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-