The 40s are a facial-aging tipping point. “Aging seems to appear rather dramatically and suddenly in your 40s due to the onset of the hormonal changes,” said Dr. Zenovia Gabriel, a Newport Beach–based dermatologist who specializes in hormonal skin aging. Estrogen production declines slowly during perimenopause, which typically starts in the mid- to late-40s, then drops precipitously as menopause begins.
What exactly does estrogen loss do to your face? “You would see diminished overall thickness of your skin, increased dryness and less elasticity resulting in sagging,” says Gabriel. In fact, Dr. Michelle Henry, the founder of Skin & Aesthetic Surgery of Manhattan, says that “after the age of 30, we have one percent less collagen production, and we start to lose a teaspoon of fat in our face per year.” The cumulative effects of decades of sun damage and oxidative stress show up as fine lines and hyperpigmentation. Meanwhile, at a deeper level, the natural loss of supportive fat and bone create creases in the skin.
Deep-tissue issues (like fat loss and sagging) can only be addressed at a doctor’s office. But there are plenty of other ways we can treat aging skin at home. Whether you want a basic routine or an all-in skin preservation regimen, ahead are product recommendations from top dermatologists and a celebrity aesthetician.
If your level is … Beginner
You have a low-key approach to skin care. But in your 40s, even your basics should give your skin a boost (gently). “You can reduce your regimen down to three steps: cleanse, moisturize, and protect,” says Henry. Below are a few products that incorporate the essential ingredients you need.
You’ll need: a gentle cleanser with benefits
Dry skin is common in the 40s, said Dr. Arash Akhavan, a dermatologist in New York City and founder of the Dermatology & Laser Group. Glycerin, a humectant, is the base of this cleanser, so it draws moisture into the skin while you wash. Ceramides, lipids that fortify our skin barrier, are also at play here. They help the skin retain more moisture, said Akhavan.
A moisturizer with antioxidants
Gabriel then recommends using a moisturizer with antioxidants, another important ingredient to add into your routine at this age. Henry says antioxidants “help to combat free radical damage from things like UV rays from pollution and from infrared light.” This one from La Roche-Posay contains moisture-locking ceramides and the antioxidant niacinamide.
A mineral sunscreen
Much of the aging we experience — fine lines, dark spots, texture changes — is due to sun damage. Though we start to see those effects in our 40s, we can’t give up on preventing future damage. Most of the experts we spoke to recommend a mineral-based sunscreen to avoid the potential irritation that can come with chemical-based sunscreens. Henry likes this one from SkinMedica, and she echoes what we’ve heard time and time again: Wear a sunscreen with at least 30 SPF. She likes this one specifically because it combats blue light and contains antioxidants.
A non-irritating retinoid
In the evening, beginners in their 40s should incorporate a retinol into their regimen to enhance cellular turnover (which slows as we age) and to help increase collagen and elasticity in the skin, which also more rapidly declines in this decade. Board certified dermatologist, Dr. Corey L. Hartman, founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama, says it’s a nonnegotiable in this decade, so even beginners should use it. “It’s the closest thing we have to a holy grail,” he says. “It does everything. It helps with acne breakouts, helps with the skin surface, it helps with more effective exfoliation, It gets rid of that dullness, It helps with fine lines and wrinkles, it really does it all.” While there are plenty of retinol serums out there (more on those later), a beginner might like something like this Olay Regenerist Retinol Moisturizer which is a night cream and retinol in one. Gabriel says it’s a great beginner product containing niacinamide, an antioxidant that prevents the irritation sometimes brought on by retinoids.
If your level is … intermediate
At the intermediate level, introduce products that repair damage and treat problems that can occur in our 40s, like dark spots, fine lines, and even acne. Use the “beginner” product categories as your baseline routine and add items from this list based on your needs and the amount of effort you’re willing to commit to a routine.
A skin-brightening serum
Applying a vitamin C serum after cleansing will reduce age spots and uneven tone that many people experience in their 40s, says Gabriel. Both Gabriel and Hartman recommended this serum from Vichy. Gabriel likes it because “it combines 15 percent pure vitamin C and hyaluronic acid for brighter skin,” and Hartman is a fan because, even though it’s a drugstore serum, it “gives you all the benefits of some of the higher-end brands, and it’s in a formulation that really works well for most skin types.”
