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From a headline in our favorite magazine to the aisles of the neighborhood drugstore, we’re bombarded with the word “anti-aging.” It’s enough for those of us who are relatively young to start wondering: Should I be doing something about these little lines?

We don’t mind a well-lived laugh line, but there’s also nothing wrong with wanting to keep your skin in the best shape possible. With a slew of serums, lotions, creams, and more that promise to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, boost collagen, hide under-eye circles, and cure just about every other sign of the passage of time, it’s easy to get caught up in the land of anti-aging products. To clear up some of the myths and confusion about how our skin ages and how to keep your skin as vibrant as possible, we recruited the expertise of top dermatologists to help demystify aging once and for all.

The Science

So what exactly happens as we age? Well, it’s a complicated process. Typically (assuming normal health is intact) our skin is the first of our body parts that begins to show signs of aging. Sun spots, laugh lines, and thinning skin are all common, visible side effects of aging. But internally, our skin is changing, too.

“There is atrophy of the dermis due to loss of collagen, degeneration in the elastic fiber network, and loss of hydration,” explains Dr. Hadley King, dermatologist at NYC’s SKINNEY Medspa, of the aging process. As to be expected, collagen, fiber, and hydration are all key components of keeping skin plump, resilient, and youthful in appearance. As skin ages and those fibers begin to break down, skin becomes thinner and drier, and fat redistributes across the face, thus reducing the fullness a youthful visage once had.

But the passage of time isn’t the only cause of skin’s degradation. Cumulative exposure to sunlight is a major factor in aging skin, explains Dr. Holly Kanavy, assistant professor of medicine and director of pharmacology at Montefiore Health System and Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

“The process of photoaging (prolonged exposure to UV radiation over one’s lifetime) involves damage to collagen and elastic fibers in the skin, which causes them to become fragmented,” she explains. “Over time there is increasing collagen loss and thinning of the skin that occurs. Eventually, with substantial breakdown of collagen and elastic fibers, the wrinkles produced by dynamic movement of the face persist—even when the face is at rest.”

But wrinkles aren’t the only result of skin’s internal and external change. Dr. Kanavy explains that irregularities in color, brown spots, keratosis (benign growths that occur on the skin), telangiectasias (small blood vessels at the surface of the skin), loss of translucency, loss of elasticity, and sallow skin are all common signs of photoaging.

With each passing birthday, most of us become increasingly aware of the physical signs of aging. We’re a fan of a laugh line or two, but if you want to stave off crow’s-feet, wrinkles, sunspots, and a few dry patches, there are a number of lotions and potions that claim to help you find the fountain of youth. With so many options boasting prevention and delay, how do you know if your anti-aging products are really doing their jobs?

Decoding Labels

First, there are a few ingredients to look out for when shopping the anti-aging aisle. Antioxidants are buzzy in the beauty world and for good reason. Found in many foods and now beauty products, antioxidants are powerful molecules that can neutralize free radicals from UV exposure, which can slow collagen breakdown, explains Dr. Rebecca Kazin, board-certified dermatologist at a cosmetic center as the medical director of the Johns Hopkins Dermatology and Cosmetic Center. In addition to fighting free radicals, these skin-savers also inhibit inflammation, which leads to collagen depletion. Plus, they help to prevent photodamage and skin cancer, Dr. Kanavy adds.

Antioxidants include popular skin-care ingredients such as vitamin E, CoQ10, beta-carotene and the ever-popular vitamin C. Search for products with these as active ingredients to defend your skin.

Retinoids are another ingredient that can actually impact aging skin. Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A that reduce hyperpigmentation and inhibit enzymes from breaking down collagen, Dr. Kanavy says. Some key retinoids include retinoic acid aka tretinoin (a common cream prescribed by dermatologists), retinol, and lastly, retinaldehyde.

Hydroxy acids are other common anti-aging ingredients. In the form of acids such as glycolic and lactic, these chemicals improve skin’s texture and reduce the signs of aging by promoting cell shedding in the outer layers of the epidermis and by restoring hydration, Dr. Kanavy explains. “They help to fade dark spots, and even more importantly, they increase dermal thickness via enhanced production of collagen,” she says. Not only does this ingredient increase cell turnover and exfoliate skin, but it also helps other topical treatments penetrate the skin better, Dr. Kazin adds.

Lastly, other common ingredients to keep an eye out for in the beauty aisle are: growth factors to help boost collagen production; tea tree oil to reduce inflammation and reduce the redness of broken capillaries and rosacea; and licorice root extract to lighten and even skin tone.

When to Start

Now that you know what you need, do you know when you need it? Any expert will tell you that the key to prolonged youthful skin begins with prevention (i.e. sunscreen); however, when to take your routine a step further and introduce specific anti-aging products into your cabinet can vary based on age, environment, and skin type.

“Photoaging is accelerated in fair-skinned people, so you should start earlier [if you have fair skin],” Dr. Kazin explains. Barring specific skin-tone needs, Dr. Kazin says generally you should start anti-aging protection (sunblock) in your late teens and then start prevention (anti-aging products) in your twenties and early thirties.

The good news is that there are no side effects to starting an anti-aging regimen early. Rumors that beginning anti-aging products too early can make young skin dependent simply aren’t true. In fact, the only reason to discontinue use of anti-aging products at a young age is if irritation occurs.

The Bottom Line

Although retinoids, antioxidants, and hydroxy acids can help keep your skin looking good, there’s no magic formula to stop time or genetics from doing their jobs. All experts agree on one thing though: Sunscreen is your best bet to keep skin safe and youthful. Adopting a consistent SPF routine at a young age can stop photoaging and keep skin safe from harmful and deadly skin cancers. And don’t think that just because you don’t burn, you’re exempt from SPF—everyone needs sunscreen. “While skin of color generally ages better, it’s still important to begin wearing an SPF in your teens to protect against discoloration,” Dr. Kanavy explains.

And somehow despite all these anti-aging treatments, one thing remains the same: No matter how many products you try, how much SPF you apply, or how many trips to the facialist you take, aging is just a beautiful part of life—wrinkles and all.

Photo Credit: Shannon Lee Miller