Maybe this sounds familiar: You find a photo taken a decade ago at the bottom of a drawer. It shows you barefaced, grinning, while hiking with family or friends. Back then, you thought that without makeup, eye crinkles clearly visible, this photo made you look old. If only you could get that look back now! Plastic surgeons, dermatologists, and the makers of many face creams will tell you that you can, but their wares can be expensive and invasive. We asked dermatologists what affordable, at-home steps will help restore your more youthful appearance. Here are six moves that research proves can deliver; two are even free!
Step 1: Shun the Sun
Why this works: Repeated sun exposure eventually leads to brown spots, fine wrinkles, deeper creases, and sagging skin. If you need proof, just look at the skin on the underside of your arm where the rays are less likely to reach. Does it look smoother and less blotchy? "What the sun does is fast-forward your aging clock," says Doris Day, M.D., clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City. "Around age 40, you cross that line — your collagen and elastic tissue have experienced enough damage to really start showing a change. You look in the mirror, and uh-oh, you can no longer ignore it or easily cover it up." Protecting your skin year-round will help prevent you from further accelerating your age.
What to try: To start, make sure you always have broad-spectrum protection with an adequate long-wave UVA shield, says Richard Glogau, M.D., clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco. "Those UVA rays give you the wrinkles and the muddy skin tone that ages you," he says. Dr. Glogau recommends UVA filters like Mexoryl and Helioplex, which provide longer-lasting protection. Try Neutrogena Age Shield Face Sunblock SPF 90+ ($9.49, drugstores) or Lancôme UV Expert 20 Sunscreen SPF 20 ($35, department stores). Also use a product — like these — with an SPF of 15 or higher to protect against burns. Get even better coverage by including antioxidants like vitamins C and E and pomegranate extract in your protection. "Antioxidants boost the benefits of sunscreen. They help neutralize the damage caused by UV light," says Ranella Hirsch, M.D., a dermatologist at Boston University Medical Center. Try C.O. Bigelow All-in-One Protective Day Lotion SPF 25 ($19.50, Bath & Body Works), which contains vitamins A, C, and E, antioxidant-rich berry extracts, and UV protection. Of course, behavior counts, too: Whenever possible, avoid midday rays. Wear a hat and sunglasses (less squinting). If you want some color, try self-tanner. We like Jergens Natural Glow Health Complexion Daily Facial Moisturizer SPF 20 ($9, drugstores). Or go with your own glow. "It will definitely help you look younger," says Dr. Day.
Years younger: 5. Within six months, your sun-protected skin should appear smoother and more even-toned, says Jeffrey Dover, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine and coauthor of The Youth Equation. The catch: You have to continue protecting skin daily and avoiding the harsh rays, or you'll redo the damage.
Step 2: Smooth Lines with Retinoids
Why this works: In studies dating back over the past 20 years, they have been shown to help soften the look of fine lines and brown spots by increasing collagen production and normalizing skin-cell activity. "These vitamin A derivatives have a better-established track record than any other wrinkle-reduction creams," says Dr. Glogau. Even the milder, nonprescription-strength retinol may reduce the effects of chronological aging — albeit more gradually. When University of Michigan researchers applied a .4 percent retinol lotion to one of the study participants' upper inner arms as many as three times a week for 24 weeks, skin biopsies revealed that that arm had more of the building blocks that make skin smooth and resilient than the untreated arm.
What to try: The biggest challenge with retinoids is dealing with the potential side effects, such as redness and peeling skin. Your skin will, however, build up a tolerance, usually within six to 12 weeks. Retin-A is still the gold standard in prescription strength, though there are several less-irritating options — costing $100 per tube on average — including Retin-A Micro, Differin, Avage, and Tazorac. Researchers continue to seek ways of making retinoids more tolerable; one theory currently being tested at the University of Michigan is that using an ultra-mild facial cleanser and moisturizer will help calm the irritation. (The study findings are still a few years away.) Dermatologists also suggest you ease into using one: Apply a pea-size amount at night (sun exposure makes retinoids less effective), and try it every second or third night until your skin handles it better. If that's still too irritating, go with an over-the-counter retinol. These formulas are less potent, but are still effective. Try L'Oréal Paris Advanced Revitalift Deep-Set Wrinkle Repair Night Creme ($20, drugstores) or DermaDoctor Poetry in Lotion Intensive Retinol 1.0 ($75, Sephora).
