As commonly comes up in conversation within my friendship group: we're pushing 30. And this means that over the past year, I've paid more attention to well-ageing. Of course it's never too late to do something good for your skin, but as we begin to notice those first fine lines: it's a great idea to start taking steps within your routine to soften signs of ageing as they start to set in. I've always hated the terms 'anti-ageing' or 'wrinkle prevention'! They sound so negative, and ultimately: we're going to age, there's no fighting against it, because it's going to win. Plus there's a lot more that happens to our skin beyond 'wrinkles' as we age, and all of that is stuff we want to help replenish where we can. So, this guide will walk you through skin changes over the years and the sorts of products and ingredients that help soften that process, in order of effectiveness!
- GOD TIER -
Broad spectrum sunscreen
I'm sure if you have any common sense, you're wearing sunscreen in the summer, if you're out on hikes or for days at the beach, but the thing that's really going to be a game-changer is wearing it every single day; rain or shine, winter or summer, inside or outside. From a safety perspective, (without a pre-existing medical or family history) you're probably not going to be significantly at risk if you're just at home in the middle of winter, it's really when you're heading out on those high UV index days where you have to be so, so careful with reapplying sunscreen and obviously taking other measures like seeking shade, wearing UPF clothing and reaching for wide-brimmed hats. However, UVA rays (the ones that are really responsible for photoageing and deep cell damage) and visible light can attack your skin all year round. UVA rays can even penetrate most window glass, so that's why - if you care about premature ageing (or you have a history of skin cancer) - finding a formula that works for you every single day is really important.
One that I really love is the Medik8 Advanced Day Ultimate Protect SPF 50+ PA++++* | £59. It's great for low-maintenance people if you're willing to make the splurge because it can act as a 2-in-1 sunscreen-moisturiser with ingredients like squalane and hyaluronic acid. The reason I've chosen this is because you're getting the maximum UVA and UVB protection (a lot of sunscreens don't provide this level of UVA protection, even if the UVB rating, AKA 'SPF' is high) but also visible light protection. Not only will this help prevent accelerating fine lines but it will provide some protection against age-related pigmentation, which visible light can contribute towards to worsening of.
If you prefer mineral sunscreen filters, I think the EltaMD UV Elements Broad-Spectrum SPF 44 | $36.50 | full review | is a great option if you can get hold of it (if not, hopefully you can get the Murad one I've also discussed in the review post linked). It doesn't contain fragrance or other known irritants, if you're more on the sensitive side, though I will flag: I definitely need a moisturiser on under this, as it just has a satin-touch finish. I've only tried this tinted version - whilst the shade suits me, it might not be for everyone and I've not tried the untinted version to comment on any potential white cast for that. The iron oxides in here are going to help with that visible light protection and you're getting the protection across the UV spectrum with these filters.
Sunscreen is your preventative measure, retinoids (Vitamin A derivatives) are what you use to reverse signs of skin damage. They're the only class of ingredient we have decades of research on that have proven time and time again to be able to do this. They increase skin cell turnover and boost up collagen production (which slows down as we age). They can be great for acne, uneven skin tone and discolouration too. Personally - unless pregnant or breastfeeding - I would swerve the plant-based alternatives because they just don't have the same research behind them. We need the collagen, we neeeeed the collagen! If you're very sensitive, start with an ester like retinyl palmitate and see how you get on. Retinol is the most famous form of the ingredient and you can get all sorts of complexes and encapsulated forms designed to make it feel gentler on the skin.
Tretinoin (a form of retinoic acid) is the gold standard in terms of reducing signs of premature ageing, and is available via prescription only. When I use it, I get mine through a Skin & Me dermatologist for around £20 a month (and they blend it with other ingredients to address your skin concerns). It is very drying and irritating, though, so I would say it's something you might want to graduate to in your late-30s and onwards or do what I do, and use it for a few months at a time then use a cosmetic product for the rest of the year. My personal favourite is retinaldehyde, which is nestled in-between tretinoin and retinol, as the most direct form of retinoid available as a cosmetic ingredient. It can actually be a little gentler than retinol, though it's often more expensive (as it's unstable, there's a lot of encapsulation technology that has to go into formulating with it) and most of the research we have is on retinol and retinoic acid.
