Image: Woman's face
"These days, it's perfectly reasonable to expect your skin to get better as you age — no matter what the date on your driver's license," says Ranella Hirsch, MD, president of the American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology.
updated 7/12/2009 11:39:45 AM ET 2009-07-12T15:39:45

The best skin of your life may well be ahead of you. Sure, with each passing decade, you face fresh challenges in your quest for a radiant complexion: There are the newfound crow's feet in your 40s, the postmenopausal dryness in your 50s, and the sagging that sets in by your 60s. But the right products and procedures will prepare you to meet these challenges head-on.

"These days, it's perfectly reasonable to expect your skin to get better as you age — no matter what the date on your driver's license," says Dr. Ranella Hirsch, president of the American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology and Aesthetic Surgery and a cosmetic dermatologist in Cambridge, Mass.

Still, knowing what's right for you — from the most potent creams to the latest lasers — can be confusing. That's where this decade-by-decade guide comes in. It's filled with everything you need to know, including exactly what to use when. Follow along and your skin's future will look very bright.

Your 40s: treat, tone and texture

Best home treatments
Embrace retinoids: These vitamin A derivatives boost collagen production (which softens fine lines and minimizes pores). Retinoids rev up sluggish cell turnover, so skin becomes smoother and more radiant, and dark spots fade. Prescription versions such as Renova yield noticeable changes after about eight weeks; retinol, the strongest over-the-counter option, takes 12 weeks. Choose a product formulated with up to 1 percent retinol, the highest amount available OTC, depending on your skin's tolerance. Try Remergent Advanced Retinol Therapy ($56; remergentskin.com) and Roc Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Serum ($20; drugstores). Ease in by using a retinoid every third night for at least two weeks. Apply it every other night for the next two weeks, ramping up to nightly application. Summer's the ideal time to get started on a retinoid — the increased humidity tempers dryness that might occur as your skin acclimates.

Exfoliate regularly:Once you've built up to a nightly retinoid application, boost its benefits by substituting in an alpha-hydroxy acid twice a week. "Both ingredients exfoliate, leaving skin brighter and smoother," says New Orleans-based dermatologist Dr. Mary Lupo. "But because they stimulate cell renewal in different ways, you'll get maximum improvement using both." If skin is dry, choose an AHA formulated with moisturizing lactic acid.

Consider hydroquinone: This agent, which inhibits the production of melanin, is one of the most effective ways to fade blotchiness, says Hirsch. OTC creams contain 2 percent HQ, which lightens subtle discoloration over several months. Rx versions boast 4 percent, and daily spot treatment can diminish dark patches in six to eight weeks. "Keep in mind, though, that a single afternoon spent unprotected in the sun can undo all that hard work," says Wechsler. Use HQ only for three months. After that, maintain results with a skin lightener that contains kojic acid or licorice extract.

Turn to the pros
Reduce brown spots: Intense pulsed light (IPL) employs a broad wavelength of light to target brown spots and red areas, destroying them without damaging the upper layers of the skin; you may look a little pink for an hour after treatment. Four to six monthly sessions at about $400 each should be enough to even out your complexion; a maintenance session every 6 to 12 months keeps up the results.

Restore your glow: A series of LED (light-emitting diode) treatments, either on their own or in conjunction with IPL, uses painless light energy to minimize fine lines, reduce pore size, diminish dark spots, and give skin a smoother texture. There's no downtime: You sit in front of a panel of 2,000 tiny pulsing lights for up to 40 minutes; results become more noticeable after three weeks. "LED thickens the skin, so it looks more luminous when light bounces off it," says Dr. David Goldberg, a clinical professor of dermatology and director of laser research at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. A recent study published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology also showed that the device promotes new collagen formation and decreases inflammation that causes collagen to break down. Six monthly treatments at about $100 each and twice-yearly touch-ups are recommended.

Erase lines: Botox is the surest way to smooth creases you're already noticing and prevent more. It temporarily relaxes facial muscles so they can't move and create wrinkles. "Botox retrains your muscles, so the effects last longer and longer," says Goldberg. "Some patients who start when they're 45 are coming in only twice a year by the time they're 50." Each treatment costs approximately $400, and results last about 4 months.

Your 50s: hydrate and plump
The average age of menopause is 51, and with the drop in hormones, skin becomes parched and brown spots increase. Deeper folds, including the "smile" lines that run from the corners of the nose to the corners of the mouth, develop as skin loses underlying fat. This loss also "hollows out" the under-eye area, says Dr. Kenneth Beer, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Miami.

