Any dermatologist will tell you it's never too late to start caring for your skin—yet the earlier you develop a regimen, the better. "Generally prevention is more effective than correction," comments Miami-based cosmetic dermatologist and co-founder of Dr. Loretta skincare Loretta Ciraldo, MD, FAAD. That means incorporating certain habits and ingredients into your morning and nighttime routines in your 20s and 30s so that by the time you reach your 40s, you're more likely to have tighter, brighter, healthier skin. According to Ciraldo, it's important to use brightening and anti-wrinkle products even before any deep-set lines or sunspots show up because microscopic changes like excess pigment and loss of collagen start in our 20s and progress so slowly that you don't usually see them until your 30s and 40s. By then, they're much harder to treat.
At the same time, there is so much skincare advice in the world that distilling the most important habits to take on before 40 can be tricky. Not to mention the hard-core anti-aging services you might find at a dermatologist's office or skin health spa can be time-consuming, pricey, and (unless you're majorly skincare-obsessed) not that fun. When developing a skincare routine in your 20s and 30s, dermatologists agree that you have to adjust to what feels doable and fun to you personally—otherwise, you won't stick with it, and it won't work. "Adopt skincare habits that are enjoyable to you," advises Craig Kraffert, a board-certified dermatologist and president of Amarte Skin Care. "If your skincare routine is not enjoyable, continuity is difficult. Choose products of high quality. And select your active ingredients carefully."
What are the most important skincare products, ingredients, and habits to adopt before 40? We spoke with four top dermatologists to find out.
1. Get Acquainted with Vitamin C
Dermatologists agree that the antioxidant vitamin C is one of the most important ingredients to start using in your 20s and 30s, as it helps prevent dark spots before they happen and support collagen before you lose it. "Vitamin C is a terrific skin brightener with firming benefits since it boosts collagen and has antioxidant and UV protection benefits as well," says Ciraldo.
Audrey Kunin, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of DermaDoctor, recommends looking for a high-potency vitamin C serum with antioxidant boosters ferulic acid vitamin E, like DermaDoctor Kakadu C ($95) or SkinCeuticals tried-and-true C E Ferulic ($166). Apply your vitamin C in the morning before moisturizer and sunscreen for extra protection.
If your skincare routine is not enjoyable, continuity is difficult.
2. Exfoliate Two or Three Times a Week
As if the existential stress of getting older weren't enough: "Maturing skin thickens, becomes dull, drab, and lifeless, and pores become accentuated," says Kunin. Why does this happen? As Ciraldo explains, our dead skin cells don't shed as fast the older we are. That makes the skin start to look dull and the texture rough. Plus, excess pigment is stored in dead cells, so your skin tone can look discolored or uneven.
Fortunately, exfoliating two to three times a week can help solve or at least stave off some of these concerns. "Incorporating exfoliation, both chemical and physical, can help shut down the problem before it begins and help maintain your youthful glow," says Kunin. Bonus: Regular exfoliation also helps your other skincare products (like your vitamin C serum!) penetrate way better.
For physical exfoliators, we're fans of Amarte's gentle, corn seed-based Daily ExfoliPowder ($37), which is great for sensitive skin; as for chemical exfoliation, we swear by AHA and BHA masks, peels, and serums, especially Renée Rouleau's Pore + Wrinkle ($50).
3. Make Sunscreen the Centerpiece of Your Routine
I've said it before, and I'll never stop saying it: If you incorporate one anti-aging skincare product into your everyday routine, let it be sunscreen. "It's never too late to begin wearing daily SPF," Kunin assures. "Even if you have been a lifelong sun seeker, it is never too late to prevent further sun damage."
Consistency is the key with sunscreen—you really do have to apply at least SPF 30 every day (and ideally throughout the day, too) to keep your skin glowy, youthful, and, most importantly, safe. "[Apply] on all exposed skin surfaces every day with commitment to consistency," says Kraffert. "This includes hands, exposed forearms, neck (front, sides, back) and décolleté in addition to the face."
We know that most people, us included, are turned off by applying sunscreen to the face every day because most formulas are thick, chalky, and break you out. But we promise, Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen ($32) and EltaMD UV Clear Facial Sunscreen ($35) are two Byrdie editor-approved products that will impress you.
4. Embrace Moisturizing Emollients
Skin gets drier, flakier, and duller as we age, meaning you should get in the habit of protecting its moisture barrier early on. There are a few truly effective moisturizing ingredients dermatologists always recommend, including moisture-trapping lipids, which mimic the natural lipids in the skin that make babies' skin so soft and silky but that deteriorate over time. Ciraldo makes an Intense Replenishing Serum ($70) which has "bioidentical skin lipids and a super-potent antioxidant called Lipochroman." Though, Ciraldo also recommends CeraVe's drugstore cream, which contains lipids, at a super-affordable price.
Sodium hyaluronate, a derivative of hyaluronic acid, is the other moisturizing ingredient all derms recommend, as it re-creates the lubrication of the hyaluronic acid that our skin produces naturally. It's great for hydrating dry, aging skin and reducing wrinkles, and it especially does wonders for the aging eye area.
5. Start Getting Head-To-Toe Skin Checks
Looking younger is cool and all, but making sure your skin is protected against skin cancer is way, way cooler. That's why it's smart to make an early habit out of getting full-body exams by a dermatologist once a year, or more if melanoma runs in your family. "Now is the time to get a baseline skin evaluation from your dermatologist to make sure there are no early signs of precancerous skin changes," says Kunin. "It is always much easier to catch something in its early stages than suffer the consequences later on."
6. Incorporate Retinol into Your Routine
Just as vitamin C should have a place in your morning routine, retinol should have a place at night. Derms agree that your 20s are the perfect time to start using a high-quality retinol at night, as the vitamin A derivative works preventatively to fight wrinkles and boost collagen production.
Retinol is a bit of a finicky ingredient, so make sure to choose a product that comes in an opaque, well-sealed container and don't expose it to sunlight, as it's not photo- or sunlight-stable. Also, because retinol can be irritating on the skin, use it one or two nights a week to start, and then work your way up to nightly use.
7. Care for Your Skin Morning and Night—and Remember, If Nothing Else, Wash Your Damn Face
Just like brushing your teeth, it's not enough to care for your skin only once a day. Because skincare during the daytime is all about protecting your face, and skincare at night is all about repairing it, establishing a routine before you go to bed and when you wake up (incorporating the ingredients and the advice above, of course) is key.
And whatever you do, be sure to cleanse your skin, morning and night. According to Manhattan plastic surgeon Z. Paul Lorenc, MD, if you only have the energy to do one thing before bed, let it be to "remove the excess dirt and makeup from the day." Unwashed skin means clogged pores, a dull uneven complexion, and overall faster aging. So start here, and work your way backward.