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“Your skin’s outer layers make or break your glow factor — if yours are dry, they won’t allow light in,” says Ranella Hirsch, M.D., a dermatologist in Boston.
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updated 8/15/2008 8:21:48 AM ET 2008-08-15T12:21:48

Think birthdays are all that shout your age to the world? Unfortunately, your skin can make you look older than you are.

Testers in a study from the University of Göttingen in Germany estimated that people whose discoloration was digitally removed from photos were five years younger than their true age. When wrinkles were also smoothed, they guessed a 15-year age drop.

Luckily, our plans can help you remove your biggest age markers such as spots, lines and dullness. So by your next birthday, you can have your youngest-looking skin in years! 

Overall dullness
Banishing dullness couldn’t be easier — or offer more instant gratification. SELF found advice that will have you seeing the light.

Exfoliate weekly. Radiance starts with sloughing off dead skin cells. “The cellular turnover cycle that was 28 days in your youth will expand to close to 35 days by your 40s,” says Ellen Marmur, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City. Because new skin equals younger-looking skin, your goal is to speed things up. Sensitive types can try a night moisturizer with alpha hydroxy acids. For normal skin, try a stronger salicylic acid peel or a microdermabrasion kit; use either once a week only.

Get dewy skin. Right after you exfoliate is the best time to hydrate. “Your skin’s outer layers make or break your glow factor — if yours are dry, they won’t allow light in,” says Ranella Hirsch, M.D., a dermatologist in Boston. Use a serum with humectants such as hyaluronic acid daily. For extra-dry skin, look for proteins or linoleic acid (in StriVectin Facial Anti-oxidant, $109), which will plump up skin. Follow with sunblock — derms warn that nothing destroys radiance more than sun exposure.

Breathe and relax. “Chronic stress can produce hormones that damage the skin, robbing it of many of the nutrients it needs to look healthy, and dullness can be the result,” Dr. Hirsch says. Sleep deprivation and crash diets do the same. Test different forms of stress relief to find what works for you.

An uneven skin tone
You can blame the sun for the freckles and brown patches most of us consider to be age spots, but there’s a bright side: They will respond rapidly to lightening treatments.

Switch exfoliants. Trade in your normal scrub for a daily cleanser with 2 to 5 percent glycolic or salicylic acid. Scrubs’ gritty texture can cause your pigment-producing cells to produce even more color, but chemical exfoliants gently peel away skin’s top layer, taking some excess pigment with it, Dr. Marmur says. Plus, exfoliating clears the way for lighteners to penetrate better.

Focus on the biggest blotches. First, see your derm to make sure the spots aren’t cancerous. Everything A-OK? Start by targeting the largest marks. “If you lighten four or five of your darkest spots, you can look 10 years younger,” Dr. Marmur says. The strongest eraser you can buy without an Rx is 2 percent hydroquinone, which works by “turning off” the pigment-producing enzymes. (A good one: Rodan + Fields Reverse Skin Lightening Treatment, $77.) Apply twice a day and you should see results in six weeks. If you have sensitive skin, opt for a cream with botanical lighteners such as arbutin or kojic acid (both are in SkinCeuticals Phyto +, $72). These are gentler but not as effective as hydroquinone.

Brighten up all over. If you have many marks, derms warn against using hydroquinone everywhere. “Because it doesn’t distinguish between your normal tone and a splotch, it will leave skin with bleached areas if used across your face,” Dr. Marmur says. Instead, use moisturizers with gentle lighteners (vitamin C or soy), which you can apply all over daily to brighten uniformly.

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Keep marks away. Even after you’ve faded your blotches, the pigment-producing cells that caused them are still there, dormant. And they’re easy to turn back on. Derms warn that only one sunny day can revive the same spots, setting you back a couple of months. Wear broad-spectrum sunscreen daily.

Fine lines and wrinkles
Tiny lines can start showing up by your late 20s or early 30s, first near the eyes, where skin is the thinnest. Although they’re the most difficult age marker to erase, treatments are continually improving. Use these wrinkle-fighting secrets.

Rely on retinol... Derms swear by retinol, a vitamin A derivative, for its line-minimizing capabilities. Apply a lotion with 1 percent retinol nightly. Follow in the morning with a cream that contains antioxidants, which studies have shown help curb any inflammation that retinol can cause.

…or peptides if you're sensitive. Although they’re less potent than retinols, peptides (proteins that stimulate skin to produce new collagen growth) don’t sting as much, making them a good option for those whose skin can’t tolerate retinol.

Firm with a high-tech gadget. New at-home handheld devices such as the Tända Professional Skincare System, $395, beam low-intensity infrared light waves onto skin to stimulate collagen growth. They’re not cheap, so it’s important to know what you can expect. “They’re not going to erase deep wrinkles, but they can make shallow lines look better after three months,” says Neil Sadick, M.D., a dermatologist in NYC.

Protect from future damage. Look for antioxidants — soy, idebenone and coffeeberry — in your sunscreen. “They help prevent UV light from wearing away existing collagen,” Dr. Sadick says. By preventing damage, antioxidants allow your skin to focus on building new collagen and other tasks (such as getting rid of old skin cells) that keep it looking young.

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