While you’ve been slathering anti-aging creams and sunscreen on your face to help stave off lines (and years), the skin on your hands and neck may be telling another story. A recent study published in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery found that most people can correctly guess whether a woman is in her 40s, 50s, 60s, or older simply by glancing at her hands. Clues also turn up on the neck, where blotchiness and sagging can stand in stark contrast to a smooth, well-cared-for complexion, says Zoe D. Draelos, M.D., a dermatologist in High Point, NC. But don’t stock up on Diane Keaton-style turtlenecks or pants with deep pockets quite yet. Although there may not be a quick fix for every problem, you can get a more youthful look and a smooth, supple feel by giving your hands and neck some much-needed attention.
They’re likely the second place people look (after the face) to guess your age. But with these tips, only the clerk at the DMV will know for sure.
Erase Age Spots
As the years add up, skin often produces more pigment, which clusters together in dark patches instead of being evenly distributed, says Leslie Baumann, M.D., director of cosmetic dermatology at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami. Doctors aren’t sure exactly why this occurs, though they suspect sun exposure is to blame. One theory: A lifetime of UV rays causes mutations in cells’ DNA, changing how they function. To see spots disappear:
Dab on hydroquinone. “There’s no more effective bleaching agent,” says Dr. Baumann, echoing the opinion of many dermatologists. Hydroquinone — which comes in over-the-counter concentrations of up to 2 percent and prescription strengths of 4 percent — blocks the enzyme needed to make melanin (skin’s pigment). As surface cells slough off, new, nonpigmented cells replace them. Many doctors recommend you spot-apply hydroquinone with a cotton swab on dark spots only, since it can lighten normal skin, too.
You may have heard rumors about the chemical’s safety. It is banned in some European and Asian countries due to links to renal and other cancers (found after rats consumed large doses) and to a rare skin condition called ochronosis. The FDA has been reviewing data on hydroquinone for the past two years, but has yet to make a ruling. But the American Academy of Dermatology (and all the doctors we spoke to) maintains that it’s safe. “I have prescribed it for many years and have never seen so much as an allergy to it,” says Howard Murad, M.D., a dermatologist in El Segundo, CA. The bottom line: If you want to remove age spots with a topical treatment, it’s the most effective option.
Multitask. You’ll get faster results using hydroquinone in conjunction with ingredients that slough off dead surface cells, like prescription retinoids (Tri-Luma, for instance, blends a retinoid with hydroquinone, plus a topical steroid), milder over-the-counter retinol, or alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) serums, like glycolic acid. They all enhance penetration of the bleaching agent and speed up production of new, nonpigmented cells. AHAs may deactivate retinoids, so apply them separately. In addition to hydroquinone, you’ll also find glycolic acid paired with milder lighteners, such as kojic or azelaic acid. Two to try: DDF Fade Gel 4 ($52, Sephora) and Palmer’s Skin Success Age Spot Serum ($14, drugstores).
Fight Wrinkles and Roughness
The sun also causes loose, crepey skin, which is exacerbated by loss of fat in the hands — a natural part of aging. Although you can’t significantly plump your hands with topical treatments, these moves can improve skin’s texture so hands look smoother and more youthful:
Peel away fine lines. AHA masks and at-home peels, applied to the top of hands, slough off dull, dead skin and help speed cell turnover. When the new, healthy cells reach the surface, they give skin a smoother texture, making lines and wrinkles less noticeable, Dr. Baumann says. Try Avon Anew Clinical Advanced Retexturizing Peel with glycolic acid ($25, avon.com).
Build new collagen. Both AHA peels and retinoids/retinols exfoliate the skin, but the latter penetrate deeper to increase cell turnover and trigger new collagen production, explains Elizabeth Tanzi, M.D., a dermatologist in Washington, D.C. The more collagen you have to support and strengthen the skin, the smoother and plumper it will look. Try a peel or mask in the morning, and a retinoid (such as Renova ) at night. Peels and retinoids both make skin more sensitive to sunlight, so always use SPF to protect hands.
Reverse Moisture Loss
Even if a combination of good genes and sun smarts have saved your hands from the agers above, the look of dry, cracked skin may still be tacking on years. With the passage of time, cell membranes become more porous, so they can’t hold as much water. “Cells are about 75 percent water at birth, but the average adult woman’s cells are just 50 percent water,” says Dr. Murad. Skin also produces less oil over time, which makes it feel drier. Here’s how to ensure your hands stay well hydrated:
Slough off dead skin. Otherwise, it will be like watering your lawn before you rake it. “Dead surface cells are to skin what dry, crackly leaves are to grass: They prevent adequate hydration,” Dr. Murad says. “Once you remove the cells, moisturizers will penetrate more deeply.” Use a scrub with gentle synthetic or jojoba beads, or easily dissolved sugar or salt; avoid ground-up shells, which can scratch fragile skin. Try Sephora by OPI Exfoliating Scrub ($10, Sephora) or The Body Shop Almond Oil Refining Hand Scrub ($12, The Body Shop).
Be selective. Before you buy hand cream, scan the label for these proven ingredients, suggests Dr. Draelos: glycerin, which grabs water from deeper tissues to soften the top layers; petrolatum to trap water so it doesn’t escape; and dimethicone to temporarily fill in skin cracks and leave a smooth, greaseless feel. Another promising hydrator to look for: Niacinamide, a form of vitamin B, increases production of ceramide (a natural emollient), which helps strengthen skin’s lipid barrier to keep water in, says Dr. Baumann. Curél Targeted Therapy Hand & Cuticle Cream ($5, drugstores) contains the first three ingredients, while Olay Body Quench Therapy Hand Cream ($7, drugstores) has all four.