Years younger: 6-7. You should start to see an improvement in a matter of weeks with a prescription formula, but don't stop there. "Keep using it," says Dr. Dover, who claims he can always spot a woman on a prescription retinoid because her skin looks "too good" for her age. Over-the-counter retinol converts to the active form, called retinoic acid, at a lower concentration — but the benefits will start to show up after a few months if you stay with it.
Step 3: Exfoliate Gently and Often
Why this works: At-home peels or even a simple face scrub can make your complexion look much more youthful and radiant and may also boost collagen production, says Leslie Baumann, M.D., director of the University of Miami Cosmetic Medicine and Research Institute. "It's one of the best ways to see a quick difference," she says. As you age, skin tends to be drier and dead cells cling to the surface, giving it a rougher texture. When you shed those dead cells with a scrub or peel, it enhances the functioning of your skin: Water-retaining cells come to the surface, and active ingredients in your skin care — like antioxidants and retinoids — penetrate better. "Regular exfoliating is also therapeutic if you have acne-prone skin," says Dr. Glogau. One caveat: People who have sensitive complexions or rosacea should skip this step — or at least exfoliate less often — since those dead cells actually shield skin from irritation.
What to try: The most effective, least expensive options are grainy scrubs that have small, round particles. Try St. Ives Elements Microdermabrasion ($7, drugstores) or SkinEffects Cell2Cell Anti-Aging Exfoliating Cleansing Scrub ($10, CVS). "The particles should be smooth and feel like sugar in your hand," says Dr. Baumann. If they are too big or rough, they can tear skin. At-home chemical exfoliators work more slowly and may cost more, but they too help loosen dead cells. If manual scrubs are too harsh for your skin, choose a chemical wash with glycolic acid, or try a gentler salicylic acid formula (it may also treat acne). Try Aveda Enbrightenment Brightening Cleanser ($35, aveda.com). And if you're also using a retinoid, try sloughing skin twice instead of three or four times weekly.
Years younger: 2-3. There are two provisos, say experts. First, you've got to stick with it to keep seeing improvement. You'll get even better results by also doing monthly doctor's-office peels (glycolic acid or microdermabrasion), which remove the upper layer of skin and may stimulate collagen production. Second, you'll benefit the most if you combine this step with one (or more) of the others listed here.
Step 4: Add Moisture
Why this works: By menopause, the majority of women need a daily moisturizer. "It's what gives skin that smooth, radiant look," explains Dr. Glogau. In fact, most skin care that promises to improve the look of wrinkles in just a few weeks is probably doing it by moisturizing.
What to try: Effective hydrators include those, like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, that draw water into the skin, and others that prevent water from escaping, such as petrolatum and lanolin. Try Dove Deep Moisture Facial Lotion SPF 15 ($7.49, drugstores) with glycerin. Natural moisturizers, like olive, sunflower, and coconut oils, can also hydrate skin; skip them, though, if you're prone to acne. Try: Kiss My Face Obsessively Organic Under Age Ultra Hydrating Moisturizer ($21, Whole Foods) with sunflower and grapeseed oils. What won't work: drinking more water. There's little evidence that staying hydrated internally can do anything to reduce wrinkles, though if you're dehydrated, water will definitely give your skin a smoother look.
Years younger: 2-3. Though they have to be reapplied in order to keep up the benefits, moisturizers can help you look a few years younger almost immediately, says Dr. Glogau.