Skincare For Every Decade From Your 20s, 30s, 40s & Beyond
Age may be nothing but a number, but to skin, it’s a huge reality that needs to be faced … and dealt with. Luckily, good habits, products, and ingredients can help us do just that so our skin can look younger than the double digits on our driver’s license. Here, our guide to skincare by decade for the steps and must-haves you’ll want to add to your routine in your 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond so you can look anything but.
Skincare at any age can be downright overwhelming. There’s the multi-step skincare routine that K-beauty got us hooked on. Then there are the endless aisles and pages of products available in brick-and-mortar and ecommerce stores, not to mention the black hole of online information on best practices, how to’s, holy grails, and so on. As if all that were not enough, there is the ever-changing nature of our skin concerns (even skin type!) as we age.
But good skincare doesn’t have to be that complicated, and we’re here to prove that to you with a breakdown of recommended skincare by decade for the steps and ingredients your skin needs per age group.
Before you scroll down, though, let’s revisit the basics real quick. The multi-step skincare process is going to look different for everyone. The K-beauty routine consists of the following steps, generally in this order (though there’s LOTS of variation), but whether you choose to add an extra step or omit some is completely up to you. Depending on your skin type and condition, lifestyle, stress level, preferences, and so on, your regimen can have three steps one season and 14 another season!
Oil cleanser → Foam cleanser →
Treatments → Toner →
Sheet Mask → Emulsion → Eye Cream →
Moisturizer → Sunscreen (day)
or Night Cream/Sleeping Mask (night)
Just because you have the multi-step routine down pat doesn’t mean you’re doing what’s best for your skin at your age. What’s key to healthy, age-defying skin is what you choose to use for each of these steps. Making sure your products complement your skin type, address your skin concerns, and are formulated with quality ingredients that suit your skin can make or break your efforts.
Great, so where to figure all that out? A visit to a dermatologist who knows your skin is always a good idea. But if you generally know what your skin can handle and what your concerns are, here’s an easy guide to some of the must-have skincare by decade products and ingredients for your 20s, 30s, and 40s. (For teens, check out our guide here.)
This first decade of adulthood is a tricky time. On one side of it, you’re no longer an awkward, pubescent teen. You’re young, beautiful, maybe enjoying the best skin you’ve ever had, and living the years everyone wants to be in.
On the flip side, your skin is also going through a total transformation behind the scenes. You don’t see it, but your skin cells are regenerating and self-repairing more slowly than before, and your past bad behavior is accumulating more than ever, getting ready to show up with a vengeance in the coming years.
That’s why prevention is the name of the game in your 20s. Even though your skin may look its best right now, what you do to it in this stage drastically affects how it’ll look later on. Consider this the prime time to enjoy your gorgeous skin while also adopting good habits and loving on it so you can prevent the future onslaught of aging signs.
The #1 way to prevent is to protect. In terms of skincare, “protect” is spelled S. P. F. You can roll your eyes, but sunscreen is hands-down the best way to shield skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays. Getting in the religious habit of liberally applying and reapplying SPF will help prevent sagging skin, wrinkles, dark spots, and other signs of premature aging and sun damage. Trust me — you think you’re safe, until one day they seemingly pop up out of nowhere.
If you’re not sure which sunscreen is best for your skin type, check out our recommendations here]. Or opt for Missha’s All Around Safe Block Essence Sun Milk, a popular pick for a variety of skin types at just $17. Lightweight, non-greasy, and free of the dreaded white cast, the sweat- and waterproof formula delivers powerful broad spectrum UVA/UVB protection and SPF 50/PA+++. It also contains botanical extracts that soothe and hydrate skin.
Reapplying sunscreen throughout the day is crucial, but we all know it doesn’t happen as often as it should. SPF-infused cushion compacts offer an easier alternative to figuring out how to touch up a full face of makeup with liquid sunscreen. Iope UV Shield Sun Cushion offers SPF 50+PA+++ protection from UV rays while fending off small dust particles to keep skin’s barrier strong and healthy.
Another obvious one, but there’s just no way around it. Double cleansing is an absolute must in this age bracket (and for the rest of your life). The first of the famed two-part step, oil cleansing, is particularly key to building the lifelong foundation of good skin and good habits.
Thanks to all the YouTube tutorials, rocking layers upon layers of makeup is trending, especially amongst this millennial group. Even if you’re not of the “conceal, bake, and brighten” type, the social media presence of beauty brands targeting this demographic has more and more people experimenting with different products, which exposes skin to a lot of potential buildup.
Plus, the very lifestyle of a 20-something makes skin vulnerable to environmental pollutants, tobacco (even secondhand), and other offenses to skin that must be washed away with a deep double cleanse. Also, if you’re generously applying SPF as you should be, only an oil cleanser will do the trick of melting it away.
