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Skin Care at 20, 30, 40

THE 20S

Your skin is probably in its prime now  -- less delicate than during childhood, and less prone to break out than in the teenage years. It repairs itself rapidly, circulates blood efficiently, and doesn't yet show signs of sun damage and exposure to pollution (such as patchy pigmentation, fine wrinkling, or sagging). Your skin-care strategy: prevention.

CLEANSE ONCE OR TWICE A DAY, depending on how oily your skin feels. Skip toners or astringents, which were invented to restore skin's natural acid mantle after washing but aren't needed with today's pH-balanced cleansers and soaps.

APPLY A SKIN PROTECTANT DAILY To get more than just a moisturizer, look for three features, says Howard Murad, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California, Los Angeles: "It should pack an SPF of 15 or higher to counter incidental sun exposure; incorporate antioxidants (such as vitamins C and E, grape seed oil, and polyphenols), which are thought to help block damage to skin precipitated by pollution, smoke, and sun exposure; and keep skin hydrated without clogging pores." Such products usually say "non-comedogenic" or "oil-free" on the label. To be safe, avoid products with mineral oil and lanolin. Two choices for all skin types: Estee Lauder's DayWear and L'Oreal's Plenitude Futur-E.

SKIP PRODUCTS WITH ANTIAGING CLAIMS  -- they can trigger acne in young skin. Many are formulated with lipids (natural fats) and oils that you don't need now.

THE 30S

Your skin's condition tends to be unpredictable due to hormone fluctuations. Some women with previously problem-free complexions experience acne or rosacea. The first signs of aging may become visible: dryness, sallowness or ashiness, fine lines. The best advice: Adapt to the changes, but don't overdo treatment.

CLEANSE GENTLY BUT THOROUGHLY Harold Lancer, M.D., a Beverly Hills dermatologist and laser surgeon, advises patients in their 30s to cleanse up to three times a day, depending on how oily their skin is, but to use a mild, nonsoap cleanser.

DON'T CONTRIBUTE TO BREAKOUTS "Complicated skin-care products and cosmetics can trap oil in the pores and cause inflammation," says Lynn Drake, M.D., president of the American Academy of Dermatology. Aside from a mild cleanser, use oil-free sunscreen, and a light moisturizer only if skin feels dry. Apply cosmetics with a light hand.

CONSULT A DERMATOLOGIST if you suspect you have acne. Rosacea, an inflammatory skin disease that's also common at this age, can look similar. Also, all over-the-counter acne remedies aren't designed for all skin types (for example, benzoyl peroxide may unevenly bleach black or Asian complexions). If you do have acne, your doctor may prescribe a topical treatment like Retin-A; rosacea may be treated through diet or with prescription drugs.

THE 40S

Now your skin starts to pay for sun damage inflicted years earlier. At the same time, your body's chemical factory is slowing down, producing less estrogen and oil, and repairing skin more slowly. Your skin will be drier than ever before, which may make it feel more sensitive  -- even to products you've been using for decades. Along with sun protection and moisturization, you may want to consider trying antiaging products.

IF YOU LIKE TO USE MOISTURIZER AROUND THE EYES, you needn't splash out on a pricey eye cream. Any well-made facial moisturizer can be worn around the eyes, as long as it's free of ingredients that can irritate your eyes, such as sunscreen and preservatives like chlorhexidine, thimerosal, and phenols. You'll also want to avoid anything oily enough to leak into your eyes or wipe out your makeup.

KNOW THE LABEL LINGO if your skin tends to react to certain products. Despite their clinical sound, terms like "hypoallergenic" and "sensitive skin formula" are not standardized by the beauty industry or the Food and Drug Administration. If you spot fragrance, lanolin, or lots of preservatives (often listed as such) on an ingredient list, pass up the product. Safer, gentler bets include cleansers and moisturizers from Cetaphil, or from Estee Lauder's Verite line.

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