Aging gracefully is the goal of hopeful, optimistic millennials everywhere, isn’t it? Forget looking 20 years younger: We just want to look healthy, and
damn good, as the decades go by. Well, as professionals (and capitalism!) tell us, the key to a beautiful complexion is daily care and smart prevention. We get it: You already knew that! But, don't you get confused about how exactly you should be “preventing” things? ( Is Botox preventative?) How can we weave new products into our routines without prompting an onslaught of clogged pores and acne? And, more importantly, at what point do we need to get serious about fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation? To answer these very important questions (and help phase you into real adulthood), we consulted prominent dermatologists and aestheticians. Here, they take us through the early, middle, and late chapters of our 20s, and then give us a sneak peek at our 30s. That said, before you start clicking, we want you to note: At no point is it too late to start taking good care of your skin... but there's no time like the present to embrace better habits. At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission. Early 20s
Adulthood is just beginning for you, children of the future! Unfortunately, while life speeds up, your body does the opposite. “Skin-repair replacement mechanisms begin to slow by age 20,” says dermatologist Harold Lancer, MD. “In women, there are hormonal shifts — estrogen declines, and testosterone increases.” This might come as a surprise for someone who’s just beginning to enjoy the best skin of their lives. “Your skin, right now,
like it's in its prime,” says
, a London-based aesthetician. “But what you do right now will determine how it looks later on.”
So, your early 20s are kind of like facial bootcamp: It's the time to build up the proper discipline and habits — without going totally overboard and causing your face to become a red, irritated mess.
More Swap the Acne Wash
“Americans treat their skin like it’s the enemy," says Hirons. "It’s not! Get rid of any foaming acne cleansers because they’re too stripping.” Unless you’re under specific instructions from your derm to use a medicated daily wash, choose a gentler alternative. “A cleansing milk or oil will balance the complexion and remove the day’s grime,” she says.
Tashmoo Water Lily Nourishing Milky Wash, $, available at
Holifrog More Pick Up a Cleansing Oil
Of course, washing twice daily is absolutely necessary. “I always tell my clients that cleansing before bed is non-negotiable. Now is the time to be responsible,” says celebrity aesthetician Joanna Vargas. And don’t try to be sneaky after you’ve had a few too many cocktails at happy hour: “Cleansing wipes absolutely don’t count as washing your face,” says Hirons. What
count is a cleansing oil, like this cult-favorite Japanese buy, which goes on dry skin before rinsing to dissolve makeup effortlessly.
Deep Cleansing Oil, $, available at
A cleansing balm is another excellent choice. Unlike cleansing oils, balms are solid at room temperature, making them a great mess-free option for travel.
Universal Cleansing Balm, $, available at
Ulta Beauty More Start Exfoliating Three Times a Week
“You have to stimulate your skin in order for it to repair itself,” explains Dr. Lancer. “It’s just like exercise — you have to get the muscles burning in order to promote cardiovascular muscular growth. Make sure to use a scrub at night, so your skin has time to recover.” Since you’re still young and beautiful (as Lana Del Rey sings), you’ll want something gentle with just the right amount of grit; you don't want to rub your face raw. This gentle, affordable option should do the trick.
Gentle Exfoliating Facial Cleanser, $, available at
Target More Swap Your Toner
That’s right: It doesn’t always have to sting. “I always recommend my younger clients stay away from astringent toning products [in favor of] something more balancing,” Vargas says. “Rose is incredibly hydrating and good for circulation — it works on any skin type.”
Alcohol-Free Rose Petal Witch Hazel with Aloe Vera, $, available at
Amazon More Start Using an Eye Cream
“The skin around the eyes is very thin and gentle, which means signs of aging are likely to start there,” says Vargas. You should apply a basic, hydrating eye cream — like this ultra-gentle
2019 Beauty Innovator Awards
winner — both day and night to keep fine lines at bay. Just pat it in with your ring finger, and make sure you leave time for it to sink into the skin.
Toleriane Ultra Eye Cream, $, available at
DermStore More Get Diligent About SPF
The biggest no-brainer of all is starting to use SPF, ASAP (if you aren't already, that is). “Daily sun protection will go a very long way in terms of preventing the signs of aging,” says Hirons. Dr. Lancer adds: “Just make sure to apply it liberally — that’s the one mistake a lot of my patients make with sunscreens."
