Published in The Toronto Star, October, 2009.
Photos by Vivian Song
The bedside table is laden with potions and lotions.
In her starch-white lab coat, a modern-day alchemist squeezes a drop of this and a squirt of that into her plastic cauldron of youth, and gives it a good stir with her wand.
Beside her, Rya Prozes lies with her eyes closed, patiently waiting to receive her monthly balm.
The alchemist is skin therapist Cynthia Whaley. The potion, a brew of botanical mixers, multi-vitamin and hydrating agents.
Prozes, a health and wellness specialist, is a 39-year-old woman trying to claw back the aging process while still in her 30s – an oft-forgotten demographic in the skin care market.
"The 30s mark changes physically and hormonally. For myself, I noticed slight wrinkles and smile lines in the eye area and furrow lines between the brows," Prozes said. "It was starting to become apparent that I was in my 30s."
The beauty industry can be divided into two clear markets: Harsh acne-fighting formulas for pimply teens and the rich emollient anti-wrinkle creams for the 40-and-up crowd.
Women in their 30s often get lost in the mix, forced to choose between moisture-stripping formulas and oily pore cloggers.
It's a common complaint Dr. Lisa Kellett, a Toronto dermatologist, fields from patients in their 30s. This demographic faces dual, competing demands: continuous breakouts and moisture loss, she said.
"It's frustrating for them. They say, `I'm getting crow's feet, but I also have acne. It's not fair.'"
That's because skin at 30 enters a transitional phase, straddling the tail end of youth and the cusp of age-related decline.
"In your 30s, you're starting to see the sins of your youth," said Dr. Julia Carroll, a dermatologist with the Meridia Medical Group.
"You're seeing sun damage, fine lines, and collagen isn't replaced as quickly as it was before. You also see volume loss. This continues as you get older."
A 20-year-lag also means the effects of childhood sunburns don't manifest themselves until we reach our 30s. Uneven pigmentation and brown spots – also known as liver and age spots – can likewise mar the 30s complexion, dulling the glow of youth and making it splotchy.
"What used to be cute as freckles, in time become age spots," Carroll said.
But the good news is that the aging process can be slowed if women take proactive measures during this pivotal stage, says Dr. Paul Cohen, a Toronto dermatologist.
"The 30s are an important time because there are a lot of little things you can do to prevent aging and make long-lasting changes. The trick is to take care of your skin in your 30s," he said.
For Prozes, the toughest part of her skin care regime is remembering to wash her face at night. Prozes, a petite woman with a mane of cascading dark waves, is a natural beauty, able to keep a relatively bare face: a few strokes of mascara, a light dusting of powder and a quick sweep of lip gloss are all it takes to face the world.
"Because I don't wear a lot of makeup, it wasn't a natural instinct to wash every night," she admits. "It just wasn't in my repertoire."
But experts advise it's important to wash "the city" off your faces nightly and give your skin all the help it can get.
That means amassing the right arsenal of skin care products: a good cleanser, an exfoliator containing a glycolic acid, a Vitamin A or retinol treatment and Vitamin C cream, and most important, a sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30.
"One of my biggest beefs is women who spend thousands of dollars on expensive skin care products, but who don't use sunscreen. They're not helping their skin at all," Kellett said.
Nor is it advisable to use rich, anti-wrinkle creams made for the over 40 crowd in a bid to pre-empt future wrinkles.
"These kinds of creams will clog pores and cause women to break out because they're too rich," Cohen said.
That's why Kellett developed her own line of gel-based, acne-fighting and anti-aging products, Clear Clinical.
After being "laughed at" by big pharma companies for daring to suggest they make acne-fighting formulas for women in their 30s – acne stops in the 20s, she was told condescendingly – Kellett came up with oil-free products targeted for women between the ages of 25 and 35 who struggle with the dual needs of this transitional period: Acne and wrinkle prevention.
"This is my big passion."
A common mistake Whaley sees among her clients in their 30s is confusing moisturization and hydration.
"You can have a lot of sebum but experience dehydration at the same time. Hydration is water, not moisturization," Whaley said.
Vertical lines for instance, are often the result of dehydration, not aging, Whaley said, and can be eliminated with a single hydrotherapy skin treatment.
Another common myth is that drinking water moisturizes the skin, experts said.
"The problem is water goes into your major organs, not just the skin," Whaley said.
The behind closed-doors activity of pimple-popping is another common mistake women commit, Whaley said as she pierced the tip of a white spot on Prozes' cheek with a specialized needle. Though not quite a whitehead, milia spots occur when dead skin is trapped in small pockets at the surface of the skin. These can also result from excess product the skin can't absorb.
With gloved fingers, Whaley gently squeezes the area to retrieve the embedded white goop. Professional extraction primes the skin, she explained, by softening the sebum and disinfecting the area. At-home popping can break capillaries and cause infection.
Keep the beauty routine simple, experts agree. While glycolic acid has long been accepted as an important exfoliator and anti-aging treatment, Vitamin A, also known as retinol, is another clinically-proven, anti-wrinkle weapon of choice.
"I advise women in their 30s to use retinol," Cohen said. "A pea-size amount of cream at night will help prevent fine lines, makes skin smoother and gives you a polished look."
That's because vitamin A is one of the few substances with a molecular structure small enough to penetrate both the outer and lower layers of skin, where collagen and elastin reside and generate the renewal of skin growth.
Botox can also help prevent the formation of deeper wrinkles later in life, added dermatologist Dr. Fred Weksberg.
"You don't have to get much, just enough to control muscle contraction and prevent the wrinkles from getting worse," he said.
While Weksberg is seeing more women in their 30s seek professional treatment, generally this age group still "looks pretty good" – perhaps one reason why skin care companies don't target this demographic, he said.
Unlike teens and older women, it's difficult to identify a problem and advertise their solution for the 30s crowd, Weksberg surmised.
"They'd rather their advertising dollars go elsewhere where they can be sure to sell their products."
Simple tips to keep skin looking radiant
While it's recommended you get your skin analyzed in order to customize your needs, experts agree on the following skin care routine at a minimum. And remember, keep the routine simple.
Use a gentle, non-soap cleanser like Cetaphil that won't dry out skin and is safe to use twice daily.
MOISTURIZE and PROTECT
If you have oily skin and are prone to breakouts, look for a gel-based or oil-free moisturizer. Use a minimum SPF of 30 for the face and don't forget the neck, chest area and back of the hands – parts of the body that are the first to betray your age. Be generous and use a dollop the size of a quarter for the face and neck. Look for broad spectrum SPF with UVA – which causes premature aging – and UVB protection.
Gycolic acid, also known as alpha hydroxy acid, is clinically-proven to slough off dead skin cells, reduce the appearance of fine lines, and even out skin tone. Experts advise starting with a glycolic acid concentration between 5 and 8 per cent, and graduating to 10 per cent, the highest non-prescription dosage available if you don't experience any irritation. Take care if you have sensitive skin as it can cause redness, itching and sun irritation.
VITAMIN A OR RETINOL
Vitamin A is a clinically-proven agent that can prevent wrinkles as it penetrates deep into the skin's layers where collagen and elastin reside. Vitamin A increases collagen production, prevents fine lines and gives a polished look.