Getting older is a natural, inevitable, and wonderful thing. Getting older shows that we’re surviving all the crap that life throws our way. I have very few problems with getting older and only a couple of problems with the concept of my own mortality. I just don’t want my mortality to show up on my face right now because I’m enjoying the way my face looks right now, and since right now is pretty much all the time because that’s how time feels because I haven’t recently consumed any psychedelics that might alter my perceptions of that, I’ve built a very involved anti-aging skincare routine to keep my skin looking the way it looks right now for as close to all the time as is possible. (And to help it look more youthful wherever I can, giving me an extra head start on the years of aging to come.) Sometimes people request that I explain my routine in more detail than I generally do on my Instagram routine posts. This post is for those people.
But first, a quick reminder! I am not a doctor or scientist and I am not presenting my particular anti-aging skincare system as infallible or universal. Nothing in skincare is infallible or universal except the principle of YMMV. What I talk about below is based on my reading as a layperson, conversations with people who know more than I do, my experiences of the effects of specific ingredients and products on my skin, and my observations of other people’s skincare results.
There are things more proven to work and things less proven to work, but even that distinction is less important than the distinction between Things That Work For You and Things That Don’t Work For You. Keep your skin’s own preferences in mind. Experiment when you want to. Take some notes! Pick and choose what principles you adopt and come up with your own. The most important thing to keep in mind is how your skin responds to what you put on it–not how I feel about that!
cleanse: How Clean Skin Supports an Anti-Aging Skincare Routine
Morning or night, the first step in my skincare routine is a good cleanse. This basic skincare step is absolutely crucial. Different sources will give different reasons why, with one of the most interesting reasons I’ve heard being that the pollution and contaminants skin picks up during the day will cause skin-aging free radical damage if allowed to stay on skin. That may be true, but for me, it’s simpler than that. My face won’t get the full benefits of anything in my anti-aging regimen if it isn’t clean. I don’t want my actives and extracts to have to fight through layers of makeup, sunscreen, sebum, and gunk just to reach my skin. Nor do I want to miss a day’s worth of anti-aging benefits just because I didn’t feel like spending 5 minutes washing my face.
(It does happen, not gonna lie, but I try to keep it as infrequent as I can.)
In the morning, when all I have to contend with are sleeping pack residue and maybe a little oiliness, I’m cool with just using a foaming cleanser. Sometimes a few swipes with a cleansing wipe or cleansing water when I’m feeling lazy, but I keep that to a minimum because my skin never feels quite as clean afterwards as when I properly cleanse.
At night, when I need to remove the day’s dirt, oil, sunscreen, and makeup, I almost always do my version of the double cleanse, in which the first cleansing step breaks up makeup and sunscreen and the second step washes away first cleansing residue and gets skin totally clean. Like most AB enthusiasts, I used to use emulsifying cleansing oils or balms as first cleansers. I’m afraid to use those now because of my eyelash extensions, since oils break down the glue that seals my glorious falsies to my sad sad natural lashes, so I’ve switched to cleansing waters. They aren’t quite as fast or thorough as cleansing oils at dissolving stubborn sunscreen or makeup, but they’re safe for my lashes, and my non-stripping, low-pH foaming or powder second cleansers finish the job just fine.
With my skin fresh and clean, I can move on to the next stage in my evening skincare routine: treatment!
Treat: Attacking Skin Aging with Proven Actives
Putting products in order is one of the most common dilemmas encountered by newcomers to the multilayered skincare lifestyle. I’ve faced that issue, too. As my beauty stash and the skincare routines it enables have grown, I’ve had to put a lot of thought into the order in which I use my products. What I’ve settled on is an approach that prioritizes my actives–the most serious products in my routine.
By “actives,” what I mean are products formulated to deliver ingredients that have been shown through reputable research to be capable of producing substantial improvements to skin structure and function. Effectively formulated actives generally produce the most noticeable changes to skin. They deserve to get first crack at skin, since they have the potential to do the most for it.
So I prioritize my actives within my routine, and when it comes to choosing which actives I use, I look at my highest-priority anti-aging skincare goals.
There are several distinct attributes of youthful skin that diminish as it ages. Among those attributes, two of the most conspicuous are the production of collagen, which gives skin the structural support it needs to stay smooth and firm, and even pigmentation without dark spots caused by UV damage. These are my primary anti-aging concerns. They also happen to be the most difficult to address because they’re affected by mechanisms deep within the skin. All of this makes them prime candidates for serious, targeted actives. These are the concerns that I hit first and hit hard.
My anti-aging actives of choice are Vitamin C, several forms of which have been shown to stimulate collagen production and decrease excess pigmentation, and tretinoin, a potent, extensively studied, prescription-only retinoid that comes backed by plenty of research demonstrating its abilities to do the same. These days, I get both my vitamin C and my tret from my Curology prescription.
The prioritizing doesn’t stop there, though. When I have a separate vitamin C serum on hand and/or am using chemical exfoliants like AHAs, BHAs, or weaker enzyme exfoliants, I use them before my Curology due to their lower pH requirements and order them from lowest pH to highest. It generally goes vitamin C -> AHA/BHA or other exfoliant -> Curology. No matter what other actives I use, though, I always put my Curology on during my actives step, and I always give it at least 20 minutes to absorb before moving on to the refining stage of my routine.
refine: Hydrators, Extracts, and Secondary Aging concerns
One could put together an effective basic anti-aging skincare routine with just the cleansing and actives steps I’ve discussed, a moisturizer, and a sunscreen. If I had to limit myself, I could probably convince myself to stop there with only a few tears. But I don’t have to limit myself right now, so I have a great time exploring ways to address not just the primary signs of skin aging, but also the more subtle, secondary signs, like reduced skin hydration and general dullness and uneven skin tone.