UV Shield Broad-Spectrum SPF 45, $, available at
DermStore More Get to Know Antioxidants
“There’s a huge lifestyle component to skin care,” says Dr. Lancer. "At this age, you’re wolfing down your lunch, going to parties, imbibing too much alcohol, and being surrounded by tobacco products. That’s why antioxidants are key.” You can only counteract the damage done by living la vida Lohan with the proper cocktail of ingredients, which helps ward off environmental stressors. This daily does-it-all formulation infuses your skin with potent active ingredients, like damage-repairing antioxidants, collagen-boosting vitamin C, and radiance-enhancing vitamin E.
When you’re applying it, says Hirons, be sure to save some for the neck and décolletage. “Americans are the only people who think the face stops at the chin,” she says. Save yourself from a future of turtlenecks by spreading the love.
Vine[Activ] Glow Activating Anti-Wrinkle Serum, $, available at
Bluemercury More Try a Facial Oil
Oils are the true gold standard of skin care, mostly because they contain potent ingredients and optimum moisturizing properties. “The right oil can also help mend acne scars and breakouts,” Hirons says. This blend might put a dent in your savings account, but you can practically feel it transforming your skin as you smooth it on. (Or maybe it’s just the placebo effect that comes with applying something so rich and lovely — it works either way.)
Super Seed Facial Oil, $, available at
goop More Get to Know Glycolic Acid
Renowned for both its resurfacing and purifying properties, glycolic acid helps regenerate the skin
treat pesky acne and blackheads. “It will also help with pore size and improve overall skin texture,” says Vargas. The best part? It comes from all sorts of delightful, naturally-sourced ingredients, so you can feel good about using it. (Yup, raspberries can help you battle wrinkles.) Start by using this product only on the nights you don't exfoliate, and then build your way up to every night. You'll wake up with a glowing, polished complexion.
T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum, $, available at
Sephora More Mid-20s Okay, so you’ve built the foundation for good skin. Congratulations! Now, it’s time to start getting a little more serious. Twenty-five is, in the beauty world, a tipping point: “By age 25, the skin has decelerated its repair mechanisms, and that affects your entire body,” says Dr. Lancer. This is also when you can accurately evaluate what damage has been caused previously — and, with the help of a dermatologist, plan how to treat it. “Everybody should be seeing a board-certified dermatologist at least once a year by this point in their life,” says Vargas. Together, you and your derm can discuss concerns like hyperpigmentation or hormonal acne. At the quarter-century mark, you should allow for splurges now and then, which means one thing: “Monthly facials are essential for detoxing the pores and doing a mini-peel,” says Vargas. “You should also look for a service that provides oxygen for the skin, which promotes healing.” And that's just the beginning... More Keep Your Cleanser, But Upgrade Your Scrub
“By your mid-20s, your skin is more like a couch potato: It has potential, but it’s lazy," says Dr. Lancer, whose Polish exfoliant is beloved by everyone from Kim Kardashian to Victoria Beckham. "This will help get it up and running." Try using this three times a week before bed in order to super-charge the rest of your routine. (There’s a formula for blemish-prone skin, too.)
The Method: Polish for Normal-Combination Skin, $, available at
DermStore More Upgrade Your Serum
If you've ever wondered what the difference is between moisturizer and serum — or if there is one at all — here's your answer. “Moisturizer is for skin type, but serum is for skin
,” explains Hirons. That means it's time to target whatever's given you complexion trouble with pumped-up ingredients, both in the morning and at night. Her recommendation? “Alpha-hydroxy acids will help to dry up hormonal breakouts and lightly exfoliate."
Lactic Acid 10% + HA, $, available at
“Antioxidants, like vitamin C, will help to protect and brighten spots and acne scars," Hirons adds. We love this affordable pick for brightening and helping to strengthen skin.
Glow Maker, $, available at
Maelove More Update Your Toner
You let go of the alcohol-based acne toners for a few years, but now you need to get serious. “Acid toning is essential, because it gives you a gentle, mild exfoliation,” says Hirons. This product, known among beauty junkies simply as “
,” is what Hirons calls “the Rolls-Royce of toners.” She says to use it nightly, but we suggest easing into it: For the first few times, it tingles and stings, and might leave you a little pink. (It gets better — promise!) The reason? It has a high AHA content, which regulates oil production and maintains the skin’s pH level for a balanced, even complexion.
