Ever wondered when you should start using certain anti-aging ingredients? You know the ones: retinol, hyaluronic acid, vitamin C, among others. While it’s unlikely that using a product too early will have negative long-term consequences for your skin, there’s no point in paying good money on anything your complexion doesn’t really need yet, especially when there's always new seasonal makeup to try!
Instead, you need a game plan—a strategy for when you’re going to introduce certain ingredients into your morning and nighttime routines—with enough research to know you’re using optimal versions and concentrations of each to get the best results. We called on integrative cosmetic skin expert Dr. Terry Loong to share her knowledge on this topic.
Keep scrolling for the anti-aging ingredients you need to start using, and when.
Use it to: Hydrate the skin
Best age to start: 20
Signs you need it: When you start seeing fine lines under your eyes. At a young age, these suggest dehydration.
Shopping notes: Look at the ingredients list closely, you might see something similar to hyaluronic acid listed, such as sodium hyaluronate—this is a salt derived from hyaluronic acid. Molecularly, it is smaller than hyaluronic acid so it penetrates the skin more effectively.
Watch out for other ingredients mixed with the hyaluronic acid, which may undo the great work hyaluronic acid can do for your skin, such as irritating fragrance ingredients, drying alcohols or fragrant plant oils.
You want to buy it in a serum form as it absorbs quickly into the skin. This is also better for young skin, which may be more prone to breakouts.
Use it to: Stimulate elastin and collagen.
Best age to start: 25 (This is when elastin production starts to slow down.)
Signs you need it: When you start seeing dynamic wrinkles—these are the lines you get when your muscles contract, such as frown lines, crow’s feet or laughter lines.
Shopping notes: Retinol comes in different strengths depending on how many conversions it needs to go through in your skin to become retinoid acid (the active ingredient), which gives the skin all the lovely benefits. The more conversions it needs to make, the weaker it becomes, which is fine if you have sensitive skin and want to avoid any irritation, but the stronger versions work faster.
Here are the ingredients from weakest to strongest:
- Retinyl palmitate found in Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair (£50).
- Retinol found in RoC and SkinCeuticals products.
- Tretinoin (retinoic acid) also known as Retin-A; this is prescription only.
Retinol 0.01% is considered low strength. You can usually apply this daily with minimal irritation. Of course, this depends on your skin type and how tolerant your skin is to retinol.
Retinol 0.04%–0.1% is considered moderate strength. You can start using this two to three nights a week or every night if you can tolerate it.
Retinol 0.5%–1% is high strength. Not for the faint-hearted, this can give prescription-like results. Research has shown that daily use of high-strength retinol for seven days can significantly improve collagen production in the skin.
When retinol is formulated with antioxidants, skin-repairing ingredients, and cell-communicating ingredients, which will give added benefits. NeoStrata Skin Active Matrix Support (£54) is a good all-round choice and can be used in the day.
Use it for: Brightening the skin and protecting against environmental damage such as UV rays, pollution and free radicals.
Best age to start: 18
Signs you need it: Brown spots appearing on the skin from sun exposure, skin losing its natural glow, red marks left from breakouts that don't heal as quickly as they used to.
Shopping notes: Look for ascorbic acid—also known as L-ascorbic acid—which has been most thoroughly researched in terms of skin benefits. When mixed with other antioxidants or used alone at high concentrations such as 15%, 20% or beyond, it’s a real powerhouse. Lower concentrations like 0.6% will also provide anti-oxidant and anti-ageing benefits, but depending on how stubborn your concerns are, you may benefit from a higher concentration to achieve results quicker.
There are other effective forms of vitamin C out there too: sodium ascorbyl phosphate, ascorbyl palmitate, retinyl ascorbate, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate. They are all good but just don’t have as much scientific-backing.
All antioxidants, including vitamin C, are vulnerable to destabilisation when exposed to air and light.
Choose vitamin C packaged in tinted or opaque tubes, air-restrictive bottles, or pumps that help keep their ingredients stable.
Use it for: Protecting skin cells and producing energy.
Best age to start: 25. Levels of CoQ10 in the skin rise from childhood into adulthood, peak at 20 to 30 years old and then gradually diminishes with age.
Signs you need it: Sun damage and loss of skin elasticity.
Shopping notes: Research shows topical CoQ10 may have its limitations, so it’s best to supplement with an oral CoQ10 to maximize the levels in the skin.
Use it for: Brightening your complexion and boosting skin cell turnover.
Best age to start: 25
Signs you need it: Sun damage, rough and uneven texture of the skin.
Shopping notes: You can find various AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) in cleansers, creams, and serums. The most common AHAs are glycolic acid, lactic acid, citric acid, malic acid, 2-hydroxyoctanoic acid, and 2-hydroxydecanoic acid.
Its strength depends on its concentration and pH. The higher the concentration and lower the pH, the more intensive its action is on the skin.
AHAs like glycolic and lactic acid are often used in products to cleanse and exfoliate the skin, and because they are not left on they are the best choice for those with sensitive skin. AHAs can also be found in toners, moisturizers, and sunscreens to help reduce the appearance of wrinkles by encouraging the dead top layer of the skin to shed more effectively and to allow better penetration of other beneficial ingredients.
Derived from cane sugar, glycolic acid has the smallest molecules in the group so it's able to penetrate the skin deeply and easily. It is highly effective but also more irritating depending on the concentration and pH (if you have sensitive skin, you may not be able to use it on a daily basis). At home, glycolic products are around pH 3–4, which is slightly more acidic than normal skin and pretty safe to use. It normally comes as exfoliating pads, cleansers or moisturizes. Anything with a glycolic acid concentration above 10% is considered high.
Do you already use any of these ingredients? Let us know which ones you rate below.