A hyaluronic acid serum
According to Akhavan, dryness and dullness, effects of increase transepidermal water loss, are common skin complaints among patients in their 40s. If this sounds familiar, your routine needs a hyaluronic acid serum — it’s a powerful humectant, meaning it draws in much-needed hydration. The Jordan Samuel Skin Hydrate Facial Serum cocktail of humectants include glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and aloe leaf juice (which is also anti-inflammatory).
A (less expensive) hyaluronic acid serum
For a drugstore option, Hartman is a fan of this hyaluronic acid serum. “It has all the nutrients and minerals from the proprietary volcanic water that Vichy owns in France,” he says. “It does a good job of hydrating the skin and also calming any inflammation.” It’s not dramatically cheaper than the Jordan Samuel serum, but you’ll save about $10 and it’s easier to get your hands on.
A cream (not a lotion)
As we’ve mentioned, this is the age to take hydration seriously, so consider a thicker moisturizer. “If you’re someone who didn’t use a cream when you were in your 20s, you were a lotion person, by the time you get to your 40s you might be more into rich creams because your skin is just getting drier and drier and drier,” says Henry. Hartman says this is one of the best whipped creams. He’s a big proponent of antioxidants, which this has, as well as hyaluronic acid.
A retinol-AHA hybrid
If you want to step up your retinol from a two-in-one moisturizer, try this. The hesitation with incorporating a retinol into your routine is potential irritation and dry skin, but Hartman says “AlphaRet figured out how to put a prescription-strength retinol and a glycolic acid into a lotion that I’ve yet to see it cause a problem for anybody.” If you do experience any irritation using retinol he has a trick for that: “Apply the moisturizer first and then put the retinol on top of that. It allows it to get into the skin where it can be effective without causing a lot of irritation on the surface.”
An eye cream
If you’ve ever gotten an eye cream and weren’t impressed with the results, it might not be entirely the product’s fault. Hartman says that eye creams in particular are tailored to a specific issue. “Some people get an eye cream and think ‘Oh, it didn’t work,’ when they didn’t really have one that was geared toward what they were in need of,” he says. At this age, you could be unhappy with a number of things surrounding the skin around your eyes including puffiness, dry skin (which leads to creepiness and unwanted lines), or discoloration. For wrinkles, Gabriel likes this one from Neutrogena. She says it’s “formulated with hyaluronic acid to help boost and lock in hydration around the delicate eye area.”
A gentle exfoliating pad
Aesthetician Shani Darden suggests regular exfoliation to remove dead skin cells on the outermost layer of the skin. “Not only will this brighten dullness and even skin tone, but exfoliation also allows your other treatment products to better penetrate,” she said. The Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta peel combines several chemical exfoliators that gently remove dead layers of skin on the surface, which will not only brighten your skin, but will also allow other treatment products to penetrate the skin better so you’re getting all of the much-needed benefits. “You can also swipe these on the backs of your hands to minimize dark spots there, too,” said Darden.
An acne spot treatment
Hormones fluctuate throughout the 40s, sometimes causing unexpected acne flare ups around the jawline. Retinoids are an effective preventive measure, but these micro-dart pimple patches help shrink active and emerging pimples with a combination of salicylic acid and niacinamide.
If your level is … advanced
“If you’re looking in the mirror and seeing your mother or father staring back at you, or if you have noticed a skin texture that’s not as smooth or even, then you might want to step it up a little bit,” says Hartman. This is where more advanced steps and products could help you get your skin to a point that you’re happy with. If you’re willing to put more time, and frankly more money, into your 40s skin-care routine, you’ll want to incorporate stronger products with highly concentrated active ingredients that target specific areas like skin around the eyes and the neck, and specific skin concerns. Once your skin has acclimated to your basic or intermediate routine, start layering additional options from this list.
An anti-inflammatory serum
Hartman says a very serious step would be adding in a product with growth factors. “Heraux, has a stem-cell growth factor ingredient that helps with the inflammation that we know causes aging,” he says. This is the brand’s proprietary HX-1 ingredient that, according to the product description, “protects stem cells in the skin from stressors that fuel aging, thereby promoting their youthful function and a more radiant appearance.” It also has a lot of the other great ingredients we’ve mentioned like vitamins C, E, and hyaluronic acid, which are all beneficial at this age.
A serum for skin-cell rejuvenation
If you remember SkinMedica’s Recovery Complex, Hartman says this is just a revamped version of that. He says the OG was “legendary,” but it came with a not-so-pleasant smell. They’ve worked out the kinks in this formula, which still includes the brand’s TNS-MR ingredient with peptides that encourage cell renewal. “They stepped it up a notch for people who are really interested in doing everything that they can, and then some, to make sure that not only are they preventing degradation of collagen but also encouraging good skin cells to grow through that growth-factor serum,” says Hartman.
