From our 20s to our golden years, the skin goes through different changes and is constantly put to the test by internal and external factors. Collagen loss that happens with each birthday, hormonal changes, and daily stressors all take their toll on the skin, leaving a mark on how it looks and ages. By understanding how skin changes with age and how the external factors affect the process, you can adapt the skincare strategy and lifestyle accordingly and keep your skin looking its absolute best at every stage of life.
Skin changes that happen with age
As the years pass by, you may notice that your skin isn’t as firm and bouncy as it was once. On the contrary, it gets thinner and more fragile. Fine lines and wrinkles become more noticeable, and dark spots, well, more accentuated. The glow you once had may start to fade as well. And let’s not forget about the skin texture that also changes with age, becoming more irregular and rough. All these are part of the natural aging process, which is influenced by both internal and external factors.
Here are the main changes that happen with the skin as you get older that you need to be aware of so you can support healthy skin aging:
- Collagen and elastin degradation: From the mid-20s, the body starts to lose two essential proteins found in the connective tissue of the dermis (the middle layer of the skin): elastin and collagen. Both are key components that give skin structure and strength and keep it firm and elastic. The loss of collagen and elastin gradually results in thinner skin, wrinkles, and poor healing. In addition to the natural decline that happens with age, factors such as sun damage, smoking, pollution, stress, and lack of sleep, can accelerate the degradation of skin proteins.
- Slower cell turnover: In our 20s, skin cell turnover happens in as little as 28 days. But this rate naturally slows down with age, which means it takes longer for old cells to shed off and new younger cells to replace them. This can result in a dull appearance and changes in the skin texture.
- Less sebum: At maturity, skin tends to become drier as the sebaceous glands secrete less and less sebum. Sebum is an oily substance that keeps skin naturally moist and protected against external damage. When there’s not enough sebum, the skin is left vulnerable to moisture loss and environmental damage.
- More melanin: With prolonged sun exposure, the body produces more melanin as a defense mechanism to protect skin cells from UV damage. Yet, an accumulation of melanin leads to discoloration, dark spots, and uneven tone.
- Fat layer depletion: The fat layer (the deepest layer of the skin) depletes over the years, which can lead to a loss of volume in the skin. This can make fine lines and wrinkles more pronounced and lead to saggy skin.
- Decrease in blood flow: The blood vessels in the skin also become less efficient at bringing oxygen and nutrients to the cells. In turn, it affects the skin’s ability to repair itself and leads to easier bruising.
- Poor skin barrier function: The lipid barrier is the outermost layer of the skin and controls the amount of water that evaporates through the skin and protects against environmental aggressors. With age, this barrier becomes weaker, resulting in excessive moisture loss and increased skin sensitivities.
- Lower estrogen levels: Estrogens are a group of hormones that play a pivotal role in skin health and whose levels often decline starting in the early 40s, especially at menopause. Studies point out that estrogen insufficiency speeds up skin aging and can result in wrinkles, dryness, pigmentation, decreased elasticity, and weak protection against environmental factors.
- Shorter telomeres: Telomeres protect the genetic information in our cells and ensure that the cells divide and replicate properly. But as we age, telomers shorten, leading to a decline in the skin’s ability to repair itself. This can cause the skin to become thinner and less able to fight off damage from external factors. Shortened telomeres can also decrease collagen and elastin synthesis.
Nonetheless, these changes don’t take place all at once. They affect the skin slowly and gradually as years go by and are influenced by genetics, lifestyle, and environmental factors. Being aware of these shifts and knowing how to respond to them can go a long way in your quest to defy skin aging.
Here is what happens with skin from your 20s to 50s and how to tailor your routine at each decade of life to keep your skin in its prime at any age.
The 20s: Skin is at its best
In your 20s, your skin is still in its prime and producing a lot of proteins, lipids, and hyaluronic acid, which is why it’s so plump and dewy. But some lifestyle choices, such as sun exposure, smoking, lack of sleep, and poor diet, can speed up the degradation of these essential components and lead to dullness and early fine lines.
FYI, UV damage is thought to be responsible for 80% of facial wrinkles. Hence, your top priority at this age is to protect the skin from the sun by using sunscreen daily. Get 7-8 hours of sleep per night if you don’t want to be stressed out about dark circles and puffiness in your 30s, drink plenty of water, and have a balanced diet. These are lifetime rules, and you should stick to them every day, no matter how old you are.
Your early 20s is also the perfect time to start a skincare routine to prevent premature aging signs and prepare your skin for times ahead. Keep things minimalist and begin with a cleanser, serum, and moisturizer. Since you are unlikely to have any skin issues to fix, your routine should focus on hydration and protection.
