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The Best Skin-Care Routine for Your 30s

Photo: courtesy of Thirteen Productions

In your 30s, your skin begins to reflect the complications of adult life. “People are working hard, or trying to get pregnant, or maybe they’re starting to have irregular periods,” says Dr. Anne Chapas, a dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology. And all of this can lead to tired-looking complexions, as well as acne breakouts. Plus, the 30s are when we start to see signs of environmental and genetic aging: That means fine lines, uneven pigment, and maybe some volume loss, caused by the gradual diminishment of supportive tissue (fat and bone) in the face.

All of that’s to say, now is the time to start fine-tuning your routine — or, if you’ve been slacking up to this point, establishing a routine, one that includes at least three products, with hydrating ingredients like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, along with excellent sun protection. Once you have that down, you might want to add in options like an antioxidant serum that can address the free-radical damage involved in premature aging; or, if you’re among the highest achievers in our age group, you can also go for a retinoid treatment and a neck cream.

Whatever your level of skin-care ambition — beginner, intermediate, or advanced — we’ve got the following suggestions from top New York dermatologists (and one anti-aging-focused aesthetician). Line up these products in your arsenal and get a ritual in place. You’ll thank us in the decades ahead.

If Your Level Is Beginner

The less-is-more approach might very well be more than enough, especially if you don’t get breakouts, your skin isn’t prone to irritation or dark spots, and you’re not seeing (or interested in treating) fine lines. “A simple routine is all you need, but you should still be thinking about prevention strategies in this situation,” says Chapas. The following three products should set you up with all the right moisture and protection.

You’ll need: a gentle cleanser

Your face wash should cleanse effectively without stripping your skin of its natural lipids, notes New York dermatologist Dr. Marnie Nussbaum. That’s why this very mild Neutrogena option — its second ingredient is glycerin, which will will draw moisture into your skin — is ideal. Remember that if your skin feels tight after washing, your cleanser is probably too aggressive.

A workhorse moisturizer

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Nussbaum’s pick, CeraVe PM Moisturizing Lotion, is recommended for all ages, but especially as we get into a phase of life where skin tends toward dehydration. You’ve got three powerhouse ingredients working for you here: the ceramides are lipids that fortify your skin barrier, the outermost protective layer; the hyaluronic acid draws in moisture; and niacinamide is an antioxidant that calms the skin and reduces sun damage. And if you’re among those who see breakouts come on in their 30s, as Chapas mentioned above, you don’t have to worry about this light formula clogging your pores.

A more-expensive workhorse moisturizer

Dr. Caroline Robinson of Tone Dermatology likes this moisturizer from First Aid Beauty, which contains niacinamide and peptides, which she says are key ingredients for achieving plump-looking, bouncy skin. “It’s a great option to boost collagen, especially for those who are too sensitive to use a retinol,” says Robinson. It also contains collagen, which Robinson likes because it protects existing collagen, supports collagen production, and also helps increase hydration.

A splurgy workhorse moisturizer

If you’re willing to invest a little more, Robinson recommends this moisturizer from Perricone MD. It’s formulated with 15 active ingredients including six different peptides, omega fatty acids, and vitamin C ester (an ultrastable formulation), which Robinson says work together to deeply nourish and create the appearance of plump, collagen-rich skin.

A mineral sunscreen

At this stage of life, your cell turnover (the rate at which you see new, radiant skin) slows down. Sun exposure also hinders cell turnover, so if you aren’t using a daily sunscreen, definitely start now. In a mineral sunscreen, natural active ingredients form a barrier between you and the sun. Nussbaum is a fan of Supergoop’s Zincscreen, and while the brand has discontinued it, it’s since released Mineral Sheerscreen, which still uses zinc oxide to protect skin. It’s also super-sheer, making it ideal for all skin tones.

If Your Level Is Intermediate

You’re ready to go beyond basic maintenance of your skin health and introduce products that address specific issues — which, in our 30s, typically include acne, rosacea, and fine lines. Perhaps you also want to slow the signs of aging or desire a little extra “pop” — like more brightness and dewiness — in your complexion. Start with our “beginner” staples above and add products from this list based on your needs and desired commitment.

