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8 Skincare Products Every 20-Something Should Use Before Turning 30

A still from 13 Going on 30

What is it about the prospect of turning 30 that brings a newfound devotion to the best skin-care products for our 20s? Yes, there’s the obsessive poring over stray spots and microscopic lines you’ve never seen before, but is it all in your mind, or does your skin actually start to change right when you enter that third decade?

According to Alicia Barba, a Miami-based dermatologist, the first signs of sun damage do generally show up in your 30s, as your skin’s reparative abilities begin to weaken—think mild brown spots, crow’s-feet, and dull skin. But it’s important to remember that those changes are actually a reflection of past behavior. “The damage you do in your 20s is going to show up in your 30s, 40s, and 50s,” she explains. “It’s a cumulative effect; things will come back to haunt you.”

Fortunately, by taking early action, you can make a significant impact on your skin’s future health, Dr. Barba explains. “A lot of it has to do with prevention and protection—being the 20-year-old wearing a hat at the beach,” she says. “But it’s also about developing good habits to carry you on through your later years.” One especially important practice: extending your products’ reach. “When you’re young, it’s easy to think just about your face, but we need to protect our neck, chest, hands, and feet as well,” she adds. “As you get older, you’ll start thinking about them more. You can usually carry what works for your face down to your neck and chest.”

Here, Dr. Barba breaks down the best skin-care products for your 20s that every person should be using before turning 30—but those 30 and older should also take notes. “It’s never too late to start, and I promise it will help,” Dr. Barba says. After all, 30 is the new 20.

A Gentle Cleanser

“We do want to exfoliate, but sometimes we can become over-exfoliated,” Dr. Barba notes. “From cleansers to sonic devices to scrubs, if you use one exfoliator on top of another, the skin can become irritated and raw. It’s always nice to have a gentle cleanser on hand, especially in the morning when you really only have natural oils and the product from the night before to clean off.”

“I love bars like the Dove Beauty Bar for Sensitive Skin, which is well priced and cleanses and hydrates at the same time,” says Dr. Barba. Otherwise, the La Roche-Posay Toleriane formula is a reliable drugstore pickup too. Those with sensitive skin should look to Avène’s no-rinse milky cleanser for soothing moisture, while Tatcha’s The Rice Wash offers cream-based cleansing to avoid stripping the skin.

An Exfoliating Treatment

“Once you hit your late 20s, some people might start to see the early signs of sun or smoking damage and want to be more aggressive in treating it. There are a lot of amazing acids to use at home once a week or every two weeks to exfoliate the skin. There is a learning curve with these as well. You have to be very careful to moisturize and use a gentle cleanser to avoid further stripping the skin.”

For an exfoliating peel similar to an in-office treatment, consider this two-step approach by Dr. Dennis Gross that’s infused with five acids to improve texture, pores, and dark spots. Overnight, though, you might appreciate Glow Recipe’s sleeping mask for its cocktail of watermelon, hyaluronic acid, and AHAs to gently exfoliate with minimal effort. Otherwise, add the Amore Pacific Treatment Enzyme Peel Cleansing Powder or Alpha-H Liquid Gold With 5% Glycolic Acid to your beauty arsenal to slough away dry skin, though the latter is best used at night.

A Vitamin C Serum

“I recommend a vitamin C serum packed with antioxidants for an added layer of sun protection,” explains Dr. Barba. “Everyone should know that sunscreen is not a complete block. UV rays do still penetrate, so it’s nice to wear something underneath the SPF to neutralize the free radicals that get released and also to help with collagen production. Some sunscreens will claim to have antioxidants in them, but it’s never been proven that the amount they include is enough to protect, so it’s better to use them separately.”

And so it’s clear a supercharged vitamin C is an essential part of any 20-something’s regimen. SkinCeutical’s C E Ferulic is acclaimed industry-wide to reduce the look of fine lines, firm, and brighten. Then there’s the iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance Plus powered by a time-release form of the antioxidant, along with botanicals to treat acne and rosacea, among other conditions. Packed with not only vitamin C but salicylic acid and neurosensine, the La Roche-Posay 10% Pure Vitamin C Serum boasts acne-fighting and anti-aging benefits while hydrating skin. Or those privy to oil-based products should look to Mount Lai’s brightening formula to boost radiance and even complexion.