Lotion P50, $, available at
Toska European Spa More Update Your Masks
Now’s the time to invest in an anti-aging treatment. But is there one that can also help with pimples, just in case? “I’m a huge fan of lactic acid because it lightly exfoliates, but also minimizes the pores,” Vargas says. Her Exfoliating Mask (shown here) is a cult-favorite beauty product, beloved by her celebrity clients (and editors and regular folks, too). “It’s gentle enough that you can put it under your eyes for a quick pick-me-up,” she says. “Or, you can sleep with it on blemishes to treat them overnight.”
Exfoliating Mask, $, available at
Joanna Vargas More Add Night Cream
The days of one moisturizer are as good as over: You have officially joined the legions of women who use night cream. “Sleep is an important time for the skin,” Vargas says. This is especially true if you’re using products like Polish and P50 — you'll need a healthy dose of moisture before bed when active ingredients are at play. “You can use just your facial oil, or you can put on a night cream and then an oil, depending on your skin type,” Hirons suggests. “But start with something light, and avoid anything with shea butter — this one is gentle enough for daily use.”
Nourish Daily Moisturizer, $, available at
Neiman Marcus More Late 20s “By 29, you really need to get serious about stuff,” says Vargas. “Your skin goes through a complete transformation between the ages of 22 and 29. Your body’s ability to produce new skin cells slows down completely.” Look at your late 20s as an opportunity to really crack the whip on your complexion before the big 3-0: You can start using retinol, embrace plumping products, and learn how to protect your skin barrier in a major way. All of this hard work will hopefully delay the need for more serious things, like Retin-A and chemical peels, until they’re absolutely necessary. You should, however, see a facialist once a month for a peel and an LED light treatment, which will help maintain your skin's texture. More Update Your Cleanser (Again), Exfoliate Daily
We know: It’s the millionth time you’ll have done this in a decade, but a cleansing balm is totally worth it. “They destroy makeup without being stripping, and they still leave the skin feeling soft and supple,” says Hirons.
Slaai Makeup-Melting Butter Cleanser, $, available at
Sephora More Tone More, Hydrate Smarter
Chances are you’ve already interacted with hyaluronic acid during your skin journey, but now it’s time to start using it regularly. The ingredient is well-known for its instant plumping effects. “It basically supercharges your moisturizer, protecting the skin’s barrier,” says Hirons. This is particularly important because you should, by now, be using acid toner both day
night to help regenerate your skin. (It also makes applying makeup a total dream.)
Hydraluron Moisture Serum, $, available at
Ulta Beauty More Start Using Retinol, Keep Your Serum
“The king of all antioxidants is vitamin A, which is where prescription Retin-A comes from,” says Dr. Lancer. “It’s critically important, because products with retinoid acid reorganize the process known as keratinization, or the way the skin repairs and replaces itself.” But, as Vargas cautions, it can cause irritation among more sensitive types. So, try using this a few times a week before bed, and absolutely do
forget SPF the morning after. This is more of a precautionary method: Hirons says retinol isn’t
necessary until after age 30, but it can’t hurt to start a mild version (like this perennial derm favorite) before then. To complement it, stick to your regular daily serum.
Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum, $, available at
Ulta Beauty More Update Your Eye Cream
It’s also time to get serious about treating eye wrinkles to prevent crow’s feet. “Vitamin C is a massively important antioxidant that gives advanced environmental protection,” says Hirons. This brand-new lightweight formula is jam-packed with the stuff — plus, it's gentle enough to use day and night.
Biolumin-C Vitamin C Eye Serum, $, available at
More Update Your Face Oil
If your blackheads and acne are finally calming down, it’s wise to start experimenting with a different facial oil for twice-daily use. “Put it on over your night cream if you're dry,” Hirons suggests. (Bonus tip: Smooth one drop over skin before applying foundation, and you'll glow like a lightbulb.)
