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How Not to Look Your Age

You've noticed wrinkles around your eyes, blotchiness in your tone, a certain sagginess around the chin and mouth.

So what's a former sun god or goddess to do?

There's lots you can do, dermatologists say. Plenty of new treatments -- from lasers to lotions laced with vitamins and other skin-restoring substances -- are available to help repair sun-damaged skin and keep you looking younger whether you're in your 20s or your 60s.

But one thing bears repeating, again and again.

The most important the thing you can do for your skin is to limit your sun exposure and wear sunscreen, or a lotion containing sunscreen, every day, dermatologists say. The best have a skin protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more and contain zinc oxide, says Dr. Min-Wei Christine Lee, a dermatologic and cosmetic laser surgeon in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Here's why.

There are two types of aging. The first is caused by genetics. As time passes, biochemical changes in the cells cause a decrease in production of the skin's collagen and a breakdown of elastin, the connective tissues that give skin its firmness and elasticity.

Cigarettes, by the way, contribute to this type of aging by causing biochemical changes in skin tissue. So if you want to keep your skin supple looking, don't smoke.

The other type of skin aging is called photo aging, which is the major source of skin damage in most people, dermatologists say.

Guess what causes it? You got it. The sun.

"The earlier you start to minimize sun exposure, the better off you'll be," Lee says. "It's a lifetime project."

Here's a rundown of how you can expect your skin to change throughout the decades -- and what you can do about it.

In Your 20s: So, you've finally bid goodbye to pimples. Or have you?

Women, in particular, still struggle with hormone-related acne breakouts, most often along the jaw line and on the chin. A mild cleanser with acne-fighting ingredients, such as salicylic acid or sulfur, can control outbreaks, says Dr. Marianne O'Donoghue, a dermatologist at Rush-Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago.

This is also the decade when you may first begin to see the subtle signs of aging. Again, the best thing you can do for your skin at this phase of life is protect it from the sun.

In Your 30s: This is the time when you'll most certainly see some changes in you skin.

Skin in your 30s may appear to be confused, O'Donoghue says. "Oily one minute, dry the next," she says. She recommends using products that are non-comedogenic, meaning they don't have acne-producing ingredients.

She also recommends creams and lotions that contain antioxidants such as vitamins C, E and beta-carotene that can help repair sun damage. Lee also recommends products that contain copper, a nutrient that can stimulate collagen production, and green tea.

In Your 40s: The relentless aging process continues.

The skin's oil production diminishes at this age, and wrinkles around the mouth and eyes become more apparent.

O'Donoghue recommends consulting a dermatologist about alpha hydroxy acid, a compound that removes the outer layer of skin, leaving you with a fresher, younger appearance.

She also recommends tretinoin, a cream that contains vitamin A and reduces the signs of fine lines, wrinkles and age spots. A dermatologist can prescribe it.

How much difference do these products make?

"It's not like you're going to look dramatically different in a week or a month," Lee says. "But if you had a twin, and one used these products and the other didn't, you'd see a big difference 10 years down the line."

In Your 50s: In this decade, your skin may begin to lose its plumpness and tone. This is caused by a breakdown of collagen. You may also notice more irregular pigmentation and "age spots."

If you haven't already, this is a good time to have your skin looked at by a dermatologist to screen for skin cancer or actinic keratosis, a precursor to skin cancer.

To reduce wrinkles, you can consider Botox injections, O'Donoghue and Lee say. It's a cosmetic procedure in which a purified version of botulinum toxin is injected into key locations on the face to paralyze the muscles and soften crow's feet and other facial wrinkles.

You can also consider injectable collagen therapy, in which bovine collagen, a tissue filler, is injected into the face to soften wrinkles and lines, Lee says.

In your 60s and beyond: At this age, your skin may have lots of wrinkles and a loose, saggy appearance. Still, you've got options for improving matters, if you're willing and able to pay for them and put up with the downtime associated with many of these procedures.

    * Chemical peel. A chemical solution is applied to the skin, causing it to blister and peel off over a period of days. As the treated skin peels off, new, fresher-looking skin replaces it.

      However, Lee notes, a chemical peel makes your new skin more vulnerable to the sun, so you have to be extra careful if you get one.
    * Dermabrasion. A procedure that uses a rapidly rotating brush to sand off the surface layer of skin, diminishing scars and improving the appearance of sun-damaged skin.
    * Laser skin resurfacing. High-energy lasers emit an intense beam of light that can vaporize skin tissue to improve wrinkles or scars. There are many types of lasers. 

      A carbon dioxide laser delivers short bursts of very high-energy light, vaporizing the undesired skin tissue one layer at a time. CO2 lasers work well on deep wrinkles, O'Donoghue says.

      Erbium lasers produce energy in a wavelength that's readily absorbed by the water in tissue cells, and scatters the heat effects for a more superficial treatment of sun damage or irregular pigmentation, O'Donoghue says.

      Non-ablative lasers work beneath the surface skin layer and stimulate collagen growth to make the skin look less wrinkled, fresher and more supple. There's almost no healing or downtime, Lee says. They differ from the other lasers, which heat and remove skin tissue.