Anti-Aging in Your Twenties: Too Much Retinol Too Soon?

Logan for ITG, Too Much Too Soon
Logan for ITG, Too Much Too Soon

Let’s say that you’re “technically young” (so, in your early twenties, though we could argue—to the teeth!—that the thirties are still “technically young,” but for the purpose of this exercise, let’s say your twenties) and have assembled something of a skincare regimen. Within that clutch of products, how many of them are 'anti-aging'? Beyond that, how many anti-aging methods or technologies are you aware of? And how, frankly, worried are you about “signs of aging'? If you’re anything like me or the readers of most fashion magazines (and a fair amount of the commenters on this website), the answers to those questions fall around: several, lots, and very. While “very” may seem like a stretch—most twentysomethings I know don't regularly wear sunscreen; hell, some still smoke and drink and lay out in the sun with abandon—their drugstore purchases and medicine cabinets tell a different story. We're relatively cavalier in our lifestyles, yet packing away products pumped full of retinol and alpha hydroxy acids that promise to “combat loss of radiance' and “lift and firm” things that aren't yet “sagging' or “loose.” We are kids in the street and our mothers in the bathroom.

Consider, for a minute, the law of diminishing returns—there has been much notice paid to medicines which, over time and if overused, can become less effective. (I have friends who never take painkillers for this reason, and also avoid antibiotics unless under severe duress.) I wondered if the same applied to skincare. Are we, as wrinkle-fearing beauty enthusiasts reaching for the big anti-aging guns in an attempt to freeze life its tracks, actually screwing ourselves by using up all the ammo before the battle begins? Or, simply: is it just too much, too soon? I called a doctor, a scientific communication director at a luxury beauty brand, and one medical researcher-turned-skincare-entrepreneur to talk vanity, technology, and what’s the smart move when it comes to preserving (maintaining) youthful skin. Their answers and advice varied, with the exception of the following tip: wear sunscreen. Every day. (Even if it’s cloudy. Even if it’s RAINING. Even if you're INSIDE and it's raining.)

Simon Erani, the founder and CEO of The Somme Institute in New York, met me at his very bright, very white midtown office in mid-January and told me through his very bright, very white teeth that he feels sorry for most consumers. “There’s just so many skincare companies that release products with these buzzwords, like ‘alpha lipoic acid,’ ‘CoQ10,’ or ‘Now with ginseng!’ and how many of them actually do anything?” Erani asked. “These companies put out a ‘breakthrough,’ and people buy it and use it a few times and see it doesn’t work, and then, next cycle, the company comes out with another ‘breakthrough’ for the same thing. The consumer who really wants something that works ends up getting screwed. Women can end up ruining their skin trying to fix it.” The Somme Institute began as a research firm “We've tested hundreds of skincare brands on over 7,000 people in the past 10 years.” Erani said, and they have extensive “tracking' data to prove it), and Erani—who has been known to approach people on the street that possess what he describes as “ bad acne” and put them on his patented products “forever, free of charge, because I feel bad'—funneled his frustration with available skincare lines into the development of Somme's 5-Step Regimen, a “cure all.” [ed note: I should disclose here that both Nick and I use it regularly and are near evangelical about it, because we've never felt so glowy, bright, fresh, clear-pored in our lives. Sidenote: The five steps take about one minute; don’t be afraid of the color coding or multiple bottles.]

The program consists of a Nourishing Cleanser, Transport toner pads, a serum, and two moisturizers (the first, A-Bomb, fortified with heavy doses of vitamins E and A; the second, a light SPF cream, all imbued with Somme's trademarked super-duper vitamin blend, MDT5 (with vitamins A, C, E, F, B3 and B5), which Erani calls a “smart vitamin...a highly engineered vitamin.” Somme's been doing clinical studies and trials for years, he said, and their data has been reviewed and evaluated independently by doctors from top medical schools, including Harvard, Yale, and NYU. “It's not that we're so smart.” he adds, “it's that we did our homework.”

“Retin-A, Reova, Accutane, they’re great drugs in that they work,” Erani continued. “Everyone wants to change the skin, everyone wants to prevent damage. But none of the products on the market we tested [during the clinical trials] did. When we tested Renova and Retin-A, they did. The only problem with those drugs is that women’s skin is already considerably thinner than men’s, and these medications take off the top layer—so you’ve lost the first or second layer of your skin, and though your skin looks fresh and bright and great, it can actually get worse. With repeated use, retinol products begin to thin out your skin and will eventually make you more susceptible to UVA rays. If you're not wearing adequate SPF all the time, with passing years you’ll have more melasma, more discoloration... Plus, they can be way too harsh on the skin, even if you don’t feel the redness. We did research on chemical peels, too, and, like I said, the worst thing to do is thin out the skin. The worst thing.” His Somme products promise to improve skin tone, texture, and clarity and, if you believe the walls of his conference room, which are lined by impressive 'before' and 'after' photographs from the clinical trials (each done with a special UV light and high-definition camera that can see the freckling, “mottled pigmentation' and swathes of dark spots otherwise invisible to the naked eye), the products will also help reduce and repair years of sun damage,as well as diminish the look of fine lines, wrinkles, discoloration, and acne. “As far as when to start,” he laughed, “I have 70 year-old customers who call me and ask, ‘Why is my grand daughter on the same regimen I am?’ And I tell them, ‘Because it’s a new molecular compound [we're using]. It’s working for you both. And working safely.'”

