ONE MORNING LAST MONTH, I awoke to a text from a friend that said, “Man, I look old. What do I do?” He’s a handsome guy, just over 50, and I fired back reassurances. But his message prompted me to examine my own, 37-year-old face in the mirror. I noticed exactly five forehead wrinkles emerging, some creases making themselves at home around my eyes, and—surely not—a hint of a jowl? Now I was stressing. Aging has never really scared me, but I’d rather not be mistaken for the Crypt Keeper anytime soon. So I began a hunt for a skin-care routine to help turn back the clock.
Michael Gilman, founder of Grooming Lounge, a men’s grooming retailer in McLean, Va., has encountered many guys fretting about crow’s feet. In the past two years, he’s fielded so many wrinkle-related inquiries from men in their 30s and 40s that he developed an in-store, anti-aging facial treatment and launched an anti-aging skin-care section on his site. Both have been hits, he said, adding that, in his experience, men are getting more comfortable expressing their desire to look youthful. No longer, it seems, are guys willing to wrinkle in silence.
Anti-aging has long been a hot topic in women’s skin care, but products purporting to tighten and brighten skin are increasingly being aimed at men. In recent years men’s brands including Jack Black and Jaxon Lane have released “brightening boosters,” “super serums” and other elixirs with names that imply magic at work. In September, Brad Pitt—perhaps leveraging his role as a reverse-ager in the 2008 film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”—launched a unisex brand that sells a $385 serum designed to promote youthfulness.
Some folks are likely slathering their faces in the hopes of emulating A-listers like Paul Rudd, whose seeming inability to age has inspired vampire jokes on social media. For mortals, however, completely reversing the effects of aging with skin care is impossible, said Corey L. Hartman, a dermatologist in Birmingham, Ala. What such products can do, though, is slow the process.
New York City dermatologist Dendy Engelman tells me not to get hung up on products “for men.” Men’s skin tends to be thicker and oilier than women’s, she said, making guys less prone to wrinkling, but the same things cause aging in everyone. Starting in our 30s, all genders lose 1% of collagen each year, and the production of ceramides (fat molecules) drops by more than 40% with each decade, Dr. Engelman explained. Both processes weaken our skin, leading to wrinkles and sagging.
To address this, Dr. Hartman advises focusing on what he calls the Holy Trinity of skin care: antioxidants, retinol and sunscreen. All three are widely recognized for their anti-aging effects, he said. To help prevent free radicals—unstable atoms resulting from sunlight, pollution and stress—from “munching on your collagen,” said Dr. Hartman, use a serum containing antioxidants like vitamin C and niacinamide every morning. And before bed, dab your face with a retinol cream or serum. A skin-care workhorse derived from vitamin A, retinol helps stimulate collagen production, control oil and clear pores. Eye creams with retinol can also be effective, though most eye products are designed to temporarily freshen skin and offer few long-term benefits, cautioned New York dermatologist Evan Rieder.
It’s worth splurging on antioxidant and retinol products, said Dr. Hartman, since the expensive ones often work better. But sunscreen, which protects your skin against the breakdown of collagen, needn’t cost much. Choose one that’s at least SPF 30, urges the American Academy of Dermatology. Dr. Rieder likes an $11 Neutrogena gel with SPF 50.
Once the Holy Trinity is in your dopp kit, moisturizer seals the deal. Literally. Get one with ceramides, said Dr. Engelman, which will help maintain a “tight, healthy skin barrier.” Think of your skin as a brick wall and ceramides as the mortar that stops moisture escaping.
The not-so-secret secret? Healthy and age-defying skin is the same thing. Michael Umphlett, 34, has wised up to this since overhauling his routine a year ago. When his girlfriend found out he washed his face with bar soap, “it almost killed her,” said Mr. Umphlett, a sales development director based in Hillsdale, New Jersey. He switched to girlfriend-endorsed products including Caldera + Lab’s antioxidant-rich, $97 serum. Seeing his dry, dull skin transform into what he calls a “glowing” complexion has him sold. You have to take care of your face, he said, “or you’re going to look like a catcher’s glove by the time you’re 50.”