Loss of skin hydration is a big one. Generally, older skin doesn’t hold as much water naturally as youthful skin can, thanks to a reduction in hyaluronic acid and other natural moisturizing factors within skin, paired with a reduction in the production of lipids that help prevent water loss. The less hydrated skin is, the more aged it will appear. Well hydrated skin has a surface plumpness that can puff fine lines back up to smoothness. It also has more of a glow thanks to the way light interacts with the water in the skin. Dehydrated skin that doesn’t produce enough lipids also tends to be more sensitive and easily irritated, which can cause patches of redness that detract from the even tone of youthful skin.
From what I’ve observed, neither of these concerns really needs a heavy-duty active to address. Instead, both are perfect candidates for the stereotypical array of toners, essences, serums, and ampoules that characterize K-beauty skincare!
The refining stage of my anti-aging routine layers multiple lightweight products to pack hydration into my skin, giving me the plumpest, smoothest, most even-toned and glowy surface I can get. Here, I just stick to the thin-to-thick rule, going from any watery first essences to toners to thicker hydrators and serums. The thin-to-thick method lets product dry down as fast as possible for more efficient application.
This stage is also where I get to play with interesting ingredients. It might sound frivolous, but it’s absolutely necessary for me. Let’s face it, most actives are presented in a bland, boring, and clinical way, and if skincare isn’t fun for me, I’m probably going to end up neglecting it, and then I won’t get any benefit from anything at all and I might as well just go back to cleansing my face with body wash on a scrubby shower glove and pretending a pea-sized dab of SPF 15 face lotion is enough skincare or UV protection. Which I don’t want to do, obviously.
I’ve talked before about my open-minded attitude towards less-proven skincare ingredients. If there’s a large body of evidence backing some ingredient’s effects on skin, I’ll buy that it works for most people. If there isn’t currently a large body of evidence backing some other ingredient’s results, on the other hand, I don’t necessarily write it off as worthless for me. The state of cosmetic research funding is such that there’s just no way every effective ingredient has been discovered or validated.
I wouldn’t depend on a bunch of tasty extracts to take the place of my proven actives, but as components in the secondary, refining stage of an anti-aging routine, I love them. If I’m going to be layering hydrating products onto my skin, I’d rather have each product also contain some ingredients of possible additional benefit than just be a boring soup of humectants. And the possible (and sometimes documented!) benefits of the extracts commonly found in K-beauty products are nearly limitless. Some are said to reduce inflammation, others to increase collagen production. Nearly all may provide antioxidants to help defend skin from wrinkle-accelerating free radical damage. I have my personal favorites, but you may find that your skin prefers a totally different set of more or less researched extracts.
Another great thing about layering multiple products is the chance to use other ingredients that are known to be effective but aren’t quite powerful enough to get their own dedicated products. If you’re fighting dark spots or uneven skin tone, for example, niacinamide or arbutin in your routine is likely to help. (By the way, morus alba, also known as mulberry, extract is a natural source of arbutin. You see that one a lot.) Adenosine and some peptides show potential for smoothing fine lines. Ingredients in this solid-but-not-quite-actives class appear in all kinds of K-beauty products.
The last benefit I want to mention about the refining stage of my routine is the way those layers of hydration and calming extracts can minimize the less desirable side effects of my actives. Tretinoin in particular is known to cause dryness and irritation. That sucks, because while I want my skin to look youthful in the long term, I also want it to look (and feel!) healthy and happy right now. I’m not about “it gets worse before it gets better.” I’m about “make it better now or I’m going to give up.” Pre-empting unpleasant effects with lots of pampering lets me enjoy the best effects of tret without suffering the worst. My Curology provider agrees.
Most nights, I follow up my layers of hydration with one final megadose of hydration and extracts via a sheet mask. I do most sheet masks after the toner-essence-serum-ampoule steps of my routine because, as I explained in the most recent episode of the Snailcast, I suspect that the occlusion and all the penetration enhancers in a typical sheet mask essence help to push what’s applied underneath into skin more effectively. Sheet masks seem to do that for me, at least. On the mornings after I do a sheet mask, my skin almost always looks significantly better than on mornings after I’ve skipped masking.
The final step of all this hydrating and refining is to seal all those juices in. Aging skin often has problems retaining hydration, as I mentioned earlier. If it has problems retaining hydration, it may have problems retaining beneficial ingredients mixed into that hydration, too. After my sheet mask, therefore, I always use a cream or sleeping pack to create an occlusive layer that will stop good things from evaporating out of my skin.
I’m not terribly fussy about any secondary benefits of the moisturizers I use. I do prefer them to have more fun extracts just in case any of them do something for me, but the main point of a moisturizer is to moisturize. Don’t expect a moisturizer to act like an active. My nighttime cream or sleeping pack choices are driven more by how heavy a final layer my skin needs on any given night than they are by any supposed extra effects the moisturizer might have.
That’s it: the thought process behind my sometimes wild nighttime skincare routines. It sounds like a lot and sometimes it really is, but it’s what works for me and makes me happy, so I keep going with it. The longer I keep going with it, the more it works and the happier I become. Consistency is key. And because consistency is key, make sure the anti-aging skincare routine you put together for yourself is something you’ll enjoy enough to stick to. Don’t overwhelm yourself or your skin with too many products if you prefer a more minimal routine. Don’t force strong actives on your skin if you aren’t prepared to sunscreen up and throw on whatever extra moisture you find your skin needs. Your routine needs to work for you, no matter how different it looks from mine or anyone else’s.
What are your anti-aging skincare priorities, and how do you address them?