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Best home treatments
Switch to a gentler cleanser: Replace oil-stripping gel cleansers or bar soaps with a creamy face wash. Choose double-duty moisturizers. "Look for formulas that contain a humectant to draw water in and an occlusive to create a barrier that prevents it from evaporating," says Dr. Arielle Kauvar, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center. Try L'Oréal Paris Age-Perfect Pro-Calcium Restorative Hydrating Cream ($20; drugstores) and the Body Shop Wise Woman Regenerating Night Cream ($34; thebodyshop.com).

Rethink your retinoid: If you haven't already, switch to Renova or Atralin; both are moisturizing.

Take care of your eyes: Collagen and fat loss under delicate eye skin makes crow's feet more apparent. Plump lines with a nightly application of an eye cream. Look for one with silicone, an emollient that temporarily "spackles" fine lines, says Dr. Heidi Waldorf, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Turn to the pros
Plump lines and lips: Filling materials injected into your skin enhance hollow areas. For a natural look, choose a filler that contains hyaluronic acid, formulated from a substance found in skin. Both Restylane and Juvederm last about 6 months and are ideal for plumping the smile lines, lips, and under-eye area. Perlane, which is thicker, is used to fill deeper folds and sunken cheeks and lasts up to eight months.

Prevent wrinkles: Botox softens new folds and increases the longevity of fillers by minimizing the muscle movement that can cause them to dissipate.

Improve tone: The Q-Switched Laser is a light source that unseats tenacious clusters of melanin. A scab is left behind, which falls off after a few days — taking the spot with it. One to three treatments (at about $500 each) are generally sufficient. To zap blood vessels, most derms employ a pulsed-dye laser, which causes vessels to collapse. It takes up to six sessions ($400 to $500 a pop) to see total clearing. Postprocedure bruises linger up to 7 days.

For overall smoothness: Fractionated nonablative lasers minimize discoloration and soften lines. They split each light beam into thousands of microscopic zones, so only 20 percent of your face is targeted in a session. The skin cells around these dots are spared and help the treated areas heal more quickly. Three to five treatments at $1,000 and up each are required to resurface an entire area; expect redness for a few days afterward.

Your 60s and beyond: nourish and lift
The upper layers of skin struggle to retain moisture, oil production slows, and dark spots are more pronounced. Bone loss, particularly in the lower part of the face, creates jowls, says Beer, and the area below your cheekbones and your temples may look sunken. Fair-skinned women often start to notice concentrated areas of roughness, called actinic keratoses (AKs). These scaly patches are more than an aesthetic concern — they can be precursors to skin cancer.

Best home treatments
Minimize facial cleansing: Even creamy cleansers can irritate very dry skin, so you may want to use just a milky makeup remover that tissues off without the need to rinse. Try Albolene ($12; drugstores) and Avène Gentle Cleanser ($20; drugstores).

Slather on seriously intense moisturizers: You can handle the thickest ones available now; look for formulas with a high concentration of oils, such as petrolatum. Many doctors recommend straight Vaseline at night. "It seals in moisture, and is gentle enough to use on eyelids," says Waldorf.

Adjust your retinoid: Instead of applying it on bare skin, layer a light moisturizer underneath, or mix it with your moisturizer. If all else fails, downgrade to a more moisturizing formula.

Turn to the pros
Attack all signs of aging: The fractionated CO2 laser softens lines and wrinkles and makes dark spots disappear without downtime or risk of scarring associated with the original CO2 laser. In a recent study, side effects (including redness, swelling, and flaking of the skin) subsided in about 5 days. One to three treatments at about $1,000 and up each are usually necessary. Fractional CO2 lasers may cause collagen to "contract," leading to skin tightening (and less sagging) 3 to 6 months after treatment; Goldberg says about 50 percent of patients experience this.

Lift and tighten: Titan and Thermage help pick up the slack in the lower face without a scalpel. Both heat the skin deep below the surface (Titan uses infrared light; Thermage draws on radiofrequency energy), inducing the production of more collagen and causing existing collagen to contract. The only downtime is a few hours of redness, but you'll need up to three treatments at $1,200 each to see maximum results.

Eliminate early skin cancers: Photodynamic therapy (PDT) offers both medical and cosmetic benefits. The skin is painted with a photosensitizing acid, which is activated with light; a chemical reaction destroys abnormalities in skin — removing both visible AKs and precancer cells. Skin is left red, swollen, and sore for up to 4 days, but after a week, it will be softer, healthier, and more evenly toned. One or two sessions, which run about $250 and up, usually suffice.

Sunscreen, the ultimate skin saver: There's no question that UV exposure makes you look older than your years. "It's responsible for about 75 percent of skin aging," says Ranella Hirsch, MD. Don't think that it's too late to start protecting your skin: One study found that you've received less than half your lifetime UV exposure at age 40; by age 59, you've soaked up 74 percent. For the best protection, look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 15 (30 is even better) containing Mexoryl, Helioplex, avobenzone, zinc oxide, or titanium dioxide.

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