You’ll need: an oil cleanser

Now that you’re set with your everyday cleanser, you can consider prefacing that step with an oil cleanser to first thoroughly remove your makeup (this is also referred to as “the double cleanse”). And for those of us looking for added benefits for our 30s skin, oil cleansers are more than just effective makeup dissolvers, says Jeannel Astarita, an aesthetician and owner of Just Ageless, a body sculpting and skin-care studio in New York. For example, the seabuckthorn oil in this one by Living Libations is anti-inflammatory and has been shown to improve skin elasticity over time. Because it’s so gentle, it also works as a primary face wash, especially if your skin is sensitive and dry. As Astarita reiterates, “The No. 1 mistake I find people make in their 30s is using a cleanser that’s too harsh and strips their skin.”

An alcohol-free toner

Toner is a key product for beyond-the-basics skin care, says New York dermatologist Dr. Michele Green. As the second step in your routine, immediately after cleansing, it removes any lingering residue and dirt (again, think of our increased acne proneness at this age). But it doesn’t have to be overdrying, like those stinging, alcohol-based toners we used as teens. The best ones now are alcohol free and can suffuse a just-washed face with ingredients like exfoliating acids, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatories. As for this Kiehl’s choice, it contains a soothing extract from the petals of the calendula flower, as well as the moisturizing wonder-herb burdock root.

An antioxidant serum

Add in an antioxidant serum like this one to up your environmental protection beyond sunscreen, applying just before your moisturizer, as serums tend to absorb quickly. Dr. Green recommends InstaNatural Vitamin C Serum because, thanks to the vitamin C, it works to neutralize free radicals that damage skin cells (eventually causing premature aging). It is also formulated to correct uneven skin tone and reduce fine lines, and has hyaluronic acid for hydration to boot.

If Your Level Is Advanced

At the highest echelon of skin care for this age, you get target-area specific — that is, using products that hone in on, say, the skin around your eyes or on your neck. Once you’ve established a great regimen of basics from the beginner and intermediate tiers, you can start to layer in some of the following options. We know that you’re busy — “The key constraint is time, particularly in your 30s,” Dr. Chapas notes — but these add-ons really only take a matter of minutes. (And many of them, though on the pricey end, will have a long life; just a little product goes a long way.) In terms of preventing some of the damage that happens in your 30s, like uneven tone, texture changes, and wrinkles, says Chapas, they really will make a difference.

You’ll need: an exfoliating lotion

A few times a week, Astarita likes to add in P50 (the famously stinky hybrid toner-exfoliator) because it works for a variety of 30s-specific concerns — excess pigment, wrinkles, sensitive skin. You can pour a few drops onto a cotton pad and dab all over your face post-cleanser: “While it exfoliates,” Astarita says, “lipids hydrate your skin, which leaves you with an amazing glow.” Just keep in mind, as with any exfoliating product, according to Astarita: If it leaves you red, it’s too harsh.

An eye cream

Eye creams deliver the same active ingredients as moisturizers, but at a gentler strength for thinner skin around the eye. Dr. Nussbaum is a fan of InterFuse because of its vitamin C–humectants combo, which she says protects fragile eye skin while treating fine lines and dark circles.

Or a less-expensive eye cream

While perhaps not as powerful as your splurgier eye creams, as far as drugstore options go, Nussbaum often recommends No7’s Protect & Perfect: “It contains a potent combination of ginseng, mulberry, vitamin C, and peptides,” she says. Together, those ingredients smooth fine lines and treat eye problems like dark circles and puffiness.

A neck cream

“I always say neck cream is the new eye cream,” says Chapas. “Before now, neck creams didn’t work very well. But now we’re seeing these that really do treat the skin-texture changes that happen to the neck over time.” (The neck, after all, gets almost as much sun exposure as the face, but much less care.) Chapas’s go-to, Alastin Restorative Neck Complex, treats fine lines and discoloration with a mix of antioxidants and peptides. She recommends starting use in your late 30s, and “just sticking with it” to significantly reduce your Nora Ephron complex going forward.

