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Ever wondered when you should start using certain anti-aging ingredients? You know the ones: retinol, hyaluronic acid, and 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 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 the topic.
Keep scrolling for the anti-aging ingredients you need to start using, and when.
What it does: 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 might 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.
Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring polysaccharide found in the human body. It acts as an anti-inflammatory and plays an important role in tissue regeneration and wound healing. When used in skincare, it acts as a moisture binder, which means that it will attach itself to the water in the cells (while also attracting and holding water from the air) making them plump.
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.
Buy it in serum form so the hyaluronic acid absorbs quickly into the skin. This is also better for young skin, which may be more prone to breakouts.
What it does: Stimulates 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—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 retinoic acid (the active ingredient), which gives 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.
Retin-A (tretinoin) is a form of vitamin A that helps the skin renew itself by encouraging cell turnover. It's commonly prescribed for acne, fine lines, and sun-damaged skin.
Here are the ingredients from weakest to strongest:
- Retinyl palmitate found in Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair ($75).
- 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. Start using this two to three nights a week or every night if your skin 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 the use of 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, your skin will benefit from these additions. NeoStrata Skin Active Matrix Support ($74) is a good all-around choice and can be used in the day.
What it does: Brightens the skin and protects against environmental damage such as UV rays, pollution, and free radicals.
Best age to start: 18
Signs you need it: When brown spots appear on the skin from sun exposure, skin loses its natural glow, and red marks left behind from breakouts don't heal as quickly as they used to.
Shopping notes: Look for ascorbic acid—also known as L-ascorbic acid—which has been well 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 antioxidant and anti-aging benefits, but depending on how stubborn your concerns are, you may benefit from a higher concentration to achieve faster results.
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're all good but just don’t have as much scientific backing.
Vitamin C is an essential nutrient required for the growth and repair of tissues in all parts of the body, including the skin, but we cannot produce it on our own. For the skin, it helps to boost collagen, lighten discoloration, and fight free radicals.
All antioxidants, including vitamin C, are vulnerable to destabilization when exposed to air and light.
Choose vitamin C packaged in tinted or opaque tubes, air-restrictive bottles, or pumps that help keep ingredients stable.
What it does: Protects skin cells and produces 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: When you notice sun damage and loss of skin elasticity.
Shopping notes: Topical application is well-tolerated by all skin types but those with vitiligo should consult their physician before use.
What it does: Brightens your complexion and boosts skin cell turnover.
Best age to start: 25
Signs you need it: When you see 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, and malic acid.
Its strength depends on its concentration and pH. The higher the concentration and the 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 enabling it 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 in the form of exfoliating pads, cleansers, or moisturizers. Anything with a glycolic acid concentration above 10% is considered high.
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