The Best Neck Treatments
Nora Ephron may feel bad about hers, but you don’t have to follow her lead, thanks to these easy at-home options that help tighten and tone the neck.
Unlike age spots on hands, sun-induced pigmentation on the neck tends to be more widespread and mottled with red and brown pigment. Opt for lightening agents you can slather over the entire area rather than spot-treating with hydroquinone. A few good choices: Arbutin and kojic acid work similarly to hydroquinone to stop melanin production; soy and niacinamide block the transfer of melanin to skin; and vitamin C fades pigment on the surface. Try: Lumene Premium Beauty Rejuvenating Neck and Décolleté Cream ($27, CVS).
Instead of developing deep wrinkles, necks get loose, crepey skin. As with hands, increasing collagen and improving texture with retinoids will help. However, neck skin is more sensitive than both hands and face, so to avoid red, dry side effects, apply prescription retinoids only once a week for several weeks, suggests Dr. Baumann, and gradually build the frequency until your skin can tolerate them better. With over-the-counter retinol, rub in a pea-size amount every other night before moisturizing. Try Dr. Denese Triple Strength Neck Wrinkle Smoother ($40, qvc.com).
Perhaps the most common neck complaint — and the most difficult to treat without surgery — is sagging. Just like hands, your neck loses fat, causing skin to hang loosely off muscle. No neck-lift-in-a-bottle exists, nor do neck exercises help, but “firming” products may — albeit slightly — boost hydration and give skin a more toned look. Vichy Neovadiol Intensive Densifying Care ($45, drugstores) works to restore skin’s lipid support layer, a sponge for water. In a company test, women saw a 26 percent increase in jawline contour and a 17 percent reduction in sagging after three months.
If You Try Only One Thing…Make it sunscreen. You could cover your body in all the wrinkle creams in Sephora, but you’ll still develop sunspots, wrinkles, and other age giveaways on your hands and neck without daily sun protection. Slather it on your hands as routinely as on your complexion — and be sure to smooth it on your neck, too. Try Borghese Radiante Brightening Hand Creme SPF 30 ($15, Walgreens) and L’Oréal Collagen Remodeler Contouring Moisturizer for Face and Neck SPF 15 Lotion ($20, drugstores).
What Your Derm Can Do
Doctors’ turn-back-the-clock nonsurgical treatments work fast and require little downtime. The catch: They can be pricey.
Best for: resurfacing hand and neck skin, building and tightening collagen
How they work: Lasers like the Fraxel and Nd:YAG direct thousands of tiny bursts of energy that heat the collagen layer, stimulating new growth and improving texture. Skin will be pink for a few days afterward, and perhaps even rough or peeling.
Sessions required/cost: three to six sessions; $1,000-$2,000 each.
Intense Pulsed Light (IPL)
Best for: removing sunspots on hands
How it works: IPL machines work similarly to lasers, but can be better for brown spots, and have a shorter recovery time, Dr. Tanzi says. Brown spots may darken — like pepper on skin — before flaking off for good.
Sessions required/cost: three to five sessions; $250-$500 each
Best for: hyperpigmentation and superficial wrinkling on hands
How they work: Superficial glycolic acid peels and Jessner peels (blending lactic and salicylic acids and other ingredients) and medium-depth trichloroacetic acid (TCA) peels remove surface discoloration and smooth out skin by increasing cell turnover. The deeper TCA produces faster results and can also stimulate collagen production. Note: Many doctors say neck skin is too prone to scarring to risk deep peeling.
Sessions required/cost: five 15-minute treatments; $150 each
Best for: plumping hands to disguise prominent bones, joints, and veins
How they work: A small amount of fat is taken from the buttocks via a needle and then injected beneath the skin. Fat transfer can be more economical than synthetic fillers like Sculptra and Radiesse because the fat is harvested just once, then frozen for later use, says Dr. Draelos. This is a relatively new procedure on hands, so make sure your doctor has experience: Ask to see her before-and-after photos.
Sessions required/cost: one session; around $1,500 for fat transfer, $500 for injections using harvested fat; $1,000-$1,500 for Sculptra or Radiesse injections
Botox (Botulinum Toxin)
Best for: strained-looking neck muscles
How it works: Doctors inject Botox down the muscle bands in the neck to relax them. In many cases, this gets rid of the strained look that sometimes comes with lost volume and tone in the neck. “It doesn’t take much Botox — about the same amount as for one band in the forehead — and there’s no downtime,” says Dr. Draelos.
Sessions required/cost: one session; $200-$400
Look Younger Instantly!
- Take years off your hands with a manicure. A study in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery found that polishing nails in a current style made hands look younger. You can’t go wrong with a glossy nude shade like CND Enamel in Serenity, ($6, salons).
- Shift attention away from your neck with a boatneck top or open-collared shirt; both draw the eye to more age-proof areas like the shoulders and collarbone.
- Be strategic with jewelry. Avoid bold, dangling earrings that frame the neck, and opt instead for lobe-hugging sparklers. Also, long, multi-tiered necklaces are a better choice than single-strand chokers that draw attention to the neck like a bull’s-eye.