"Let's say you're using a retinol cream that's an over-the-counter, anti-aging product," says Dr. Chi. "Obviously, the prescription-strength retinoid cream is going to be much stronger, and more effective. So, in that sense, there's a lot of range as far as how effective anti-aging products are topically. And then when you go into the office for a procedure, that's going to be a lot more effective than just using a topical."
No matter what route you opt to take, Deirdre Hooper, MD, a Louisiana-based, board-certified dermatologist, says educating yourself about what anti-aging products can and can't do is essential for best results. If you want to start with anti-aging serums and creams you can pick up without a prescription, she suggests leaning on dermatologist-loved brands like Alastin, Senté, Revision, SkinMedica, and SkinCeuticals.
But, when figuring out the very best way to tackle your skin-care concerns, both derms say that checking in with your dermatologist should be the first step. "They can give you an overall sense of whether you can do this topically, rather than you spending months and months and all this money on all these products, and then you realize, 'Oh shoot, actually I needed a filler,'" says Dr. Chi.
Below, Dr. Chi and Dr. Hooper share insights on the capabilities of common anti-aging skin-care products to help you set your expectations and create a game plan.
Limitations of anti-aging products explained
Protecting from sun damage
Dermatologists remind us time and time again that SPF is the most important anti-aging product. "There's no over-the-counter product that is more important than sunscreen," says Dr. Hooper. "I see people spend so much money on all these serums and then they have like an SPF 15 sunscreen. What are you doing?" Unlike cosmetics, sunscreen is classified by the FDA as an over-the-counter drug, so it is held to efficacy standards, meaning the brand has to prove that it offers the protection it claims.
Here's how to find the best sunscreen for your skin:
First, it's important to differentiate between fine lines and deep-set lines. "You're not going to get relaxation of your active frown lines from a topical agent," says Dr. Chi. "You can get an improvement of fine lines with a topical, but you cannot get improvement of deep furrows without doing something in office." For that, you'd likely need Botox or Dysport, which are injections that block muscle contractions, she says.
Hydrating dry skin
As we age, the outer layer of our skin gets thinner, making it less likely to retain moisture. Luckily, you don't need a prescription to get an effective moisturizer. "When you're shopping over the counter," says Dr. Hooper, "you can get your skin really moisturized." Seek out moisturizers and serums that contain ingredients like hyaluronic acid, squalene, and ceramides.
Learn more about treating dry skin:
Erasing under-eye circles
"If under-eye issues are your thing, I would go get a consultation first, because even though you have to pay for the consultation, it'll save you money in the end; otherwise you're trying this thing, and that thing, and spending $50 here and $60 there," says Dr. Chi. "And then who knows if that's really what you need, because there are lots of reasons why people have under-eye bags. Some of it's hereditary, some of it's discoloration-related, some of it's volume-related, some of it's photo-aging or wrinkle-related. And if you don't know exactly what your issue is or what combination of issues you have, you're not going to be going down the right road."
Sunspots and uneven skin tone can appear as we age. "Topicals do work for discoloration, but again, the prescription-strength topicals are much more effective than the over-the-counter strength," says Dr. Chi. "You're going to need something prescription-strength if you really want to do the job. Over-the-counters are great for maintenance once you've gotten the lightning that you need."
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