Dr. Elizabeth Hale, vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation and a Clinical Associate Professor of Dermatology at the NYU Langone Medical Center, has a slightly less extreme position when it comes to the retinols of the world (though she’s been doing some extremely cool research into the use of stem cells in skincare products). “In my opinion,” she explained via telephone from her New York office, “as long as it’s done correctly, there’s no time that’s too early to start thinking about anti-aging. But there’s two types of aging of the skin: intrinsic aging, which would happen if you lived in a vacuum or a bubble, and then there’s extrinsic, which is sun-exposure and smoking, which accelerate your skin’s break-down. I’m a believer in prevention, even in your twenties, so that you can age gracefully and naturally, versus trying to reverse the signs of UV exposure or smoking later on. The number one thing you can do is just wear sunscreen. Every single day. Ninety percent of the signs of premature aging come from UV exposure.” But what about the drugs, doc? “I’m a fan of Retin-A... If you survey most dermatologists, I would say an overwhelming number of them personally use Retin-A, but they are also licensed professionals who know exactly what they’re doing. But people, and this is especially common in my young, 20 to 30 year-old patients, tend to overdo it. We call it 'auto-sensitization.' There’s a statistic that 90% of women have very sensitive skin or think that they do, but a huge chunk of those women don't have conditions such as eczema or rosacea; they're actually doing it to themselves, often through over-exfoliating, using glycolic acid, or Retin-A in inappropriate amounts.”

So, I shouldn’t worry that everything with retinol, Retin-A, or Retin-whatever on the bottle will leave me a red, peeling, skin-less mess by age 50? Dr. Hale laughed. “Retin-A was initially an acne medication, but it had all these incredible results in double-blind clinical medical trials for slowing down signs of aging [via cell-turnover], and has been co-opted into that market. But it can also be incredibly sensitizing, making your skin very dry and sensitive to the sun. In this case, it does not follow that 'more is better'—a tiny, tiny drop of retinol, I'm talking no more than a pea-sized drop for your entire face, really goes a long way. People who do it too frequently can experience skin that gets red and dry and flaky and irritated. Keep it to the basics: sunscreen every day, and sunglasses, too. Then, retinol as tolerated, if desired, but there's no rush to start in your early twenties.” Lately, Dr. Hale has been working with a company called Lifeline Stem Cell Skin Care, who've discovered a way to take extracts from non-embryonic human stem cells (that’d be from non-fertilized eggs, donated by women to fertility clinics for scientific purposes) to help create million of new cells that rejuvenate skin. It's all very futuristic sci-fi, but then, so is everything good, medically. Right? Unless you'd rather use leeches. (Note: If you would rather use leeches, please contact us for a potential feature. BYO Leeches.) Lifeline's products have shown results with marked increases in hydration, elasticity, tone, and brightness, Dr Hale said. “I’ve been in practice for 11 years and it’s the first time in 11 years that I’ve called the company to tell them how impressed I am with a product. That’s definitely something.”

When it came to Edouard Mauvais-Jarvis, the Paris-based Scientific Communications Director for Dior Beauty, he was of the 'nothing exceeds like excess' mindset. “I think there is no set age to start incorporating anti-aging into the routine,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The earlier it is done, the better.” Well! Does that mean we can grab the nearest baby and slather them in Olay? “Women now don’t want to wait until it’s too late to act.” Mauvais-Jarvis responded. “The new approach is to protect the cells responsible for the regeneration, to repair the damaged structures, to maintain the right levels of activity for the self-repairing enzymes, etc.” This, he added, is what Dior’s latest skincare launch, Capture Totale Multi-Perfection Crème, is intended to do. Like Lifeline, the range is focused around stem-cell technology and includes a day cream, serum, night cream, an Ultra-Detox Treatment Mask, and a tinted lotion with SPF [ed note: discontinued]. “Our new line is acting at each level of the skin to maintain its structure, to expand the ‘best years’ of the skin without overstimulating it. This cannot lead to long-term aggravating tendencies, because this technology is aimed at maintaining the skin, not thinning it out.” This type of an approach, he said, has no ideal start date: the younger you begin, the better off you are. (This is perhaps why my baby reference was not received as particularly hilarious as intended.) The same is not true for retinol-based products. “Vitamin-A derivatives [like retinol and the widely prescribed Retin-A] are strong molecules that focus on short-term results, overstimulating the skin without considering the long-term consequences. This is not a sustainable approach for beauty and youth. The time has come for a new vision of anti-aging. More sustainable, more reasoned, more relevant.”

Well, if that doesn’t make you want to blow a trumpet and ride off into battle, I don’t know what will. If you take the sum total of what was said, it's not that it's too early to think about aging—and I acknowledge this was a long piece, and you probably feel like you've aged a bit since you started it; I hope your brow remained un-furrowed throughout, and there was little-to-no squinting—it's just about thinking clearly, and making smart choices. I'm not sure Catherine Deneuve was right when she (allegedly) said that a woman at 30 has to choose between her ass or her face. Take care of your skin (and your ass?) and trust that while not every tube and tub of product does exactly what it says, some of them do, and will, and want to. Also, aging? Not all bad! Let's be fine wines, together. So rethink all of those harsh anti-agers with immediate effects and long-term issues that you've squirreled away, my friends, and pick up some of the new science (and some SPF!). This battle isn't over yet.

—Alessandra Codinha

Review The Somme Institute's research here, Dior Capture Totale's here, and pick up Lifeline Skincare products here.

Photograph courtesy of Vanessa Stevens(of her adorable daughter, Logan—who, by the way, doesn't use anti-aging products).

#TBT to anti-aging practices through history.

Read up about epidermal growth factor and its place in the anti-aging world.

Ever wonder about retinol? Read here about a good one to start here.