamin C, vitamin E, and green tea. "The studies back up their efficacy the most," she says.

Be conscious of repetitive movements. Between smiling, frowning, and talking, your face makes thousands of movements a day. Over time, these repetitive motions lead to deeper lines. It would be unrealistic (not to mention Stepford-like) to stop showing your emotions, but some habits can be curbed. "We're not saying, 'Don't live; don't move,'" says Debra Jaliman, a New York City dermatologist. "But if you're constantly drinking through a straw, chewing gum, or smoking, you're breaking down the collagen around your mouth. And the wrinkles will come earlier."

Stop picking! It's hard to resist the urge to do a little at-home surgery on a pimple, but the mark it might leave is the most persuasive reason not to. "As you age, acne scars often end up looking more like wrinkles," says Grossman. "If you have a pimple on your cheek near where a wrinkle forms, it will make the wrinkle deeper."

Cleanse with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). They help remove the top layer of dead skin cells to reveal a fresh layer underneath. "Alpha hydroxy acids (such as glycolic acid) unclog pores and help your skin look smoother," says Alyson C. Penstein, a dermatologist in New York City. Note: If you have oily or acne-prone skin, try a cleanser with a beta hydroxy acid (BHA).

Use an anti-aging cream at night. New anti-aging creams arrive on cosmetics counters all the time―with bigger claims and heftier price tags. But good old retinoids, which contain a vitamin A derivative, are still the gold standard. "Many studies support retinoids, and they have withstood the test of time," says Marianne O'Donoghue, an associate professor of dermatology at the Rush University Medical Center, in Chicago. Retinoids encourage the skin to renew itself, smoothing fine lines and helping to repair sun damage. They are found in prescription creams, such as Renova and Retin-A, and in lower concentrations in over-the-counter retinol creams. Note: Retinoids can be irritating at first, so apply sparingly. They also leave skin vulnerable to sunburn. If your skin is extra-sensitive, try a milder cream containing kinetin, an ingredient found in plants that has been shown to smooth lines.

Try a weekly exfoliation treatment. Most professional antiaging treatments―including chemical peels and microdermabrasion―shed skin to clear up uneven pigmentation and encourage collagen growth. Now there are effective treatments that are gentle enough to use at home. Robin Ashinoff, director of cosmetic dermatology at the Hackensack University Medical Center, in New Jersey, suggests using a chemical exfoliator. There are also polishing creams that aim to achieve results similar to those of professional microdermabrasion, which manually sloughs off skin with superfine particles. Over time, your skin should respond by thickening slightly. "Thickening is good," explains Mary Ellen Brademas, a New York City dermatologist. "Thicker skin shows fewer wrinkles."

Remember the rest of your body. "Everything you do for your face, you should also do for your neck, chest, and hands," says Baumann. "Those are the primary spots that show aging." At the very least, moisturize: Hydrated skin looks plumper and smoother.

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