I personally love to use the Medik8 Crystal Retinal series* | from £39 | full review. You can start at 0 if you have sensitive skin or at 3 if you have some experience with retinoids, and move up the ladder to stronger forms of the ingredient right up to 10 (or 20 via a Medik8 clinic). I love this formula because I don't experience any irritation or drying side-effects with it and it comes in this lovely moisturising base.
- GOOD TO HAVE -
The first ingredient we're going to talk about is ascorbic acid. This is the pure form of Vitamin C and is notoriously difficult to formulate with, which is why a lot of brands use derivatives. You can still get some benefits from these derivatives, but it's really ascorbic acid that's been demonstrated to increase collagen production in the skin. It can help with existing sun-induced discolouration, plus it has amazing antioxidant benefits, protecting the skin from free radical damage from our environment. It can also work synergistically when layered on under your sunscreen.
Although I'm working on a post walking through more affordable alternatives: the long and short of it is that the Skinceuticals C E Ferulic* | £145 | is the gold standard. The original owner of the brand did extensive research that kind of formed our basis of how ascorbic acid works, and of course patented the perfect blend of efficacy, stability and tolerability! This formula is pretty shelf-stable, it doesn't irritate my skin and it's just improved my skin quality in pretty much every way. It uses other antioxidants to stabilise the formula - ferulic acid and Vitamin E, as the name suggests. This is the most scientifically-supported ascorbic acid on the market, if you're able to drop the cash for it!
If you're using the C E Ferulic, you might find that that's enough antioxidant benefit for you, but if you're not, I definitely recommend using a gentler Vitamin C derivative paired with some other antioxidants. Whilst it's unlikely to boost collagen production, you're still getting some enhanced protection for your skin during the day. I know retinoids and niacinamide are technically antioxidants, but here I'm talking more about these really gentle, daytime-appropriate boosters. The ones I'd really highlight for you to check out are resveratrol and CoQ10. I personally have really been impressed with pycnogenol, but that's an anecdotal endorsement, given it's a newer ingredient with less research on it.
The Niod Survival 0 | £20 | contains great blend of antioxidants all wrapped up into one layer-friendly serum. There's pycnogenol, superoxide dismutase and a bunch of ingredients that are rich in antioxidants like flavanones, tomato extract and red algae (plus hydrating and moisturising components like squalane and hyaluronic acid, so you don't need to reach for those ingredients in addition to this). It's totally non-irritating and really improved the quality of my skin.
This is one area where you can definitely mix and match if you want and go for something a little more affordable. I'd recommend the Inkey List's Q10 Serum | £4.99 | full review | in the daytime and the Ordinary's 5% Pycnogenol | £8.50 | full review | in the evening (for this one I'd say a couple of times a week is fine, because it's really a powerful ingredient). Both just give me an amazing skin day! The Q10 has added hydrating benefits and the pycnogenol has such an interesting texture; it's oil-free but kind of feels like an oil, so that's why I feel it works best in the evening (a couple of drops under moisturiser works for me) and you will still reap those benefits when you go out into the world the following morning.
As we age, ceramide production does unfortunately slow down. Our skin barrier is made up primarily of ceramides (along with some cholesterol and fatty acids) so when it's lacking in them, your skin is going to feel drier, maybe more sensitive and possibly you might notice a bit more redness in it. There are ingredients we can use to try to boost up ceramide production, but this fatty component can also be applied topically. For best results, I like to know that there's a high concentration of ceramides and ideally, I do want them paired with the cholesterol and essential fatty acids.
A product that fits the bill and that I really trust is the Regimen Lab C.R.E.A.M. Ceramide Moisturiser | $39 | full review. It's got a thicker texture, but it's not rich or greasy - does that make any sense? If you're a little drier like me, you can use this day or night, especially as we head into the colder months. It has 2.5% ceramides, which is nice and high, plus has that perfect ratio of the skin barrier holy trinity. It's just fantastic and replenishing and I'll be doing a post talking through some dupes of the Skinceuticals Triple Lipid Restore* | £135 | in the new year and this will definitely feature!
As we age, our skin cell turnover slows down; when you're in your late 20s like me it begins to falter and can take up to 40 days, then 60 as you head into your 40s and so on. This is why you might notice your skin looks duller and drier as you age. Some people like glycolic because it could induce a bit of extra collagen production, but lactic acid is my personal pick because it's gentler and has more hydrating properties, meaning it's great for more mature skin which (as we discussed) has depleting ceramide stores.
