Your Major Skin Milestones

Here’s exactly what happens to your complexion at every life stage, and how to be prepared for the highs and lows…  

Skin — like your body — changes over time. Sometimes these shifts can seem incredibly random. Like, why is my skin so dry all of a sudden? Or how can I be breaking out in my 30s? And where did these dark patches come from? Turns out such complexion swings are actually very predictable. Here, we asked Manhattan dermatologist Sue Ann Wee, M.D., who is an expert on the science of skin health, to fill us on the major skin milestones most women face. Then we tell you how you can get in front of these issues now — so you’re prepared for any complexion curveball that might be coming your way.

Skin Milestone: Your Teens

What to expect: Oily skin, acne and stretch marks

What’s going on in your body: Overactive hormones “stimulate sebaceous glands to produce an oily substance called sebum,” says Dr. Wee, which can clog pores. In many women, acne may flare up several days before your period. And high levels of hormones strike at the time when your body is growing, which can stretch the skin’s tissue.

What to do: See your dermatologist to get an acne regimen that works for you — benzoyl peroxide washes, salicylic and glycolic acids and topical sulfur are good over-the-counter remedies. Stretch marks are best treated early; your doctor can choose the right treatment for you (typically pulsed dye laser, but the choice of laser or treatment depends on your skin tone among other factors). In the meantime, we suggest a body oil to help minimize the effects of skin stretching.

Skin Milestone: Your College Years

What to expect: Acne and eczema flare-ups

What’s going on in your body: “The combination of increased stress and lack of sleep, which can spike the stress hormone cortisol, and poor eating habits (sugary, processed foods, and alcohol) can increase inflammation in the body,” says Dr. Wee, adding that this can lead to “skin changes such as increased acne, exacerbation of inflammatory conditions of the skin like eczema and psoriasis.” Plus, in your 20s, “there is already increased oil production from more active sebaceous glands, which makes acne even more likely during stressful times in college.”

What to do: Make good lifestyle decisions!  Try to avoid all nighters by sticking to a regular study, exercise and sleep routine. Embrace a whole-food diet and check in with your dermatologist to formulate an acne treatment plan (early treatment can prevent or minimize acne scarring). Other good skin care habits we recommend include using gentle cleansers that don’t strip the natural pH of the skin, non-comedogenic moisturizers, and high SPF broad spectrum sunscreens (reapply every two hours and use a nickel-sized dollop for face and shot glass amount for the body).

Skin Milestone: Pregnancy

What to expect: Dewy, radiant skin (yah!), changes in pigmentation, acne

What’s going on in your body: “Although the precise mechanisms are not clear, hormonal and metabolic changes during pregnancy significantly impact the skin,” says Dr. Wee. “Increased estrogen positively affects collagen production, elasticity and hydration,” she says, and high levels of progesterone may boost elasticity and skin firmness. The “pregnancy glow” is thought to be due to amped up oil production and blood supply to the skin; “however, these same hormonal changes may aggravate acne or rosacea,” she says. Stretch marks often occur with pregnancy and as well as melasma, or darkening of the skin, that might have to do with increased estrogen, sun exposure, and genetic predisposition.

What to do: First, chat with your dermatologist as the options for treating acne during pregnancy are pretty limited. After pregnancy, your pro can work with you to treat melasma and any hyperpigmentation issues, which might include topical bleaching agents, peels, and lasers. Your dermatologist can also treat stretch marks with lasers that target redness and help smooth the texture. Most importantly, practice good sun protection. Although melasma cannot always be prevented, it’s hugely beneficial to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher every day; during pregnancy, experts often recommend using physical barrier, zinc-based sunscreens (here’s one we love).

Skin Milestone: Your 30s and 40s

What to expect: Dryness, dullness, fine lines, especially in areas of facial expression such as forehead and around the eyes; skin also may start to appear less taut in certain areas. Hormonal acne is quite common now and even later into menopause.

What’s going on with your body: Signs of intrinsic and extrinsic (ultraviolet light, pollution, lifestyle) aging start to surface now, says Dr. Wee. The cumulative effects of UV radiation can damage DNA, increasing melanin or pigmentation (i.e. brown spots). Estrogen production gradually decreases, resulting in drier and less hydrated skin, increased wrinkling, slower wound healing, and less firmness and elasticity in your skin.

What to do: Sun protection continues to be critical and keeping skin hydrated helps it appear plump and smooth. We’re all about creams with hyaluronic acid and other humectants combined with occlusive emollients. You can also try hydroxy acid masks and antioxidant serums containing vitamin C. Ask your dermatologist about lasers like Clear + Brilliant to address early photo-aging changes (fine lines and pigmentation) and Fraxel Dual lasers for more significant wrinkles and pigmentation in your 30s and beyond, as your collagen levels diminish.

Last thing! Be sure to see your dentist regularly and practice good oral hygiene. Healthy teeth and gums are important for your underlying jaw and maxillae bones, says Dr. Wee, all of which play a major role in the structural foundation of the face!

This information is not intended to treat, diagnose or prevent any disease or skincare issue. 
Please seek your doctor’s advice for any questions regarding a specific condition and before beginning any exercise, diet, skin or health-related regimen.

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3 years ago

Great post ;)

No wonder I still had mild acne in college. I always thought it was just a high school thing. Probably just the additional stress and partying, but my skin has 100% cleared up now. I’m super lucky!

Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

3 years ago

Do women die at forty?

3 years ago

Interesting the way this post puts women from high school then to collage but then skips over the rest of your 20’s unless you are pregnant and then puts 30’s along with pre-menopause and then just gives up on anyone after 40’s…? I get that there is a target audience here and I do appreciate the helpful advice but feel the timeline is a little off.

3 years ago


3 years ago

“here’s exactly what happens to your complexion at every life stage” FREE PEOPLE!! Are these EVERY life stage? More better writters and good sense or you’ll be loosing readers and customers!