Sometimes, it can feel like your skin isn’t on your team. It erupts in breakouts, your puffy eyes give away just how little sleep you clocked last night, and one day you look in the mirror and notice sagging or wrinkles that you swore weren’t there yesterday.
Head to the store or online and you’ll be besieged by a litany of beauty products that all make big promises. To cut through the “where do I begin?” confusion, we asked top-notch dermatologists how to get things under control.
1. Acne May Mean Your Hormones Are Going Haywire
What caused your acne as a teen isn’t necessarily what’s behind your breakouts now — and that’s important to know when choosing a treatment. As a teen, acne may have been due to excess oil production, but now as you age, it’s often hormonal, says Marisa K. Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Cornell NewYork–Presbyterian Medical Center.
Hormonal acne in women often worsens with the menstrual cycle. The acne bumps usually pop up closer to your jawline and chin, as opposed to the acne that might’ve plagued you in your teen years, which is often localized to the face and forehead, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).
Hormonal acne often looks more inflammatory in nature (think deep and red), so the treatment is all about calming skin, she says. Look for topical benzoyl peroxide, which targets Cutibacterium acnes, the bacteria that causes acne, noted an article published in March 2019 in the journal Dermatology Times.
If you have sensitive skin, products containing sulfur or willow bark can also help clear skin. Ultimately, your gynecologist and dermatologist can work closely together to regulate a disruptive hormonal cycle for clearer skin.
2. Early Signs of Aging? Your Skin Cell Turnover May Be Lagging
You need something that stimulates collagen and speeds the turnover of skin cells, says Neil Sadick, MD, a dermatologist in New York City and clinical professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College. “Retinoids are still the No. 1 collagen stimulator,” he says. (Weaker forms of retinoids called retinols can be found over the counter, while most retinoids are prescription; ask your derm what they’d recommend for you.)
You’ll also want an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) serum for cell turnover; ideally, start with one that contains 5 percent AHA, and work up to greater concentrations as long as is tolerable. Alternate between the two in your nightly routine, Sadick says. Examples of AHAs are glycolic and lactic acid.
It also should go without saying that you need to be diligent with good sun protection to help slow premature aging, including using a broad-spectrum SPF 30 daily, wearing a wide-brimmed hat when out in the sun, sporting wraparound sunglasses, and seeking shade when possible, the AAD recommends.
3. Blushing May Be the Result of a Compromised Skin Barrier
“Treatment to rebuild that foundation is the most important,” says Dr. Garshick. Use a gentle, nonirritating face wash and moisturizer to hydrate. “Once the barrier is repaired, skin won’t be as prone to burning or stinging, and many people find they can tolerate a greater range of products,” she says.
Also look for products that contain niacinamide, an anti-inflammatory ingredient that can quell touchy complexions, past research suggests.
While you tackle redness, you can also use cosmetics with a green tint, a color that neutralizes redness and can help give the appearance of more evenly toned skin, L’Oreal points out on its website.
4. Undereye Bags May Signal a Diet or Lifestyle Problem
Get to the source of the problem. Allergies, smoking, and even eating too much salt can play a role in giving you bags under your eyes, per the Mayo Clinic. (6)
But lack of sleep is a huge culprit behind that look, and if it’s a common occurrence, you may have to work on sleep hygiene habits or prioritizing shut-eye. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults aim to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night.
Beyond that, there are a slew of remedies that can deflate those bags. The Mayo Clinic notes that you have medication and surgical options at your disposal, so consult your derm if those avenues feel right for you. (6) For a quicker fix, reach for eye creams that have a metal-tip applicator, suggests Garshick. These supply a cooling surface (think chilled cucumber slices) that depuff. If you need some extra coverage after a restless night, there’s no shame in slathering on some foundation. We’ve all been there.
5. Dry or Cracked Skin Means Your Dermis Is Probably Thirsty
As you age, skin begins to lose some of its moisture, according to a review published in 2014 in the journal Mechanisms of Ageing and Development. (8) Making things worse, a dehydrated dermis is more likely to show signs of aging, like fine lines and wrinkles.
Nonetheless, rethink your tendency to grab the thickest moisturizer you can find, which can plug pores to cause acne. So, while it may seem counterintuitive, you want to grab a lightweight moisturizer that has more of a liquid consistency, says Dr. Sadick.
6. Blushing, Flushing, and Visible Blood Vessels Are All Signs of Rosacea
Get checked for this common skin disorder. Rosacea, which is chronic, affects 16 million Americans, according to the National Rosacea Society, and treatment involves far more than slapping creams on your face. The sooner you can treat rosacea, the better.
If you suspect you have it — your cheeks, nose, chin, or forehead are persistently red or you notice small visible blood vessels — see a dermatologist. Treatment involves lifestyle changes to avoid triggers, such as reducing stress and limiting sun exposure, choosing fragrance-free skin products, and minimizing your skincare routine overall. In-office treatments, like IPL (intense pulsed light therapy) may also be helpful, per the National Rosacea Society.
7. Dark Undereye Circles May Have Nothing to Do With a Lack of Sleep
This won’t be a popular answer, but genetics play a big role in undereye circles, says Garshick, and that’s just something that’s out of your control. Still, you can help diminish discoloration with eye creams that contain brightening antioxidants, like vitamin C and vitamin E, she says. If circles look more blue-grey, the issue may be that blood vessels are showing through the thin undereye skin. In that case, a product containing caffeine “can help collapse the blood vessels to lessen the appearance of darkness,” says Garshick.
8. Dark Spots Suggest Your Skin Is Hurting From Past Sun Damage
First, keep up your sunscreen routine, as sun damage is the top culprit of discoloration, notes the AAD. Next, hydroquinone (HQ) remains the gold standard in addressing hyperpigmentation problems, says Sadick, as it inhibits tyrosinase, an enzyme that produce pigments called melanin. He recommends using a product that contains both HQ and AHAs.
Just know that HQ is a controversial ingredient, and some people opt to avoid it because of worries about its safety or potential to cause irritation. (Researchers say there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that this is the case, but the choice is yours.) As an alternative, look for products containing licorice extract, azelaic acid, niacinamide, or arbutin, ingredients that are known for their brightening properties.
9. With Wrinkles, Your Skin’s Collagen Supply Is Low
“Your goal is to boost collagen using products containing growth factors and peptides, which work deeper down to strengthen the support structure of the skin,” says Garshick.
10. Sagging Skin? You Guessed It: Your Face Is Calling Out for a Collagen Boost
If you’re not ready for a facelift (and may never be), topical creams can only do so much. But you may benefit most from noninvasive treatment options with your dermatologist, like ultrasound skin tightening devices, which are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, notes the Cleveland Clinic. “These will stimulate new collagen formation to reduce sagging,” says Garshick. The result: a lifted look with less pain and no post-surgical recovery time required.