Ideally, twice daily, use a gentle face wash that lacks alcohol, fragrances, and sulfates. Add a hydrating moisturizer infused with hyaluronic acid, glycerin, squalane, ceramides, niacinamide, or Centella asiatica—all these ingredients provide deep hydration and keep the skin quenched.
At this age, you also need to consolidate your skin’s defense against free radicals and pollution, so consider adding antioxidants, too, like a vitamin C serum. Vitamin C is your best ally at every age because it spurs collagen growth, reduces cell damage, prevents dark spots, and supports skin moisture. From the mid-20s, you could also add a retinol serum to increase collagen production and promote cell renewal. You don’t have to replace vitamin C with retinol, though. To get the best of both worlds, use vitamin C serum in the morning and retinol at night.
Moreover, the skin’s natural oil production is at its peak in your 20s, the reason your complexion is moist and soft. However, if you have oily skin, this can lead to clogged pores and acne. You may also face hormonal fluctuations, which can impact the skin to an extent and contribute to blemishes and breakouts. FYI, according to a study, 50.9% of women and 42.5% of men are experiencing acne during their 20s. If you have acne in your 20s, consider using treatments with salicylic acid and visit a dermatologist.
Summary: Protecting your skin from UV damage is the first task in your 20s. In addition to applying sunscreen daily, use a gentle cleanser, hydrating moisturizer, and serum with vitamin C on a daily basis. From the mid-20s, you can also add a retinol serum every other night. There’s also a chance you may face acne in your 20s. If you do, think of using treatments such as salicylic acid.
30s: Skin starts to change
Your 30s can be accompanied by new fine lines, superficial wrinkles, and a visible loss of radiance. This is because your skin has already lost a considerable amount of elastin and collagen. The damage that your body has accumulated from sun exposure, pollution, and other environmental factors may also become more visible in the form of dark spots. Moreover, when you reach your thirties, your sleep patterns change, and it becomes more challenging to get a good night’s sleep, which can lead to dark circles and puffiness under the eyes. The need for exfoliation also increases with age since the body’s natural cell turnover rate decreases.
All in all, your early 30s is the right time to start exfoliating your skin regularly if you haven’t already. Put your hands on a mild exfoliant with alpha-hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid and lactic acids, preferably in concentrations of 5 to 10%. Use it twice weekly to slough off the buildup of dead cells and impurities from the skin’s surface and reveal a more radiant and clear appearance. Also, keep up with sunscreen daily, cleanse and moisturize every morning (and night), and get plenty of sleep.
This is also when most people start to face their first major skin issues. Depending on genetics and lifestyle, you may experience dark patches, acne scars, clogged pores, excess sebum, persistent pimples, dehydration, uneven texture, rosacea, and dermatitis. If, until now, you could live happily with a minimalistic routine, in your 30s, you need to personalize it and upgrade to a targeted regimen that caters to your skin needs.
If you need guidance, here’s how to choose a cleanser based on your skin and how to pick the right moisturizer.
At this age, you can still go on with vitamin C serum in the morning and retinol at night—it’s a great duo for preventing premature aging and fighting most skin woes—but it would be wise to consider moving to more potent formulas. If you used a 0.1% retinol serum in your 20s, upgrade to a 0.3% or 0.5% in your 30s. The same goes for vitamin C. It’s important to understand that the skin changes with each age and becomes needier, and so does the routine. P.S: You may want to switch from retinol with a prescription-strength retinoid, such as tretinoin, if you have visible wrinkles, prominent dark spots, or severe acne in your 30s.
Furthermore, consider visiting a dermatologist and starting with monthly facials, especially if you have an underlying condition to treat. Even though it isn’t totally necessary, this can help you better understand your skin and take the best care of it.
Lastly, add an eye cream to your routine. The thirties is when most start dealing with dark circles and puffiness, and there’s nothing better to keep these culprits at bay than a vitamin C eye cream.
Summary: In your 30s, your skin may show signs of aging, such as fine lines, wrinkles, and loss of radiance. It’s essential to start exfoliating regularly, use sunscreen daily, cleanse and moisturize every morning and night, and integrate an eye cream into your beauty ritual. Upgrade to a targeted regimen that addresses your specific skin needs and consider moving to more potent formulas. Consult with a dermatologist and take advantage of regular facial treatments.
40s: Aging becomes more visible on skin
As you hit your 40s, the skin goes through a host of dramatic changes that can make you feel like you’re in a whole new ballgame. Fine lines and wrinkles become more prominent and deeper, and the complexion begins to feel thinner, rougher, and more delicate. Sunspots, which were once barely visible, also start to pop up all over the face.
