In an era where we can order everything from a luxury SUV to $17 avocado toast with the tap of a button, it's no wonder millennials have garnered a reputation as the "instant gratification" generation. We want what we want when we want it, and have come to expect immediate results from everything in our lives—including our skin care. But... that's actually not a great way to approach caring for our largest organ in the long run.
Plenty of skin-care products claim to deliver an "instant glow," and in certain scenarios—a la before a first date or major event—these quick-fixes are great. In the long run, however, they need to be coupled with solutions that are working below the surface to promote healthy skin down the line. Take retinol. The ingredient is unmatched in delivering anti-aging results, because it plumps skin and promotes cell turnover with repeated use. However, when you first add it to your routine, it can sometimes cause dryness or flakiness until your skin adjusts.
That's why you should start thinking of your skin-care actives in two camps: those that work from the top down (short-term products), and those that work from the bottom up (longterm products). The first keeps the outer layer of your skin clear and bright, while the second helps build a foundation to keep it healthy over time. “The skin is very dynamic, and the cells are constantly turning over. So you get rid of one layer of cells with an exfoliant, but then two weeks later the cells are completely different and new, and so you're not talking about the same skin anymore,” says board-certified dermatologist Nava Greenfield, MD. Keep in mind that the skin cycle is 28 days, and as celebrity esthetician Shani Darden puts it: "A great skin-care routine features products that provide both short and long term results.”
To help target your top-to-bottom (and bottom-to-top) skin concerns, we asked the pros to break down the best short and longterm ingredients for the most common three concerns, so you'll be radiant five minutes and five years from now.
Short term: Chemical exfoliants
For that instant-gratification glow, chemical exfoliants—alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids—are key. They slough off dead skin cells, leaving your complexion clear and radiant. “Lactic acid is one of my favorites,” says Darden. “It’s gentle enough for most skin types and doesn’t dry out the skin–it just leaves it glowing and flawless.” Try Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel Pads ($88), which combine lactic acid with other AHAs and BHAs to remove dead skin on the surface and clear out your pores. Be sure to listen to your skin about how frequently it can handle exfoliation, but aim to do it twice a week for a quick-fix and lasting glow.
Long term: Vitamin C
As one dermatologist puts it, vitamin C is "the little black dress" of skin care, and we can all benefit from giving it a place in our ingredient wardrobes. It protects us skin by way of its antioxidant power immediately after application, and over time, it helps to brighten skin, help correct pigmentation, and reverse the effects of sun damage. "It does take a little time to see the brightening effects of vitamin C, but it’s truly an essential part of a daytime skin-care routine to keep skin protected and glowing," says Darden. Board-certified dermatologist Howard Sobel, MD, suggests applying vitamin C every morning and slathering an SPF on top for UV protection.
Short term: Hyaluronic acid
Think of hyaluronic acid as the sponge of your skin-care routine. It can hold a thousand times its weight in water, and immediately makes skin look plumper and more hydrated. “Hyaluronic acid is a great natural hydrator for the skin and works to draw in and lock in moisture,” says Dr. Sobel. “The ingredient is a potent natural humectant that helps your skin hold water, so it looks smoother [immediately] and will only improve over time.”
Long term: Good, old fashioned H2O
When it comes to longterm skin hydration, there's no magic ingredient that can get the job done. Any moisturizing product you put on is only going to work until the next time you rinse it off, so instead it's about taking a more holistic approach that targets the issue from the inside out.“Everything affects your skin, since the blood that runs through your body also runs through your skin cells, so the things that generally keep you healthy are also going to keep your skin healthy,” says Dr. Greenfield.
Short term: Hyaluronic Acid
That plumping power hyaluronic acid has? Yeah, that also helps with diminishing the signs of fine lines and wrinkles. “Hyaluronic acid is the one ingredient that can actually give immediate benefits in improving the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles,” says board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, pointing to its sponge-like, water-binding properties. “Almost immediately the skin is plumped and the appearance of lines can be improved.” For best instant results, he suggests applying a product like Neutrogena Hydroboost Serum ($24) or Ghost Democracy Floodgate Hyaluronic Acid Serum ($34) with damp finger tips or to a damp face after washing.
Long term: Retinol
Derms agree: Retinol is the “gold standard” in anti-aging ingredients, thanks to its ability to stimulate cellular turnover. “Cellular turnover is a really important process that brings fresh, new skin to the surface. As we age, this process slows down, and finding products that speed up this process can make big difference for your skin,” says Darden. Dr. Sobel adds that it also helps to address hyperpigmentation issues, enhance collagen production, and reduce acne scars, which takes some time to happen. If you want to see more of an instant result, a product like Shani Darden Retinol Reform ($95) combines retinol with lactic acid for immediate brightening or, for something extra-strong, like Sobel Skin 4.5% Retinol Night Treatment ($105) that'll get you results pronto.
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