Klairs Gentle Black Deep Cleasing Oil is everything right for your 20s. This hypoallergenic cleansing oil is packed with antioxidant-rich ingredients like black sesame seed oil that help protect sensitive skin from the above-mentioned 20s lifestyle while erasing away the day. The other key ingredients, black bean oil and black currant seed oil, also regulate excess sebum while delivering vitamins and minerals to moisturize, clean, and protect skin.
One of our editor faves, SanDaWha Natural Mild Cleansing Oil is a refreshing cocktail of 61.55% Jeju camellia seed oil and over 99% natural ingredients packed with vitamins and antioxidants as well. Its powerful formula melts away stubborn makeup (even waterproof), SPF, impurities, and excess sebum. Free of synthetic oils, it’s hypoallergenic and suitable for all skin types.
When it comes to prevention, retinol is the ultimate poster child for this age. It’s best to slowly start incorporating this tried-and-true ingredient into your routine in your late 20s, before you turn to more intense formulas in your 30s.
Retinol, a super pure vitamin A derivative, speeds up cell turnover (when old skin cells are shed and replaced by new ones) and stimulates collagen. This leads to smoother skin texture, less acne, faded sunspots, a brighter complexion, and less visible lines and pores. Since there isn’t too much visible damage at the end of your 20s, retinol can not only work wonders in delaying signs of aging but in targeting the little problems that can sneak in at this time as well.
But too much retinol can cause irritation and flaking, especially on sensitive skin types, so it’s best to introduce the power player into your game plan strategically and gradually — as in every other night or via a gentle formula — until your skin proves it can handle it. Also remember to generously apply sunscreen on the days after you apply retinol, due to photosensitivity.
Missha Time Revolution Night Repair Borabit Ampoule ($34.50) is a great, gradual venture into the world of retinol as it’s infused with a non-intimidating dosage and also chock full of soothing and moisturizing ingredients, antioxidants, vitamins, and peptides. The more affordable parallel of the raved-about Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair ($98), this K-beauty fave is suitable for all skin types and leaves skin healthy and dewy.
If you’re in your 30s, it’s time to get serious and make over your entire skincare routine into everything anti-aging. This is generally when your skin mechanism really, noticeably, sadly slows down and when the first signs of sun damage, past bad behavior, and aging show up on skin (as in sunspots, fine lines, and dullness) so it’s all about even stronger prevention and the start of damage control.
Cellular turnover really decreases to a sluggish pace at this stage so you’ll want to focus on careful, strategic exfoliation. Gentle physical exfoliation will slough away dead skin cells and resurface new skin, which helps maintain skin’s youthful appearance through this period of major slowdown.
But the 30s means it’s time to get down to business and exfoliate skin from deep within, so this is the point where you want to add acids (via toners, essences, or serums) into your exfoliation regimen. Implementing one every other night can help clarify pores, stimulate collagen production, smooth out uneven skin texture, and correct the appearance of discoloration.
Just make sure not to mix these with retinol, as there is such a thing as over-exfoliating. Too much of a good thing can lead to lower efficacy of the acid as well as redness, flaking, and other skin irritations. So unless you consult your derm or other skincare specialist about how you can simultaneously use both retinol and chemical exfoliants, use one or the other by alternating every few nights, weeks, or even seasons.
Choosing an acid that’s best for your skin is also key, and there are many kinds that do the job, so it depends on your skin type and condition. Here’s a quick cheat sheet of common acids used at home and their functions.
Ascorbic Acid: A variant of vitamin C that helps even out skin tone, brighten the complexion, and targets signs of aging. Read more about vitamin C here.
Citric Acid: An alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) sourced from fruit that promotes collagen production and corrects discoloration.
Glycolic Acid: An AHA derived from sugar cane and loved for its exfoliating, anti-aging, and hydrating powers. Promotes collagen and elastin production, helping to decrease fine lines and wrinkles.
Lactic Acid: A popular AHA derived from milk known to exfoliate and hydrate while also reducing wrinkles and fine lines. A gentler version of glycolic acid.
Salicylic Acid: A beta hydroxy acid (BHA) most popularly used to target acne-prone skin.
Tartaric Acid: Naturally derived from plants and wine and packed with antioxidants that smooth flaky skin.
A cult-status acid product is COSRX Natural BHA Skin Returning A-Sol, a gentle and hydrating toner for oily, combination, and acne-prone skin. It contains 1% natural BHA and 1% lactic acid, which helps sweep away dead skin cells, fight off acne-causing bacteria, and regulate excess sebum. The powerful formula also consists of 60% black bee propolis, a holy grail ingredient with antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Swanicoco AHA 10% Coco Soft Peeling Cream ($51) makes a tad bit more of a dent in your wallet, but it’s definitely worth it. The dreamy cream resurfaces and refines skin with 10% glycolic acid, melting away dead skin cells and other buildup blocking your way to complexion perfection. Also, antioxidant-rich blueberry extracts defend skin from free radical damage, while niacinamide helps fade dark spots, leaving skin luminous and glowing.
