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We’re often told that it’s never too early to start using anti-aging skin care, but is that always true? Not all formulas and ingredients for turning back the clock are the same, and some can even lead to skin damage if you’re not careful. We got the facts from the skin-care experts, so you know exactly how to make anti-aging work for you.

In Your Youth, Anti-Aging Is All About Prevention

Instead of focusing on repairing and reversing damage to the skin, our youth is best spent protecting yourself from getting that damage in the first place. This may seem like common sense, but when research suggests only 1/3 of Americans are wearing sunscreen daily, it bears repeating.

And yes, sun damage is going to be your biggest aging enemy. UV radiation’s impact on the skin over time doesn’t just lead to sometimes deadly skin cancers, but also makes our skin look more worn and weathered. That makes us look older, sooner.

Fort Lauderdale, FL dermatologist Matthew Elias, MD says he’s on board with anti-aging in your 20s. “You are never too young! Everyone should be using the ultimate anti-aging ingredient: sunscreen,” Dr. Elias explains.

West Palm Beach, FL dermatologist Kenneth Beer, MD explains that the less sun damage you have, the later you can put off anti-aging products. “I recommend using treatinoin (retin-A) or retinol for people around age 21,” Dr. Beer explains. “But if someone has not had sun damage, I will push this back to 30. But in general, I like retinol and retin-A. Both have been shown to decrease the sun damage, improve the appearance and help the skin look and feel better.”

Fresno, CA dermatologist Kathleen Behr, MD agrees that you’re never too young to get started. “I’m in the school of thought that you can anti-age early,” Dr. Behr says. “Collagen starts to break down in your 20s, so I think you can start on things like retinol and retin-A early. But obviously, sunscreen is the most important.”

Celebrity aesthetician Nerida Joy explains that maintaining the appearance of youth is really about keeping your skin healthy. “You really need to be feeding the skin at all ages,” Joy says. “You need to nurture your skin early. If your skin isn’t nurtured and fed nutrients, it won’t heal as quickly…If you’re not protecting your skin, you’re going to age faster.”

Being Careful with Chemical Exfoliants

Chemical peels and chemical exfoliants are an excellent way to rid the skin of dead skin cells and promote skin cell turnover to leave you looking refreshed.

Dr. Elias notes that chemical exfoliants are far and away the preference compared to physical exfoliating. “To me exfoliation is performed daily with topical retinoids/retinols and can be supplemented with AHA/BHA cleansers,” Dr. Elias says. “Manual exfoliation should not typically be performed regularly.”

That said, sensitive skin, no matter the age, may not agree with ingredients like glycolic acid. If your skin does agree with it, according to Dr. Beer, you can incorporate acids like these into your routine early.

“How young you can start using acids like glycolic acid depends on a variety of factors including how fair the skin is and how much sun exposure it’s had,” Dr. Beer says. “The lighter the skin, the earlier the glycolic. In general, I think about age 21 is a reasonable age to start using glycolic acid. They don’t have to be very strong but strong enough to get the skin little red.”

Dr. Beer does note that acids like these are best used under the direction of a dermatologist. “I think is it a good idea to see a dermatologist before using glycolic or any acid,” he says. “There are so many things to use on the skin that it makes sense to have a plan when you start.”

There’s Some Debate Regarding Retinol

Retinol, retinal, and retinoids are a group of powerful skin-care ingredients that can accomplish a lot of your goals including smaller-looking pores, clearing acne, and reducing the look of fine lines and wrinkles. The only rub is that retinol is powerful and can sometimes be irritating or even harmful to the skin.

“I see a lot of patients that start really early on high-concentration prescription retinols,” Joy says. “When they do that, they’re often way too aggressive and it results in unhealthy skin. They’re making their skin thinner at a young age. And skin gets thinner as we age, there’s no stopping that. We can’t make the skin thicker, so people need to stop being so aggressive with their skin at such young ages.”

A big concern for Joy is also the effect retinols and AHAs can have on skin’s sensitivity to sun. “These ingredients make your skin more sensitive to environmental damage, including from the sun,” Joy says. “If you’re using these, you need to be wearing physical sunblocks and layering them to prevent damage.”

Still, it isn’t impossible to use retinol safely. Dermatologists like Dr. Behr often employ retinol-based formulas to clear teenage acne and more stubborn adult acne. “We do use retinol on teenagers with acne,” Dr. Behr says. “And the people I see that have the nicest skin have often been using retinols for years.”

Dr. Behr notes that when these products first released, you would often find them in high concentrations. “Retinol and retin-A can really normalize the skin,” Dr. Behr says. “Now we have much gentler products that use lower concentrations than when we first started.”

If your skin is sensitive, you may need to consider a lower concentration of retinol or a gentler alternative. Dr. Elias, who also prescribes retinol for teenage acne, recommends a simple trick to make your product gentler. “To use it correctly, you will use a pea size amount of medication,” he explains. “I then like to mix it with a palm full of moisturizer and spread a thin coat over your entire face at night prior to going to sleep. Just be sure to apply sunscreen in the morning after washing your face.”

So, When Do You Really Start?

Many anti-aging ingredients usually boost the overall health of your skin, which is something you can benefit from at any age.

Niacinamides, for instance, are often labeled an anti-aging ingredient, but are also pros at locking in hydration and helping reduce hyperpigmentation. Ingredients like hyaluronic acid, vitamins C and E, and peptides are going to help improve the look and feel of skin at any age. Starting in your 20s will set you up for less repair down the road.

All of our experts agreed, as long as your approach is gentle and sun-smart, you can use these ingredients effectively as early as 21.

That doesn’t mean you need a 21-step routine, though.

Dr. Elias explains that your regimen itself can stay simple, as many anti-aging ingredients are in featured in core products. “Personally, I am a fan of simple regimens that patients will use,” Dr. Elias says. “Typically, it is best to use the core four products: a gentle cleanser, sunscreen, moisturizer and a retinoid/retinol. Balance is always key and using these key four products and supplementing in other products as you need them works really well.”

The Takeaway

Ultimately, some of the most popular anti-aging ingredients are also popular and effective as skin care for any age. Many ingredients meant to boost collagen production or skin cell turnover can also have a positive impact on the texture and appearance of skin, the appearance of pores and the overall health of your skin.

Becoming familiar early with both anti-aging ingredients and your skin’s tolerance for them is a good idea, but keep in mind that harsher ingredients might not work for you. At the end of the day, strong ingredients like retinols and acids need to be started slowly and incorporated over time to ensure your skin’s safety. And if you’re irritated, dry, or red afterwards, try an alternative or lower concentration.

Really, when we’re talking about anti-aging, we’re talking about the health of our skin. Healthy skin looks younger, no matter what stage of life you’re in. So, it’s not that you’re never too young to anti-age, but that you’re never the wrong age to take care of your skin.



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