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The Skin Issue That Ages You More Than Wrinkles
Before we dive into what makes you look old, let's first talk about the pushback against wanting to look young. Over the last bunch of years, it’s become unpopular— unfeminist, even— to voice a desire to maintain a youthful appearance. Way back in 2017, the beauty-focused magazine ALLURE banned the phrase anti-aging. More recently, that same publication published an interview with Kate Winslet in which she claimed she has no desire to turn back the clock. That's all well and good for Mare of Easttown, but I'm not a character actress.
The backlash against anti-aging rhetoric is the result of the well-intentioned age-positivity movement. No doubt, I am the target audience for that movement, but nobody asked me if I was offended by anti-aging promises and procedures. Spoiler alert: I’m not.
Don’t get me wrong, a lot of incredible things come with aging—making more confident decisions, giving fewer fucks about small annoyances. And I adore and embrace beauty brands, such as my friend Bobbi’s Brown’s Jones Road line, that promote enhancing (not obscuring) your unique and natural beauty and that use gorgeous “models” of all ages in their content.
But on a physiological level, aging is decaying. We don't let our joints grow old gracefully— we use fitness, supplements, technology, surgery— to slow their demise. Why shouldn't we preserve our facial tone too?
What actually makes you look older
If, like me, you want to fight the beauty patriarchy ruled by Father Time, you first need to zero in on what will actually help you look younger. Here's where most of us go wrong. We think wrinkles are the giveaway —and yes, you get more wrinkles as you age. But the real visual indicator of youth is even skin tone. For years studies have shown that skin-color distribution and tone can add or subtract as many as 20 years to a woman's age.
As luck would have it, achieving an even skin tone is maddeningly difficult— whether the dark spots are the result of sun damage, melasma brought on by hormonal fluctuations (aka "the mask of pregnancy") or pigmentation spurred by an inflammatory reaction from acne or a skin injury.
Most of my dark-spot-damage is the result of spending my teenage years at the Jersey Shore trying to perfect my tan. Also, I'm embarrassed to admit, I may have visited a tanning salon once or several dozen times in high school. So even though I've been a vigilant SPF devotee for decades, the damage created long ago has now risen to the surface where it's marring my complexion. And it's been driving me crazy.
The fastest way to refresh your face
Certain skincare ingredients (such as hydroquinone, vitamin C and azelaic acid), can help lighten pigmentation, but they work at a glacial pace. Since patience isn't really my vibe, I turned to renowned dermatologist Robert Anolik, M.D., of the Laser & Skin Surgery Center in New York City for more immediate gratification.
Dr. Anolik is a laser specialist—and trust me, you want a highly skilled derm if you're going to get zapped. After examining my skin, Dr. Anolik explains that he'll use the Ruby laser because it tends to have the best response for my skin type (FYI: I have average white-girl skin). Other excellent options at the Laser Skin & Skin Surgery Center include Yag lasers and Alexandrite lasers.
Honestly, there are as many lasers treatments as there are skin woes to complain about— and that's a lot.
According to Dr. Anolik, fainter brown, flat spots (like mine) can be a bit slower to respond, but do tend to vanish. "Many spots go away after one treatment, but some will be resistant and can take up to three treatments to be eliminated," he says.
I was worried about having a laser treatment performed in summer, but Dr. Anolik assured me that since "some people live in sunny climates all year round, we do laser treatments all year round. But it's very important to stay out of the sun as much as possible and use sunscreen." Another no-no: getting a laser treatment when you already have a tan. Dr. Anolik explains that "tan skin is in a hyperactive state from UV damage and consequently more sensitive and at risk for complications of treatment, including leaving areas darker than you started or lighter than surrounding skin."
As always, for the BIPOC community, things get a bit more complicated. Skin of color requires "specific strategies to reduce risks," says Dr. Anolik, getting technical. "I wouldn't use a Ruby laser because I find that laser wavelength too concerning. Instead I'd reach for a Yag laser at 532nm for superficial pigment or 1064nm for deeper pigment or for very dark skin." Again, these nuances are why you must go to a derm who has extensive experience using lasers.
How to turn back the hands of time
When Dr. Anolik gets to work, he's so deft with the laser that I barely feel a thing. The dark spots—mostly on the sides of my face and bridge of my nose, where the sun hits —are targeted in less than five minutes. Dr. Anolik explains that the reddish brown patches will likely get darker over the next few days and some may form crusts that flake off. Cute. I'm instructed to keep the treated areas moist by applying Aquaphor twice a day. Since you're not supposed to wear foundation for at least five days post-procedure, I was grateful to still be in WFH mode. When I had to go out, I wore big sunglasses and styled my hair like Cousin IT for maximum face coverage.
Ten days later the spots are noticeably lighter, but as expected, not totally gone. However, they are so much easier to conceal with a light veil of tinted moisturizer, which thrills me. From here, I have a few options: a follow-up treatment in the fall (yes, please!) and/or a pigment-focused skincare routine, which is "always a good idea to keep the excessive pigment of a sun spot at bay," says Dr. Anolik, who suggests turning to retinoids, hydroquinone, licorice extract, vitamin C and tranexamic acid for preventing hyperpigmentation. (Check out Dr. Anolik's Instagram for a peek into the impressive results he gets with lasers and other treatments.)
I haven't polled anyone yet to ask if I look any younger, but I have gotten a few compliments on my skin via Instagram comments, which is the ultimate validation, am I right? To the person who remarked that I'm the female version of Benjamin Button, I'll Venmo you later.
Want to know what structural changes happen to your face as you age, read this fascinating blow-by-blow.
Photo credit: In the 2015 movie The Age of Adaline, Blake Lively plays a woman tormented by the fact the she never ages past the age of 29 after being struck by lightening. Her love interest is played by eternally-hot Michiel Huisman. Our hearts bleed for you Adaline, really.