Topical vitamins by way of toners, serums, and moisturizers put up a fight against free radicals brought upon by all the fun and hustle characteristic of this stage of life — alcohol, pollution, UV sunlight, even exercise. As you may know by now, free radicals can wreak havoc on collagen production (leading to sagging, aging skin) and skin tone. Thankfully, where there is aging skin, there is also a vitamin.
Or two. Vitamins C and E in particular work really well together to reverse these post-quarter-life problems. They can even out skin tone and reduce discoloration that result from pregnancy, birth control pills, hormonal shifts, sun exposure, and breakouts. They also promote collagen synthesis, helping skin look and feel more elastic and youthful.
It’s a good idea to add other vitamins to your vanity, too. There’s vitamin A, aka retinoids, that helps minimize the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines while smoothing out skin texture and reducing sebum production. Vitamin B3, aka niacin, enhances skin tone by reducing redness and discoloration. It also smooths out rough skin texture. Vitamin B5, aka panthenol, deeply hydrates and creates a protective barrier that seals in moisture. Vitamin C brightens the complexion and improves collagen production. Vitamin E, aka alpha tocopherol, is a hydrating antioxidant that protects from sun damage. And that’s only four letters of the alphabet.
Formulated with 5% ascorbic acid (vitamin C), Klairs Freshly Juiced Vitamin Drop helps brighten skin overall by fading acne scars and dark spots, minimizing the appearance of pores, and softening skin texture. It’s also lightweight, making it perfect for layering into your skincare routine or mixing into a moisturizer or cream.
Take your vitamins even as you sleep with Blanc & Eclare Serein Nourishing Night Cream. Packed with vitamins in the form of niacinamide and panthenol, this luxurious cream is clinically proven to moisturize up to 24 hours and brightens and plumps up skin by the time the sun comes out.
40s & beyond
There is beauty in aging, especially if you’ve been faithful to your skincare the past 20 years. In your 40s, you can hopefully enjoy more calm and predictable skin (as in fewer surprise breakouts), but the biggest concerns are usually dryness and wrinkles.
Natural humectants and collagen in skin start to drastically decrease once you hit 40, which leads to dehydration and thin, crepe-y skin. That’s why in this new chapter of life, the key is to supercharge your hydrating and collagen-friendly steps. In other words, treat your serums, moisturizers, and creams to a major upgrade — think richer, thicker, and probably more expensive.
Hyaluronic acid, peptides, antioxidants, neck creams, eye cream, and such are the expected go-to ingredients and steps for this age group, as they should be. But it’s also time to step out of your comfort zone and expand your routine to include more than just these common anti-agers.
If these three letters aren’t already a part of your routine, please do your skin a favor and add these hero alphabets in ASAP. EGF (epidermal growth factor) is a naturally occurring protein that promotes cell growth and rejuvenation of skin on a cellular level. In short, EGF helps improve collagen and elastin production, targets wrinkles, reduces discoloration and hyperpigmentation, hydrates, and fortifies skin.
Unfortunately, skin’s EGF supply drops with age. Fortunately, topical EGF can effectively restock your dermal cells and help skin act and look younger again.
Swanicoco Fermentation Care Serum ($62) is a blend of everything aging skin desires. Fermented ingredients, hanbang herbs, and EGF collaborate to brighten skin, improve elasticity, and diminish signs of aging.
Swanicoco EGF 10ppm Pure Ampoule ($75) may be a bit steep considering its size (30ml), but the content makes it more than worthwhile with a potent concentration of 99% EGF. This formidable ampoule helps skin heal and regenerate itself, leading to stronger and more youthful skin.
Actually, oils are awesome at any age, but they’re a necessity in the 40s. This is when skin starts to really thin out and dry up, rendering itself extremely susceptible to damage from environmental stressors and free radicals.
Good facial oils are packed with natural, skin-lavishing nutrients and create a protective layer over aging skin. This safeguards skin from damage while also sealing in moisture and guaranteeing skin stays hydrated — a must at this age.
For the ultimate indulgence, try Sulwhasoo Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Essential Oil ($120). Ginseng seed oil is extracted in small doses from the seeds of a single type of ginseng that’s harvested just once a year. This precious commodity works in synergy with camellia oil to neutralize free radicals and with sesame seed oil to moisturize and impart a rich glow.
Mamonde Enriched Nutri Oil ($21.17) is easier on the wallet but delivers luxurious results nonetheless. Formulated with 99.7% naturally derived ingredients like primrose, sunflower seed, jojoba seed, and camellia oils, this facial oil nourishes and strengthens skin without a sticky residue.
What ingredients, products, or steps have been your saving grace in your teens, 20s, 30s, or 40s? Share your faves below!