The Inkey List
Rosehip Nourishing Night Oil, $, available at
Sephora More Update Your Night Cream
Since you're introducing retinol into your routine, keeping your skin well-hydrated has never been more imperative. At the same time, you don't want to opt for anything too heavy that might feel greasy or clog pores. Your best bet is something simple and soothing, like this replenishing, fatty acid-rich formula.
Golden Hour Recovery Cream, $, available at
DermStore More Early 30s You’ve made it. “By the time you’ve reached 30, your routine should really switch over to all anti-aging products,” says Hirons. “In this decade, things just slow down. I like to tell people that your body goes on a little holiday and then comes back! You laugh now, but by your 40s, it goes away — and you wonder if it’s ever returning.” That said, a whole lot of this is skin sensationalism: Being 30 means your skin is still at its prime, especially if you’ve been vigilant about daily SPF and proper cleansing. Still, it’s time to consult your dermatologist about facials — or possibly even twice-yearly acid-based peeling, if you feel like that might be necessary. “If hyperpigmentation is a concern, you may want to look into light-resurfacing procedures with low-energy lasers twice to three times a year,” Dr. Lancer suggests. If your skin’s in tip-top shape, all you need is a couple of upgrades to what you’re already doing. But, the pros caution, you should reconsider other things, like lifestyle choices: Think hard about forsaking cigarettes forever, limiting your alcohol intake, and curbing how much processed sugar you eat. “We look at women in Hollywood who have aged very well, [and] these people don’t have any caffeine or added salt, and their carb intake is low," says Dr. Lancer. "They’re proof that anti-aging really needs a multi-pronged approach." More Upgrade Your Retinol
This is a good age to start using vitamin A daily, and you’ll want a more intense formula to get your glow going. “You should be using a product that contains 1% retinol,” Dr. Lancer says. “Anything more than that can be found in prescription Retin-A, which is more of a corrective treatment than a preventative one.” Use it before your bedtime moisturizer, so your skin has time to heal itself in case redness occurs.
Shani Darden Skin Care
Retinol Reform, $, available at
Shani Darden More Invest In a Serum
Since serums deliver all the good stuff in the most essential, concentrated method, you might want to start considering advanced formulas that are priced beyond what you’re used to spending. It boils down to this: If you splurge on one thing in your routine, let it be serum. You should, however, still keep your hyaluronic-acid moisturizer and facial oils handy. (And
PORTE PER LA VITALITÀ, $, available at
Furtuna Skin More Update Your Eye Cream
Getting religious about eye cream will also go a long way; one for day and one for night is best. This duo is genius: The day version is the perfect silky texture for wearing under makeup, and the night formula is richer and intensely nourishing.
Three Part Harmony Day & Night Eye Cream Duo, $, available at
Nordstrom More Update Your Night Cream
Hirons says to avoid shea butters in your 20s, but in your 30s, she says, “You want something rich to sleep in.” If you massage a mask into your skin before bedtime, it'll go to work long after the label-suggested 10 minutes, which means you’ll wake up with refreshed and restored skin. Look for treatments labeled “healing,” since your routine now has a plethora of active ingredients at work. To put it simply: Serums and retinol deliver the good stuff, and moisturizer acts as a cushion. (Just consider this the most luxurious cushion ever.)
Jasmine and Lily Healing Mask, $, available at
Net-A-Porter More Invest In A Neck & Décolleté Cream
At this point, you know the importance of potent creams, serums, and masks, but you likely haven't given much attention to your neck and chest. “Many women in their twenties and thirties are using expensive face creams and coming in regularly for face-focused tweaks, but very few think to take care of their necks before 40,” says Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, a dermatologist in New York City.
To keep the thin skin supple and youthful-looking, reach for a treatment targeted to the area containing ingredients like glycolic acid, calcium, and amino acids.
Confidence In A Neck Cream Moisturizer, $, available at
Ulta Beauty More Update Your Masks
Sheet masks are, essentially, thin paper cloths that have been soaked in serum. This one, which is doused in retinol, would be ideal to adapt into your routine on a weekly basis. Try it before bed, massage the excess into your skin and down the décolletage, and follow with a facial oil or your night cream.
Benefiance Pure Retinol Intensive Revitalizing Face Mask, $, available at
Nordstrom More Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here? Target Has The Best Acne-Fighting Face Masks Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's Full Beauty Routine Dr. Pimple Popper Vs. A Bulging Skin Tag