It was Mary Tyler Moore who said “Take chances, make mistakes. That’s how you grow,” and it was Hannah Montana who said, “Everybody makes mistakes, everybody has those days.” But when it comes to skincare, you generally want to avoid screwing yourself over. That’s because bad skin health habits can bite you in the tuckus later by way of fine lines, breakouts, a damaged moisture barrier, dark spots, and (goddess forbid) dangerous sun damage.
Team Byrdie is in the business of helping us all age with grace; getting older is chill and all (I mean, it’s inevitable), but we just want to do it as safely and happily as possible. Personally, I’m approaching 30, and even though I’ve been taking care of my skin since my early 20s, my needs and concerns have changed since then (mostly thanks to hormonal drama and the general stress of adulthood). Having recently entered my Saturn return, I decided it was time to assess my current skincare routine to see what I’m doing right and pinpoint the mistakes I might be making that could secretly be aging me.
Luckily, as a beauty editor, I have some of savviest aging experts in the business on speed dial. One of my current go-to's is celebrity cosmetic dermatologist Paul Jarrod Frank, MD. Frank is the founder of PFRANKMD & Skin Salon; he’s also Madonna's personal dermatologist. I asked Frank to name the most common skincare blunders he sees women under 40 making—the everyday faux pas that low-key lead to damage and premature aging (Spoiler: I am totally guilty of three of them. Whoops.)
Keep scrolling to see the six skincare infractions Madonna’s derm sees under-40 women make the most… and how to fix them.
#6. Consuming booze, dairy, and processed foods in excess.
Wait, so… White Claw and Pringles are not on the good skin diet? Eating as much sugar, alcohol, dairy, and (especially) processed foods as your devilish heart desires is no good for your face, neither short-term nor long term, says Frank. “That includes 'health' bars that claim to be protein-packed and a meal in a bar,” he explains. “This is a common theme amongst busy, on-the-go under 40 women, whether they are busy mothers, career women, or both!” (I’m afraid processed snack bars have historically been a big part of my diet… yikes). Hidden sugars and artificial additives can lead to breakouts and a dull, tired complexion. “Eat real, whole foods and it will show in your skin,” says Frank, who adds that Omega-rich foods like fish and chia seeds are especially good for maintaining a glowy, plump complexion.
#5. Using “too many” products.
Skincare gurus, prepare to feel attacked. The counterintuitive truth, Frank says, is that overwhelming your skin with 10+ serums, moisturizers, oils, masks, and devices—and switching up your products too often—won’t give the active ingredients the opportunity to kick in and work their magic. Also, layering certain products could disagree with your skin type, counteract each other, or even actively irritate your skin. For example, you never want to mix Vitamin A (or retinol) and Vitamin C because the combination can make skin extra sensitive and susceptible to sun damage. You also don’t want to layer water-based products on top of oil, because they won’t sink in. “Find products that you want to try, try them one at a time, and incorporate them into your routine one at a time,” Frank advises.
Sounds obvious, but Frank sees so many smokers under 40 that he can’t go without stressing how much it exacerbates the aging process. Smoking “breaks down collagen and creates fine lines around the mouth,” he says. Oh, and vaping (though less harmful than carcinogenic cigs) can dry the living daylights out of your skin, too. Bottom line: If looking 30 at age 40 appeals to you, snuff out the Marlboro Light and put down the Juul.
In an effort to achieve bright, breakout-free skin, I know I love scrubbing the living daylights out of my face—both manually with scrubs or clay masks and physically with AHAs, BHAs, and retinol. But for women under 40, whose skin goes through a natural exfoliation process every 28 days or, exfoliating more than once or twice a week is totally unnecessary… and can even be harmful. “Over exfoliation creates inflammation, sensitivity, breakouts, and angry skin,” says Frank, who warns that many moisturizers and foundations contain exfoliating ingredients like glycolic acid and retinol, which you might not even notice. “If a product says something like ‘renew,’ ‘cell turnover,’ ‘detox,’ or ‘brightening complex,’ there is most likely something in that product that is exfoliating,” says Frank.
So how do you know if you’ve gone too far with the exfoliation? “Over-exfoliated skin will take on a translucent appearance,” says Frank. It can look like “a shiny piece of marble, which means it has thinned and needs repair.” Skin can feel itchy, tight, and burny… and it can also darken, especially if you’re prone to melasma or pigmentation. “Going for the glow can be damaging, so it's important to be watchful of the skin's appearance, which should have more of a soft satin appearance, not a taught shine,” Frank explains.
Instead of exfoliating every day without fail, check in with your skin’s needs on a daily basis. If you seem over-exfoliated, give your scrubs and AHAs a break, and stick to a gentle cleanser and moisturizer, like Osea’s Ocean Cleansing Milk ($54), Epicuren’s Apricot Cream Cleanser ($25), Koh Gen Do’s All in One Moisture Gel ($62), and classic Cerave Daily Moisturizing Lotion ($9).
Sticking to a daily skincare routine, especially when you’re a 20- or 30-something mess struggling to raise a family, establish your career or just #adult, can feel effing impossible. But getting into the habit of accomplishing even just three steps—cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen—will pay off in spades. “Make a plan of how you will care for your skin and stick to it,” Frank says. If all else fails, at the very least I manage to cleanse my skin with Odacité’s no-rinse Blue Aura Cleansing Water ($39) using a Japanese cotton pad, moisturize with Sisley’s Black Rose Skin Infusion Cream ($195), and (if it’s the daytime) slap on some Tatcha Sunscreen ($65).
#1. Not wearing sunscreen.
Duh, we know, we know, but we couldn’t not include this one. Frank actually names a failure to apply daily SPF as the #1 most egregious skincare mistake women under 40 always make. It’s never too early to start protecting your skin, and wearing sunscreen is the daily action that makes the biggest difference in how you look over time. Frank recommends wearing a minimum of SPF 15 every single day. Choose a physical sunscreen, like Supergoop!’s 100% Mineral Smooth & Poreless Matte Screen SPF 40 ($38) or Drunk Elephant’s Umbra Sheer Physical Daily Defense Broad Spectrum Sunscreen ($34), for the best protection. And on days when you’re actively out in the sun, it’s super important to periodically reapply. Coola’s Makeup Setting Spray SPF 30 ($36), which you can spritz on your face throughout the day without messing up your foundation and mascara, makes reapplying really easy. For even more protection, layer your sunscreen over a moisturizer or serum that contains antioxidants, like Sunday Riley’s C.E.O. 15% Vitamin C Brightening Serum ($85) or iS Clinical’s Super Serum Advance+ ($148).
Want more easy skincare advice? Don’t miss the retinol hack that’s a game-changer for sensitive skin.