A retinoid cream

Retinoids smooth fine lines by increasing cell turnover, but they can also cause redness and flaking. AlphaRet is Astarita’s preferred retinoid cream because it’s “powerful but very well tolerated on even the most sensitive skin. Nothing compares to it.” She recommends starting use twice a week, at night only, and increasing frequency gradually as your skin adjusts. And as with any retinoid cream that generally makes skin more sensitive, “always use sun protection.” Dr. Corey L. Hartman of Skin Wellness Dermatology is also a fan because, he says, it offers prescription strength results minus the irritation, thanks to its hydrating lotion formula.

Or a less-expensive retinoid cream

In the lower-price realm, Astarita also likes this double-action Glo Skin Beauty serum, which may not be quite as gentle on sensitive skin but is about half the price of her top pick above. Here, glycolic acid works on the top layer of the skin, exfoliating the dead cells that cause dullness. Meanwhile, the retinoid works a little deeper, increasing cell turnover as well as collagen production.

Best plant-based retinol alternative

Hartman is also a fan of this serum from Isdin, which contains the popular retinol-alternative bakuchiol. The ingredient, which is made from the babchi plant, acts like a retinol and offers the same anti-aging and skin-brightening benefits. “It’s my favorite all-in-one product for the busy professional or mother,” says Hartman. “It’s in a moisturizing oil serum that provides just the right amount of moisture and that dewy look that everyone wants.” It also contains two antioxidants — melatonin and vitamin E — which work together to repair damage from environmental stressors.

Best retinol-bakuchiol combo

Robinson recommends this night cream from Revision Skincare, which she says is a personal favorite. It contains both retinol and bakuchiol along with 13 antioxidants, including vitamin C. “By combining a small amount of retinol with bakuchiol, this product is able to deliver all of the skin benefits of retinol in a gentler way,” she says.

A calming gel

Swap this in for an antioxidant serum if you have blotchy or irritated skin. Both niacinamide (vitamin B3) and resveratrol (an antioxidant made from grapes) power this gel, and those are the two ingredients Dr. Nussbaum recommends for that redness typically associated with the rosacea that can come in our 30s: “Niacinamide reduces redness while resveratrol repairs the skin,” she says. Note that though this product is not cheap, you can get away with using just one pump to reap the benefits.

A sheet mask

While your more basic toners — like the Kiehl’s option suggested in the intermediate section — will give your skin hydration, some of us are ready to take that result up a notch. No one knows much about SK-II’s secret fermented ingredient, Pitera, but its essence version of the product (essentially a toner) has a very well-documented cult following. Meanwhile, these supremely hydrating sheet masks contain pitera in higher concentrations than the essence — and Nussbaum is a fan. For those of us who’ve noticed a general dullness to our complexion in our 30s, she says what’s really notable about these masks is how they give you back that youthful glow.

Or a less-expensive sheet mask

If you’re not prepared to pay cult-status prices for a sheet mask, Nussbaum suggest an alternative from the high-tech brand Patchology (which, as the name suggests, specializes in patches, as well as masks). In the five-minute treatments you get here — a quicker process than the 10 to 15 minutes involved with the SK-II version — “the blend of hyaluronic acid and vitamin B5 helps plump dehydrated skin,” says Nussbaum. “I apply them once per week, when my skin is feeling especially parched, or when I’m traveling on an airplane and need an extra dose of instant hydration.”

A silk pillowcase

“If you really want to splurge, invest in a satin or silk pillowcase,” says Dr. Green. Since her patients are concurrently using skin-care treatments, she can’t speak to the improvements they see directly from silk pillowcases, but, she says, silk doesn’t absorb moisture from the skin as aggressively as other materials, like cotton, helping the skin stay hydrated. There are less expensive silk pillowcases out there to consider, too, as well as satin versions made of synthetic materials. But if it’s ultimate skin-care indulgence you’re after, Slip’s high-quality, exceptionally durable mulberry silk — not to mention the lovely packaging — makes it stand out. Who doesn’t want to be extra pampered at this age?

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The Best Skin-Care Routine for Your 30s