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What Are You Doing Wrong to Your Aging Skin

By Stephanie Watson, AARP, May 2024

What are you doing wrong to your aging skin? Did you know that these common things might be aging your skin faster? Let’s face it: The years aren’t kind to skin. We start to lose collagen and elastin, two proteins that give skin its structure and elasticity, in our 30s. And it’s all downhill from there.

“The loss of collagen and elastin leads to signs of aging such as fine lines, wrinkles and skin laxity,” says Michele Green, M.D., a New York City–based board-certified cosmetic dermatologist. On top of that, years of sun exposure leave skin dotted with dark spots.

An entire industry has grown up around protecting our skin from the effects of time. An estimated 62 percent of Americans say they use products intended for mature skin as part of a daily skin care routine. Yet we’re not always using the right items, and many of us are missing some important steps to keep our skin healthy as we age. Here are eight mistakes that can cause skin to age faster. Some of them can also lead to serious health problems.

1. Not wearing sunscreen every day

This is a big one, says Camila Antia, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and co-owner of The Skin People, in Bellaire, Texas. When ultraviolet rays from the sun hit your skin, they cause changes at the cellular level that lead to premature aging, called photoaging, not to mention an increased risk for skin cancer.

About 80 percent of skin aging on the face can be attributed to UV exposure. Wearing sunscreen every day not only protects against photoaging but could potentially reverse it. Experts recommend applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects from both UVA and UVB and has an SPF of at least 30 (50 is even better) and wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses whenever you’re outside, even on cloudy days.

Your face isn’t the only part of you that needs sun protection. “The other thing that people do is they don’t put sunscreen on their neck and chest or hands,” Antia says. “That’s when you see somebody whose skin looks perfect on their face, and then their neck and hands tell their age.” Cover every exposed part of you with sunscreen before you leave the house each morning.

2. Overexfoliating

This is Antia’s “number one peeve,” she says. “People overdo it with exfoliants. If you overexfoliate, you can make your skin look dull and a little older than it actually is, so you want to stick with gentle exfoliating methods.”

The goal of exfoliating is to remove dead skin cells, dirt and other debris from the skin’s surface, but too much of it can strip away your skin’s natural oils and damage its moisture barrier. Also, not all exfoliants are created equal. Physical or manual exfoliation uses a brush or a scrub that feels like little grains or coffee grounds to physically remove dead skin cells. Chemical exfoliation involves chemicals such as alpha- or beta-hydroxy acid to gently remove skin cells.

Antia recommends chemical exfoliation because it’s less harsh on the skin. Even with this gentler method, don’t go overboard. “Your skin doesn’t need to get polished every single day,” she says. “You want to do it once a week, and if you have sensitive skin, you might do it once every two weeks or so.”

3. Using skin care products that irritate

“One of the biggest mistakes that I see from patients is continuously using a product that is actively irritating them,” Green says. “Many of my older patients have been using the same skin care routine for years and years, and it can be hard to switch up a routine that you are comfortable with.”

If your skin turns red or stings after applying a product, stop using it. Continuing to use an irritating skin product could leave you with skin color changes called hyperpigmentation, she cautions.

4. Using hyaluronic acid incorrectly

You’ve probably heard about hyaluronic acid, since it’s in lots of commercials for skin care products. This natural substance is important because it attracts moisture from the air and pulls it into your skin. But if you apply hyaluronic acid to damp skin and you don’t seal it in with a moisturizer, it could have the opposite effect. “Hyaluronic acid can actually dehydrate your skin because it pulls water out,” Antia says.

5. Getting your skin care from the wrong person

Chemical peels, lasers and microdermabrasion are all tools to reduce signs of aging like fine lines, wrinkles and age spots. But if you get one of these procedures from a place that isn’t licensed or from a practitioner who doesn’t know what they’re doing, they could cause redness and peeling, and accelerate the signs of aging.

The results could be even worse. In April 2024, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of reactions like blurry vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech and breathing difficulty in people who’d received fake Botox injections from unlicensed providers in homes and spas.

Some of those who’d received the counterfeit shots ended up in the hospital. Recently the CDC warned that three New Mexico women tested positive for HIV after receiving vampire facials from a clinic that was using unsafe practices.

Popularized by Kim Kardashian, a vampire facial, also called platelet-rich plasma microneedling, involves drawing a person’s blood, separating out the platelets and injecting the platelets back into the face with tiny needles. It’s unclear whether the women contracted HIV through unclean needles or the injection of blood that wasn’t their own, but it speaks to dangers of unlicensed practitioners. Make sure any skin care provider you visit is reputable. Ask about their qualifications. They should be licensed and, if they’re not a doctor, at least supervised by one — ideally by a dermatologist, Antia says.

6. Not removing your makeup before bed

Washing your face before you retire for the night is one habit worth getting into. When you leave on your makeup while you sleep, all the chemicals and other irritants that your skin was exposed to during the day get sealed in. That can age your skin.

7. Smoking

This isn’t something you do to your skin specifically, but smoking is still worth noting because of its harmful effects. Research has shown that smoking prematurely ages skin and accelerates wrinkling. That’s why the skin of a heavy smoker at age 40 looks like the skin of a 70-year-old nonsmoker. The damage that smoking inflicts on the skin is irreversible.

8. Following skin care fads

Social media is full of influencers hyping various skin trends. Many of these fads do little to improve aging skin. Take the collagen craze, which has proponents recommending that people ingest this protein through pills or drinks. “There is no research confirming that collagen pills or drinks can make a difference in skin,” says Green. You’re much better off trying a retinol cream or an in-office treatment like Thermage or Fraxel that is proven to increase collagen production, she adds. Other influencer tips, like using sunscreen as a highlighter, could be harmful.

Following the latest fad without taking your skin’s needs into account is a big mistake. So is accepting skin care advice from a cousin, friend or anyone else who doesn’t have the right training. What works for other people won’t necessarily work for you. “You have to understand your skin, and anything that you do has to be personalized and tailored to your own skin,” says Antia.

The Best Skin Care Routine for Aging Skin

Now that you know what not to do to your skin, what should you do to prevent premature aging?

Keep it simple. The ideal skin care regimen should consist of three basics: a cleanser, moisturizer and sunscreen.

You can add in an extra like retinol too. Apply it before your moisturizer at night. “Retinol is a vitamin A derivative that accelerates the skin cell turnover rate to remove dead skin cells, debris and other impurities from the skin,” says Green. “By sloughing off dead skin cells, new skin cells can come to the surface faster.”

But avoid using retinol in the morning because it can make your skin more sensitive to the sun.

Products with vitamin C are also worth trying. They contain antioxidants that protect skin from oxidative stress and UV damage, and reduce signs of aging. You can apply it before your moisturizer in the morning and at night.

Finally, find a dermatologist you trust and ask for their advice. The doctor can analyze your skin and see which products are best suited to protecting your skin and helping you look your best at any age.

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