A Hyaluronic Acid

“This is a wonderful, hydrating, water-based toner with hyaluronic acid (the same one in actual fillers, made by a European filler company), rose water, and chlorhexidine (an antibacterial agent) that does not over-strip the skin. Hyaluronic acid gently hydrates, and the chlorhexidine prevents breakouts that may still be present leading up to your 30s,” says Dr. Barba of the Teoxane RHA Prime Solution Prep Cleansing Solution.

For similar results at a fraction of the cost, The Ordinary’s serum pairs hyaluronic acid with vitamin B5 for a hydration surge. If you’re looking to plumpen and smooth, though, you can’t go wrong with the Innisfree Intensive Hydrating Serum or the Farmacy Filling Good Hyaluronic Acid Plumping Serum—both working to combat dehydrated skin.

A Retinol Treatment

“It’s not that exciting, but retinoids are still the gold standard. They are the one thing that’s actually been proven to treat the skin, to build collagen, but also to reverse photoaging. Pick a mild, over-the-counter retinol product that is not irritating or too exfoliating and start using it every other night, and you can mix a little moisturizer with the retinol to make it more tolerable. The goal should be to start in your late 20s and get used to the effects so that you can work yourself up to prescription-strength retinol by your late 30s or 40s.”

Regardless of the formula you choose, it’s clear adding a retinol to your beauty routine is necessary. Options by SkinCeuticals, Dermalogica and Sunday Riley are safe bets for efficacious formulas crafted to renew skin over time—just be sure to ease into use, as recommended by Dr. Barba. Those specifically looking to make dark spots disappear might reach for esthetician Rachel Roff’s Urban Skin Rx retinol, which pairs the ingredient with powerhouses kojic acid and niacinamide.

An Eye Cream

“The skin around our eyes is the thinnest skin on our body and one of the first spots to show your age,” Dr. Barba continues. “Starting an eye cream early develops a good habit, and even if you’re not treating a visible wrinkle, it hydrates the skin to plump it so the wrinkles show less when you’re older. I like to rotate creams with different active ingredients to work out the different layers and structures of the skin. For example, starting with an eye cream that has a little retinol to build collagen, and after finishing that jar, switching to a more hydrating formula with hyaluronic acid.”

Among the best eye creams for dark circles, are these formulas by SkinCeuticals and Sunday Riley—acclaimed for their abilities to de-puff, brighten, and hydrate with ease. Beyond dark circles though, those looking to quell under-eye wrinkles, sensitivity, and more should consider adding options by Schwanen Garten and Kiehl’s to their arsenal. After all, Dr. Barba notes the importance of cycling through various creams!

A Daily Sunscreen

“Sunscreen is nonnegotiable on a daily basis,” Dr. Barba says. “There are so many formulations to choose from, but you should pick a broad-spectrum sunscreen that’s SPF 30 or higher. I love to look for the ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which create a nice even finish and can cause fewer breakouts in 20-somethings. If you’re out and active, you should reapply your SPF every one to two hours; if you’re not spending a lot of time outdoors, then it’s fine to apply just once in the morning.”

EltaMD UV Clear for the face and Supergoop!’s Play for the body are respectable choices year-round, despite skin conditions, tones, or sensitivities—no white cast either. Otherwise, a glowy sunscreen under makeup can make all the difference to achieve a lit-from-within glow—with Tula’s Protect + Glow gel formula and Kinship’s Self Reflect vegan number being two of our top picks.

A Body Polish

“In my world, exfoliation is always paired with hydration,” explains Dr. Barba. “When one exfoliates, you also remove your own natural moisturizers along with dead skin cells. Too much exfoliation can lead to dry, itchy skin. A gentle exfoliating body polish that moisturizes while exfoliating is the way to go.”

For smooth skin all over, Nécessaire The Body Exfoliator’s assortment of fragrant scrubs won’t do you wrong, though if you’re looking to treat keratosis pilaris, First Aid Beauty’s Bump Eraser is even more effective. Then for those at-home spa days, the Herbivore and Ouai polishes provide nourishing exfoliation, with the latter suitable to remove product buildup from the scalp too.

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