An even punchier retinol
Advanced skin-care users might add retinaldehyde into their routine, which this cream contains. Hartman says it “is one step above in the conversion of retinol so it gets you closer to the retinoic acid [a more potent version of retinol] so you have an effect that’s more apparent more quickly, without a lot of irritation.”
A Botox-like eye treatment
Your 40s is also the decade when, if you haven’t started already, you should consider some in-office treatments by a professional dermatologist or esthetician. But if you’re not ready to try injectables, consider this eye treatment for wrinkles. Hartman says it improves the lines that even Botox can’t fix, the ones that are there even when you’re not moving. “It comes in a dispenser that is specifically targeted to be put in high-traffic line-developing areas like around the eyes and around the mouth, and it has a new technology that’s kind of like Botox, which stops the transfer of acetylcholine from the muscle to make the muscle not tire,” he says. “They found that they can stop that same transfer between skin cells to help with those lines that develop even when you’re not moving.”
An eye cream for discoloration
If your eye concern is less about wrinkles and more about discoloration, Hartman calls this a “workhorse” eye cream. “For people who have that purplish discoloration Isdin K-Ox eyes has vitamin K, which is a unique active ingredient in eye cream that can help with the breakdown of the blood products from the blood vessels that we see around the eyes that cause discoloration,” he says. Because the skin around the eyes is so thin, the blood vessels are more prominent, but this product works to treat that.
A serum for hyperpigmentation
If you’re more concerned with discoloration all over, consider this pigment correcting cream that Hartman says is a game changer. The active ingredient is cysteamine. “Instead of targeting one pathway in the development of pigment, like hydroquinone, it up-regulates the good melanin and down-regulates the bad melanin, so you get a nice evening of the skin tone, while it lightens dark spots,” he says. It’s safe to use all over as well, so you don’t have to worry about getting it in just the right spot. Hartman adds that some studies say it works just as well as 4 percent hydroquinone, which is prescription strength, without the side effects, and provides a more natural result. He recommends using it like a mask and leaving it on for 15 minutes and then washing it off.
A collagen-boosting night cream
This is a cream you can keep on all night. Gabriel says that advanced skin-care folks can beef up their nighttime routines to help achieve the dewy, smooth, and plump skin people lust after in their 40s. After treating your skin with a retinol or one of the other highly concentrated serums above, you can lock it all in with this repair cream. It contains heparan sulfate analog (HSA), which Gabriel says acts as a growth-factor-like agent and “has been proven scientifically effective in protecting collagen and elastin.”
An at-home peel
Henry isn’t a big fan of aggressive at-home peels, but thinks this one from PCA is safe enough to use on all skin types. The kit includes everything from a cleanser to the SPF lotion you should apply after treatment. It also has a detoxifying mask, enzyme treatment, and a rejuvenating serum for noticeably brighter skin.
A collagen-building red light
There’s plenty of beauty tech that skin-care overachievers might want to start incorporating into their routines. Gabriel recommends this LED red light that builds collagen through a process called photobiomodulation. Red light is an ideal wavelength for changing the way the skin functions. It penetrates the skin deeper than other visible light and stimulates the mitochondria, which has an anti-inflammatory and rejuvenating effect. Collagen is built in the dermis, the skin is calmed, and wrinkles eventually fade.
A skin-tightening facial device
To keep your face tight in between office treatments, Henry recommends an at-home microcurrent device like NuFACE. “It’s the one that I’ve tried that I think you can get really good results from, if you’re consistent with the treatment,” she says, adding that if you use it every day “it tightens and stops that sagging gravity effect. It just keeps everything nice and lifted.”
A (less expensive) skin-tightening facial device
If you’re on a budget, Hartman says a low-tech tool like a gua sha stone can deliver similar results. “Gua sha can be used all over the body, but it has an array of skin-care benefits when used as a facial tool — among them are the ability to help drain lymph nodes, sculpt facial muscles, soften fine lines and wrinkles, release tightness, and decrease puffiness or inflammation by accessing tough-to-reach pressure points underneath the skin and stimulating microcirculation of your skin’s soft tissue,” former Strategist writer Rio Viera-Newton reported. This one is under $50 and from one of our favorite AAPI-owned brands.
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