Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse – each one a flame that burned brightly…and extinguished in their 27th year. They call them ‘The 27 Club’ a term that is filled with both myth and portent. But in the beauty world, there’s an even more ominous birthday: 26. It is an age talked about in hushed tones in clinics around the world. The age when, if experts are to be believed, your skin slowly starts to fade.
I discovered this when I stuck my head inside a scanner (basically an MRI for your skin) and was told, by a smiling beauty therapist that I had the skin of a 32-year-old. I was 22.
‘It’s your under-eyes that are ageing you,’ she explained pointing out the dainty crow’s feet that I had, until that moment, failed to notice. ‘It’s not your fault,’ she added, ‘Those are natural ageing lines, where you laugh or smile.’
Four days – and several hours of gimlet-eyed inspection of said fine lines – later, I was still stewing. So I picked up the phone and called Dr Dennis Gross, the ‘anti-ageing king’ of New York, beloved by Zoe Kravitz, Jordan Dunn and Upper East Siders with expensive-looking skin. ‘There was a study done, with a 26-year-old who was free from lines and wrinkles but when she looked under a microscope, her collagen fibres showed degeneration had already begun, even though she didn’t have visible wrinkles,’ he explained matter-of-factly.
With images of my skin looking like an Ordnance Survey Map beneath the microscope, I turned to clinical facialist and anti-ageing wizard Kate Kerr for countenance. ‘Everything doesn’t just stop on your 26th birthday,’ she assuages. ‘But multiple studies have proven that your intrinsic ageing [how you’re genetically predisposed to age] starts to kick into gear right about then.’ Basically, as soon as you hit your twenties, everything starts to unwind. This includes not only the breakdown of collagen but also hyaluronic acid (the water-holding molecule), leaving skin prone to dryness and a lack of firmness, that leads to lines as fine as a hairline crack in a bone china teacup.
“Basically, as soon as you hit your twenties, everything starts to unwind.”
Here’s where 26 kicks in: it is the age where skin becomes more vulnerable and stress starts to take a visible toll. In fact, scientists have proven that, once we get into our mid-to-late twenties, our collagen levels drop between 1-2% every year, with 80% of those changes, being down to UV exposure, as Dr Sam Bunting, one of the UK’s dermatological titans, explains.
And so I began my pre-anti-ageing regime. I spent weeks pasting on concealer as though I was icing cupcakes. I tried every eye cream known to humankind. I tried masks. I tried de-puffing tools. I even sat with trembling cucumber slices on my eyes for hours on end. My under-eyes, I had convinced myself, were now basically the melting clock in Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory.
When I told friends about my 32-year-old skin later that week, eyes widened. ‘Oh God,’ wailed women still years form their 26th birthday. ‘What have we got to worry about now?’
The concept of preventative anti-ageing reared its ugly head nearly a decade ago, when experts and the media started to talk about the need to prevent ageing before it had even happened. Forget ‘combatting’ the signs of ageing. This was affirmative action to halt it before it had even had time to take up residency. While previously anti-ageing products were geared towards the the thirties demographic, instead, marketeers targeted those more than a decade younger. Product ranges for those in their early twenties began to rise using new-fangled terms such as ‘age resist’ and ‘age delay’. Whilst Teen Toxing (those under 18 getting Botox) became a phenomenon, with reports of girls as young as age 13 going under the needle.
But in fact, young women have been warned about the dangers of anti-ageing for far longer than that. In the 1930s Palmolive soap warned of ‘middle age’ skin affecting women as young as 22, the consequences of which – according to the advert at least – was ‘girls with empty date books’.
Sadly age has often been the whip with which most women have beaten themselves. Look old before your time? Not enough self-care. Saggy décolletage? Should’ve used cream sooner. Fine lines at 22? That’ll be down to the tsunami of high-energy wavelengths radiating out of your phone every time you check Instagram, as well as all that UV abuse.
“Sadly age has often been the whip with which most women have beaten themselves.”
Whether we care to admit it or not, we judge women by how they age. Helen Mirren is applauded as someone who has aged well, as though she were a French cheese or a bottle of burgundy. Mary Beard, on the other hand, is someone who has not. Yet we are also skeptical about those who have hushed up the telltale signs of ageing. As a culture, we fear the very thing we all have in common: getting old.
It is why many young women (myself included) grew up watching our mothers perform the Sisyphean task of holding back the years with potions and lotions whose language was one of ‘fighting’ ‘halting’ and ‘holding back’ the ageing process. It all sounded so hard, so bleak… so ultimately futile. And yet it also set the template for how women should respond to the most natural of processes.
Fighting age was once a battle only women ‘of a certain age’ (itself a phrase loaded in messaging about ageing) had to enter into. But now it’s all of us.( According to an academic study by Carolyn Black Becker, a psychology professor at Trinity University, 85% of 18 to 29-year-olds worry about what ageing will bring. That’s a lot of time wasted while you’re supposed to be out forging a career, finding love or finding out who you are.)
Yes, laughing hysterically will give you laughter lines. So to, will staying out late and checking your phone several times a day. But here’s the thing: these are also the moments that define youth. Resting bitch face is an option to delay joining the 26 Club, but it would be a trade-off for a life well-lived. By the time I get to 26, I want to have evolved and matured as a person. Why then would I expect my skin not to move with me?
There are more pivotal beauty ‘ages’ to be aware of – and maybe not give a damn about, either…
Your cell turnover has slowed down. Translation: dead skin cells need blasting with chemical exfoliants such as AHAs – they will be your new best friends. Or just buy a massive pair of sunglasses.
Skin takes on a yellow undertone due to a shortage of melanin production so continuously smother yourself in SPF. Another option? Spend your time inside with a new Netflix series.
Skin is thinner and less resilient, meaning wrinkles are more likely to stick. Vitamin A can prevent skin from further thinning – or just learn to love those lines.
Oestrogen (which supports collagen production) levels have dropped, making skin flatter and lines more visible. Vitamin C serum can help – the antioxidant properties help maintain the skin’s collagen. Alternatively, get a dog. They don’t cate what you look like, as long as you feed them on time.
By now, you’ve got 50% fewer blood vessels in your face, meaning blood isn’t flowing as fluidly, which can lead to a build-up of toxins. So give happy hour a miss, as alcohol consumption further decreases your body’s ability to flush out the bad stuff, which can lead to bloating and dull skin. Or you could just stick to one – who says you can’t still have fun?
This article first appeared on ELLE UK.