The Ordinary do a 5% Lactic Acid + HA | £5.50 | and a 10% Lactic Acid + HA | £.5.80 Which of these you go for really depends on how tolerant your skin is and how often you want to use it. I like the 5% because it works alongside my other actives and I can take it down my neck, but the 10% isn't harsh, I'd just personally use it less often (maybe twice a week if you're in your 30s, or a little more for each decade beyond that). You might also want to go for this because more studies have been done on a 10% concentration. This is a light formula that's not sticky or tacky and can layer easily with the rest of your routine.
- GIVE IT A GO -
Peptides (short-chain amino acids) definitely hydrate the skin and can provide a plumping effect. Can they do much beyond that? I'm not sure; most of the studies on them have been done by the manufacturers of the ingredients in question, who obviously have a vested interest in fluffing up their benefits. Copper peptides can have a reparative effect on the skin and perhaps even increase collagen production. Matrixyl 3000 might help with glycation damage (excess glucose) in the skin and help stimulate collagen and elastin. Argireline can promote that collagen production but maybe also inhibit muscle contraction, which is where it gets the moniker 'botox in a bottle'. Honestly, take this with a grain of salt because we need more data on it all. But, they might help; so if you want, you can pick up some affordable peptides and see where they take you. If you see results then that's fantastic!
I really recommend starting off on the affordable side of things with peptides; they can get pricey and you might not want to spend a lot on something less-proven that you've never tried. Luckily, the Ordinary have several options: their Argireline Solution 10% | £5.50 | is my personal favourite. It feels pleasant to apply, it's hydrating and definitely plumps up my skin. A lot of people like to combine this with their Matrixyl 10% + HA | £9.60 | for a powerful hit of these ingredients. Whilst not at the same high concentration, you can get both ingredients if you purchase their Buffet* | £11.75 | plus a number of other peptides. This is a slightly more well-rounded formula with other hydrators and soothers in the mix too.
I only recommend moving onto the more-expensive copper peptides if you already know you like this class of ingredient and feel the peptides you've tried have given you the results you were looking for. Whilst you can reach for the Ordinary's Buffet + Copper Peptides 1% | £28.90 | I personally find it a bit thick and gloopy to apply. Copper peptides specifically need an alkaline environment to function effectively, which is contradictory to exfoliating acids, ascorbic acid and retinoids, so I tend to only throw them in a couple of times a week. For that reason, I'd personally rather buy the smaller bottle of the Niod Copper Amino Isolate Serum 3 1:1* | £60 | full review coming soon | for £38. This is just more effective for my skin and I love the water-light texture.
Niacinamide can be useful for a number of purposes; firstly, it is an antioxidant, so you're getting that protection from free radical damage, and it stimulates ceramide production in the skin, but it can also help with discolouration (which you're more likely to see in your skin after many years of sun exposure) and it might boost collagen production. It doesn't need to be a standalone ingredient in your routine, in fact I'd maybe avoid that because 10% is a very high concentration and it's not proven to deliver any more benefits than 2-5%.
Personally, I like the Paula's Choice Clinical Discolouration Repair Serum* | £46 | full review. It combines an effective 5% concentration of niacinamide that I can use daily with no issues, with bakuchiol to act as an antioxidant and possibly give some skin-smoothing benefits and tranexamic acid (which can help with uneven skin tone). Plus it can be paired alongside my other actives.
Hyaluronic acid is a humectant, attracting water into the skin, so it feels hydrated and looks plumper. It's kind of a quick-fix, which is why it's lower down on this list. It's like a push-up bra for your face: temporary, but sometimes you just want that little boost. Apply it to damp skin and lock it right in with a nice moisturiser containing occlusives and emollients.
Again, this doesn't need to be in a standalone serum. For example, if you went with the Skinceuticals Vitamin C, that contains hyaluronic acid anyway. However, there is still one individual serum I do go back to again and again because it's that good: the Niod Multi-Molecular Hyaluronic Complex* | £38. I know it's not the cheapest formula on the market, but it's not sticky, it's water-light and it contains 15 molecular weights of this ingredient to get that water content to all of the skin's layers.
I hope this was useful, and let me know: what are your well-ageing essentials?