If you wear out your hip, the marvels of modern medicine say you can get a new one. Your knee too. A lot of old folks do. But your skin can’t be replaced, and any attempts to correct your skin care mistakes with surgery could lead to very unnatural (and potentially scary) results. The key to aging gracefully lies in taking care of your skin as early and as religiously as possible, both from the inside and out.
Your diet, hydration and exercise practices, social life, and what you do to your face every morning when you wake and every night before you lay down — all of this plays a role in how your skin stands up to aging. Fortunately, when you know better, you can do better, and while establishing good skin care habits certainly takes an effort, it’s a lot less expensive and painful than going under the knife.
Caring for your skin requires a multi-prong approach. Slathering on the greatest serums won’t do any good if you’re a dehydrated smoker who insists on take-out every day and drunken benders every week. Likewise, if you eat well and treat your body with respect, but don’t protect your skin from the outside too — your results will be subpar.
We’ve split this guide into two sections: caring for your skin from the inside and caring for your skin from the outside. Feel free to skip to the parts that you need most, but don’t skip any of these steps entirely.
Beauty may be skin deep, but the beauty of your skin begins far deeper. It’s your largest organ and like every other organ, your skin depends on you to treat your entire body well.
Water: Drink at least 3.7 liters (~15 ½ cups) daily. It makes up well over half of your body, so it stands to reason water might be crucial for every aspect of our health. When it comes to your skin, this couldn’t be more true. Hydration from the inside — and from the outside, as you’ll see later on — can make a major difference in the health and appearance of your complexion. While there aren’t any official recommendations on how much water we should drink, the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine suggest 3.7 liters for adult men.
To put some actual science behind the well-known adage of drinking water for healthier skin, a 2015 study found that drinking water not only improved skin hydration, but elasticity and other biomechanical markers, and a 2007 paper found increased water consumption to increase skin thickness and density.
Diet: Eat a healthful diet, including plenty of fruits and vegetables. You’ve heard it before, likely since you were a kid. But eating plants really does help keep your entire body healthy. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants. Vitamin C, carotenoids like beta carotene, polyphenols, and flavonoids all play a role in keeping your skin healthy — healing wounds, preventing oxidative stress, and reducing other signs of aging — and they’re all naturally found in fruits and vegetables. Essential fatty acids, like those found in fatty fish and seeds, can similarly fight visible signs of aging, including helping your skin retain moisture.
All of these substances, along with others like pre- and probiotics, can be obtained through the diet. Other problems notwithstanding, a diet rich in healthful foods is a diet that will protect your skin. But just like healthful foods can help your skin, unhealthy foods can harm it. The Mayo Clinic reports there is research suggesting regularly eating processed and refined carbohydrates as well as “bad” fats can lead to skin aging. So limit your late night drive-thrus and keep your fridge stocked with better options.
Sleep: Get seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night. When you don’t get enough sleep, there’s a good chance you’re temper is short and your ability to concentrate is hampered. But a lack of sleep also affects your appearance, and we’re not just talking about the bags under your eyes. Researchers found that chronic poor sleep is directly associated with the signs of aging. In a 2015 study, they wrote poor sleepers had drier skin and a lower satisfaction with their appearance. Further, the skin of those who slept well actually recovered more quickly from UV light exposure. Create a nighttime ritual to make winding down easier — power off your devices well before you climb into bed — and make getting a full night’s sleep a priority.
Exercise: Keep a regular exercise regimen. Sweat may feel gross when it’s pouring off of you, but it definitely helps keep your skin healthy. Even beyond giving you that healthy glow and rosy cheeks, there’s evidence regular exercise can help stave off visible signs of aging. According to one study published in the journal Aging Cell, a sedentary lifestyle can lead to premature aging, and there’s bountiful research showing how physical fitness can keep your entire body more youthful. It’s believed many of the anti-aging benefits of exercise can be credited to protein production that spurs cellular activity that usually deteriorates with age. In other words, when you’re panting through a workout, your waistline isn’t the only thing reaping benefits.
Smoking and excessive drinking: Just don’t. Smoking is an addictive behavior (and so is excessive drinking), and both of these can lead to premature aging of the skin as well as a long list of other deleterious health effects. Decreased blood flow, damaged collagen and elastin, dehydration, and poorer sleep quality — essentially, these behaviors will have you looking like they make you feel: old. If you’re having trouble quitting either one, get help.
A healthy body goes far to nurture healthy skin, but at some point, no matter how well you eat your veggies, wrinkles will appear. This is where topical skin care comes in. What you put on your skin can help protect it from the elements and even slow down the natural aging process.
Clean: Make cleaning your skin a twice-daily habit. Your face is rarely covered, making it open to all of the elements and pollutants in the air you breathe. Not only that, you’re (hopefully) going to the gym and not living in a bubble. Dirty skin is far less about appearance than it is the long-term effects — pimples, wrinkles, and microscopic damage from pollutants.
Wash your skin twice daily, at least once with a gentle cleanser made for your skin type. If you struggle with oily skin or acne, seek out a product labeled oil-free non comedogenic. Otherwise, look for one that will help keep your complexion moist while removing toxins and the evidence of your day. Use lukewarm water and if you must use a washcloth, ensure it’s clean.
Protect: Wear sunscreen any day you plan on leaving the house. Damage from UV rays is one of the primary causes of premature aging. The sun’s effects on your skin include: dehydration, wrinkles, loss of elasticity, sagginess, and discoloration. This damage happens over time — the University of Minnesota reports that as much as 80% of premature skin aging occurs in the first 20 years of life, so it’s never too early to start protecting yourself.
If your daily moisturizer has a sunscreen, you don’t have to think about it. Choose one that has a minimum sun protection factor (SPF) of 15. Reapply it throughout the day, especially if you’re sweating or swimming.
Treat: If you choose anti-aging products, give them a chance to work, applying as directed for at least a month to test their effects on your skin. There are countless anti-aging products on the market. If you go into the cosmetics section of any drug store, you’ll see them, and possibly become overwhelmed and walk out.
Seek out anti-aging products that are focused on hydration. A paper in the Journal of Clinical Investigation says that reducing the signs of aging is largely a matter of keeping your skin moisturized. You can likely find a day cream that will act as a moisturizer, sunscreen, and anti-aging tool in one, and products for the evening that put in additional work.
If you’re looking for the best anti-aging serum or night cream, those with retinoids are always a solid choice. Retinol is the ingredient you’ll see in over-the-counter products, but there are other retinoids available by prescription. Most often applied topically, these products are supported by scientific research to reduce wrinkles and other signs of aging.
Keeping your skin looking it’s best requires work, but establishing good habits can make the efforts automatic. Further, many of the habits that lead to better skin also lead to better overall health, so done right, they could help you enjoy your youthful skin well into a healthy old age.