We asked dermatologists to share the essential skincare products you should be using at every age.
There are a few skincare products that are essential throughout your life—think a really good moisturizer, or a gentle cleanser that won't dry out skin. But certain ingredients are more important than others, especially when your skin is undergoing big changes as you age (hello, fine lines, dark spots, and a loss of elasticity). Below, we polled dermatologists to find out the most important skincare products to have in your arsenal in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond.
Your 20s skincare plan: Establish a routine
In a few decades, you'll think back longingly on your 20-year-old collagen. "Right now, your skin looks bright, bouncy, and plump," says Debra Jaliman, MD, New York City dermatologist, adding that this is the time to establish a skincare routine focused on cleansing, exfoliating, toning, and moisturizing. "The earlier this routine is started, the better off you will be in terms of preventing wrinkles."
Since you probably don't have too many fine lines at this age, "the focus of your skincare should be protection," says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in the department of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. That's because up until you hit 30, skin cell turnover and skin's ability to heal still function optimally, he explains. Making sure to use sunscreen every day (more on that later) will pay off in the long run.
Best skincare ingredient for your 20s: Niacinamide
"Niacinamide stimulates fibroblasts that make collagen, so it helps with fine lines," says Dr. Jaliman. Plus, the ingredient (also known as vitamin B3) can even out skin tone, improve the appearance of enlarged pores, and brighten dull skin.
To start incorporating niacinamide into your routine, Dr. Jaliman recommends InstaNatural 5% Niacinamide Serum, telling us it's "a good one to use at any age," but especially in your 20s when it can prevent early signs of aging from worsening. "Besides the niacinamide, it has other beneficial ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, vitamin E, rosemary extract, and aloe," she says. The fact that it rings in under $15 doesn't hurt, either.
Best skincare ingredient for your 20s: Salicylic acid
Many people in their 20s are more focused on preventing breakouts than fine lines—which is understandable, since "hormone levels at this age go up and down, and acne may be a result," says Dr. Jaliman.
To keep breakouts at bay, reach for products that contain salicylic acid; this beta hydroxy acid can help speed up cell turnover to fight acne at the source. "Many people [in their 20s] still suffer from oily skin, so using a salicylic acid-based cleanser may be useful," says Dr. Zeichner. Our pick: CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser, which will clear pores without being too drying.
Best skincare ingredient for your 20s: SPF
Your 30s skincare routine: Up the anti-aging ante
For the most part, the routine you established in your 20s is still relevant, says Dr. Jaliman. (Especially the sunscreen part—seriously, wear it every day!) But because you may be noticing deeper crow's feet, more prominent frown lines, and a little less bounce as collagen production starts to slow down (sob), it might be a good idea to add some stronger anti-aging formulations into the mix.
Minimizing stress is important, too, especially since many people in their 30s are handling bigger work responsibilities or entering new roles as parents. "We know that stress interferes with wound healing, can promote acne breakouts, and may be associated with early wrinkling," says Dr. Zeichner.
This is also a good time to book an appointment with your dermatologist to see if she recommends any in-office preventative treatments. "Beginning non-invasive options in your 20s and 30s could help you to avoid a larger invasive procedure down the line," says Arash Akhavan, MD, a dermatologist at the Dermatology and Laser Group in New York City.
Best skincare ingredient for your 30s: Retinol
Now is the time to start getting acquainted with your skin's new BFF: retinol. "To help maintain a strong skin foundation and stimulate collagen production, add on topical retinol," says Dr. Zeichner. He likes Roc Retinol Max Correction, which "delivers retinol effectively without irritating the skin" at a crazy-affordable price point.
Best skincare ingredient for your 30s: Hyaluronic acid
As collagen production starts to diminish, fine lines may start to become more noticeable. Keep your complexion plump and hydrated with hyaluronic acid, a humectant that helps attract moisture to skin. Dr. Jaliman likes Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream. It packs hyaluronic acid as well as niacinamide and amino peptides, "which are ideal for firming the skin."
According to Dr. Akhavan, these two ingredients actually work better together. "Pair [retinol, which can] sometimes be drying and irritating with hyaluronic acid to even out its effects," he says. Plus: more hyaluronic acid serums we love.
Your 40s skincare plan: Rest and repair
In addition to maintaining the good habits you've already set—a solid skincare routine, SPF every day, and healthy lifestyle choices like not smoking and drinking plenty of water—now is the time to pay closer attention to the quality of your sleep. "When we sleep, the skin undergoes rest and repair," says Dr. Zeichner. "Not sleeping means that the skin won’t repair itself from today’s damage as well as it could."
Best skincare ingredient for your 40s: Antioxidants
"In your 40s, it is time to start adding an antioxidant to your routine," says Dr. Zeichner. "As your skin's natural antioxidant defenses start to slow down, the skin cannot protect itself as well as it once could from the environment."
Feeling splurge-y? Try Dr. Jaliman's favorite serum, Revaleskin Intense Recovery Treatment. It's packed with good-for-skin antioxidants like grape seed extract, green tea, and tocopherol to combat free radicals and keep skin hydrated and clear.
Best skincare ingredient for your 40s: Vitamin C
Dr. Zeichner tells us that one antioxidant is particularly potent, and that's vitamin C. "It can help protect the skin from the environment and interference with production of abnormal pigmentation, so it can help brighten dark spots," he says. What's more, vitamin C can also help prevent future damage. Win-win.
Dr. Zeichner's go-to pick is affordable, too. L'Oreal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives Vitamin C Serum "has proven stability and clinically-tested results," he says. Plus: more vitamin C serums we love.
Your 50s skincare plan: Hydrate
It's likely you have some skin damage at this point, but avoid any further sun damage by wearing wide brim hats and clothing with UPF, says Dr. Jaliman.
She adds that at this age, you should swap out products that may dry your skin. "If you don’t have acne-prone skin, give up products that have salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide as they can dry the skin," she says. "Women in their 50s should use products that hydrate the skin."
Also important: Stay moving. "As skin cells get older, they don’t function optimally," says Dr. Zeichner. "Exercise has been shown to help stimulate mitochondria activity, which are the skin cells’ powerhouses."
Best skincare ingredient for your 50s: Peptides
"In your 50s, you want to boost skin selectivity as much as you can," says Dr. Zeichner. "Look for specialized ingredients like growth factors and peptides, which act like messengers to stimulate activity of your skin cells."
Dr. Jaliman agrees: "When you apply topical peptides, they minimize wrinkles and give your skin a more youthful appearance," she says. Plus, peptides can also help boost collagen production.
Dr. Zeichner likes another powerful Olay anti-ager, Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Super Cream. "It contains a collagen stimulating peptide and a moisturizing base, which is important to treat dry skin with age," he says.
Best skincare ingredient for your 50s: Retinol
Retinol: still important. "Retinol stimulates a quicker renewal of skin cells," says Dr. Jaliman. "When someone uses retinol, the outer layer of the skin is sloughed off and the newer skin underneath is revealed."
That's especially important in your 50s, she adds, since skin thickens as we age, and exfoliating is a great way to reveal fresher skin. She recommends Replenix All-trans-Retinol Smoothing Serum 3X, which delivers retinol as well as caffeine, green tea, and hyaluronic acid.