The crow's feet around your eyes look like they multiplied overnight and your smile lines are becoming deep enough to rival the Grand Canyon.
Time for a trip to the cosmetics counter for some moisturizer and night cream? Or perhaps you need a mask to strip away the dead skin. How about one of those new products that promise to revitalize your complexion with collagen or RNA or calve's something or other?
"Moisturizers mostly do nothing for wrinkles," says Dr. Albert Kligman, professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania. "They can have a slight effect on small wrinkles or very fine lines. But on laugh lines or real large wrinkles, they don't do a damn thing."
Using a moisturizer may make your skin "look a little better and smoother," Kligman says. And they can help soothe dry skin. But some moisturizers also work by damaging the skin slightly. They can contain "irritants that cause edema and puff the skin out, which makes some of the smaller wrinkles disappear temporarily," he says.
Yet women -- and now growing numbers of men -- have a strong desire to do something to improve their skin.
"They use astringents," Kligman says. "They use masks. They wash five times a day . . . In the American mind, moisturizer has been a surrogate statement for anti-aging and anti-wrinkling."
The fact is, however, that "most of what we think of as aging in skin is really sun damage," says Dr. Barbara Gilchrist, chairman of dermatology at the Boston University School of Medicine. "The wrinkles that you have at 50 or 60 years of age mostly come from sun exposure when you were 10 or 20 years old. Truly the most important bottom line is to avoid sun damage early in life."
Yet billions of dollars are spent annually on face care -- usually with the additional cost of overtreating skin. "That's the major reason for acne breakouts in middle-aged women," Kligman says.
For people with dry skin, however, moisturizing creams can be helpful. But they need not be expensive or contain exotic-sounding ingredients. "That's all absolute hype," Kligman says. "All pseudo-science."
The best treatment for dry skin, experts say, is petrolatum, or petroleum jelly. "It's not built up to be sexy or glamorous," says Kligman. But it keeps water in the skin. To cut down on its greasiness, he says, rub on petroleum jelly, then wipe it off with tissues or wash your skin with a very mild soap, such as Dove or Neutrogena. "Then if you want to take your favorite sexy moisturizer and rub it in, it won't hurt you," Kligman says.
Dermatologists also recommend:
Use cool water, a mild soap and your fingers -- not a wash cloth or scrub brush -- when you wash. "Every time you wash your face, you are potentially doing something harmful," Kligman says.
Minimize sun damage to minimize wrinkles. Protect yourself with sun screens. Wear a hat and dark glasses and try to bare as little skin as possible to the sun. If you have fair skin and blue or green eyes, use a sun screen with the most protection, SPF 15, reapply it frequently, and don't forget to cover particularly sensitive skin such as lips, nose and underneath eyes. Avoid exposure during the strongest sun hours, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Avoid tanning parlors. Despite claims of safety, tanning parlor use equals sitting in the sun at noon, warns the American Academy of Dermatology.
Choose products with very few ingredients and no vitamins or hormones if you have dry skin. Among those tested and recommended by Kligman and other dermatologists are pure petroleum jelly. If that's too greasy, try Nivea, Lubriderm or Eucerin, lotions and creams that contain high amounts of petrolatum.
Consider relaxation therapy. Some wrinkles appear to be caused by overuse of areas of the face, too much smiling or frowning, or tension of muscles, which can be eased by relaxation therapy.