This happens because collagen and elastin production takes a nosedive, leaving behind age marks that are harder to hide. Hormonal changes that come with perimenopause disrupt the estrogen levels and can make your skin feel like a desert, leaving it parched, red, and dry, or on the opposite, can cause oily patches and aggravate breakouts. The same goes for sebum production, which goes very slowly at this age, resulting in dry, flaky, and itchy skin. Telomere shortening also starts to occur after the 40s, making it more difficult for cells to divide and repair themselves, which can lead to a variety of age-related changes in the skin. And as you get older, your body’s antioxidant defense gets weaker at scavenging free radicals, which leaves skin vulnerable to sun damage and pollution.
I know things look grim, but all is not lost. With the right anti-aging routine, cosmetic procedures, and some improvements to your lifestyle, you can support how your skin ages.
Let’s tackle this one step at a time. First and foremost, your 40s should be about taking care of your skin from the inside out. Start by being more selective about what you eat and stick to a balanced nutrition plan. Cut sugar and highly processed foods from your diet—high consumption of sugar causes glycation, which is a process that breaks down elastin and collagen fibers. Instead, add fruits, veggies, and meals rich in soy proteins, vitamins A, B5, C, and E, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, and selenium. These nutrients are the building blocks of healthy aging because they help build collagen, reduce the rate of telomere shortening, hydrate, strengthen the antioxidant system, and encourage cell repair.
You can as well take supplements to help your skin age better. Supplements with collagen, hyaluronic acid, and fatty acids have been particularly found effective at mitigating the impact of aging on the skin. Your 40s is also a good time to start hitting the gym. Having an active lifestyle has plenty of benefits for the skin, including reducing telomere shortening and accelerating blood flow.
Also, at that age, the cell turnover is in a slow-motion mode and is not as quick to bounce back as it used to be in your 30s, resulting in a dull appearance. But you can help boost this process by using more potent exfoliators and retinoid products every other night. I also encourage you to start doing chemical peels at home, which are pretty much exfoliation on steroids. And keep up with your vitamin C serum and sunscreen every morning—that’s non-negotiable.
Most people also switch the type of moisturizer once they reach their 40s. This is because aged skin needs more replenishing and regenerative formulas to compensate for the loss of lipids. For the best, keep a lightweight moisturizer with added antioxidants for the day and add a richer night cream to your PM routine. The reason is that during the day, the skin needs extra support to maintain proper hydration and protection against external aggressors since it can no longer retain water and fight free radicals on its own. For the night, it needs something to promote cell repair and restoration, and for that, a cream infused with ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids will do magic. All three are lipids that make up the epidermal barrier and work to regenerate it. I recommend Paula’s Choice C5 Super Boost Moisturizer for your AM routine and SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2 for nighttime.
Finally, it would help to include more anti-aging ingredients in your routine. Aside from retinol and vitamin C, peptides, niacinamide, growth factors, coenzyme Q10, and DMAE are great wrinkle-fighters.
Summary: Your 40s is about giving your skin extra TLC from the inside out. Eat healthily, maintain a diet rich in vitamins, antioxidants, and fatty acids, have an active lifestyle, and get plenty of rest. Switch to an anti-aging skincare routine and consider using more potent exfoliants and retinoids to help cell renewal. Use a regenerative night cream in your PM routine and make the most of vitamin C, sunscreen, and other anti-agers.
50s and beyond: Skin reaches maturity
In your 50s, the skin’s ability to retain moisture takes huge deep, which can lead to severe dryness, itching, and irritation. Scarring, fine lines, and wrinkles deepen, resulting in saggy and loose skin. Menopause also leaves its mark on the skin, leaving it dehydrated and unbalanced. Moreover, the number of melanocytes (cells that produce melanin) tends to decrease with aging, so the skin has less protection against ultraviolet radiation, which means an increased risk of cancer.
Focus on sunscreen and take extra protection measures against sun damage, such as wearing protective clothing and seeking shade during peak hours. The fifties are an ideal time to turn to cosmetic procedures and advanced treatments such as radiofrequency, microneedling, laser resurfacing, and hyaluronic acid injections—all work to correct sagginess and provide more transformative results. Other than that, continue using retinol, vitamin C, and regenerative night cream.
Watch out for your diet and limit the consumption of sugar, fried foods, and alcohol. Also, the 50s is the decade of life when you really need to take a load off and chill out. Stress can be a real beauty killer by causing the release of harmful chemicals that can do a number on collagen and elastin, leading to a loss of elasticity in the skin.
As you have already learned, a lot is going on inside the body as the years go by, and the skin suffers endless changes that can impact its appearance. But with proper skincare, a healthy and active lifestyle, and sun protection, you can counteract the effects of aging on the skin. It’s never too early or too late to start taking proper care of your skin.
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