It's the classic nature-versus-nurture debate: Is it your genes or your lifestyle that determines how you look as you age? "The rule of thumb in terms of wrinkles is that it's 10 percent genetics and 90 percent environment and lifestyle," says Tina Alster, M.D., of the Washington Institute of Dermalogic Laser Surgery, in Washington, D.C. What is genetic: skin thickness (which accounts for how much it sags) and wrinkle patterns.
The good news: The remaining 90 percent gives you a lot of control. To prove it, Darrick Antell, M.D., a plastic surgeon in New York City, studied identical twins and found that if their lifestyles were the same, their faces aged similarly. But if their habits were different, the contrasts were dramatic. Antell found one sister, who was a sun worshipper (and had premature aging) and the other who wasn't. "Seeing their photos side by side was like looking at plastic surgery before-and-after pictures," Antell says. So while your DNA may be immutable, what you do with its blueprint is up to you. Here, the lifestyle changes that will help you save face.
Protect yourself from the sun. The experts agree: The sun is, hands down, your skin's worst enemy. Exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation causes the skin's support structures (collagen and elastin) to break down, accelerating the aging process. "There are many habits that can age the skin, but the sun really trumps everything else," says Nancy Silverberg, M.D., a dermatologist in Newport Beach, Calif. "And even if you've already done a lot of damage, it's never too late to start wearing sunscreen. Daily use has been shown to actually reverse a significant portion of sun damage." And, it's not enough just to wear it; you need to wear the right one.
"Look for sunscreens that contain ingredients such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and Parsol 1789 [also called avobenzone], which all partially block aging ultraviolet-A [UVA] rays," recommends Cherie Ditre, M.D., director of the Cosmetic Dermatology & Skin Enhancement Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, in Radnor. Best bet: Clinique Superdefense Triple Action Moisturizer SPF 25 ($40; clinique.com), which uses avobenzone to protect against UVA rays, and the ingredients octinoxate and oxybenzone to fend off burning UVB rays. It's available for oily, regular and dry skin.
Put out that cigarette. Smokers often end up with telltale lines around their lips (created by repeated lip puckering while inhaling), but the damage doesn't stop there. Silverberg points to a study of smokers that found they also were more likely than their nonsmoking counterparts to have significant lines around their eyes. Like sun exposure, smoking breaks down collagen and elastin, speeding up the rate at which skin sags and wrinkles. To help reduce the damage, try Estée Lauder Perfectionist Correcting Concentrate for Lip Lines ($35; esteelauder.com), which helps fill in wrinkles and keep lipstick in place.
Stop making faces. Think of your skin as being like the soft, fine leather of an expensive shoe. Just as the creases in the leather get deeper as you walk in the shoe, your skin reacts in a similar fashion to repeated facial expressions. "Years of constantly using those muscles causes the skin to get a crack, or wrinkle, in it," Antell explains. Botox is often used to soften expression lines (since it paralyzes the guilty muscle, you can no longer make the expression that's causing the wrinkle). A less expensive option: Break the habit. "You can learn not to make certain facial expressions, such as squinting or scowling," says New York City dermatologist Dennis Gross, M.D., author of Your Future Face (Viking, 2005). "Those are behavioral." Make a conscious effort to relax your face when you find yourself drawing your brows together or grimacing. Or apply a topical product to help relax the wrinkles; try Avon Anew Clinical Deep Crease Concentrate ($32; avon.com), which uses a patent-pending relaxant called portulaca, or Nuxe Crème Nirvanesque ($41; sephora.com), which uses the botanicals blue lotus, poppy and althea to help relax the contraction of facial muscles.
Control stress. The effect of stress on the body has been well documented: It can compromise the immune system and weaken your ability to fight off illness. Your skin suffers too. When your stress level goes up, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. More specifically: "Capillaries shrink, and blood flow to the skin decreases as the body redirects blood to the internal organs," your body's way of preparing to defend itself, Antell explains. In addition, chronic stress can increase tension lines on the face and, if it impairs your sleep, you risk a further speeding up of the aging process (see below). In addition to learning how to reduce the anxiety in your life, you can also apply skin-care products to help reinvigorate your complexion. Try Caudalíe Vinosource Riche Anti-Wrinkle Cream ($50; caudalie.com) with grapeseed extract to moisturize and protect against age-accelerating free radicals (highly reactive oxygen molecules created by smoking, pollution and sunlight that speed up the aging process); 3Lab Hydrating-Vita Cream with the powerful antioxidant coenzyme Q10 ($120; 3lab.com) and Biotherm Line Peel ($40; biotherm-usa.com), which increases the skin's natural cell turnover process.
Get your beauty sleep. When you look in the mirror after a sleepless night, you're getting a preview of how your face may look in a decade or so. Fine lines will appear deeper; slight under-eye bags will look puffier. "When people are sleep-deprived, they look older and more haggard, especially around the eyes," Alster says. During sleep your body repairs itself, and you get an increase in circulation to the face; without quality sleep, the face sags and shadows appear under the eyes. The good news: The effect can usually be reversed by going to bed earlier the next night and keeping your sleep schedule as regular as possible. Before bed, apply Therapy Systems Retinol Cellular Treatment Cream/PM ($68; therapysystemsinc.com) with retinol and glycolic acid to help repair and exfoliate skin; American Beauty Uplifting Firming Eye Cream ($22.50) and Beauty Boost Overnight Radiance Cream ($27; both at kohls.com), which moisturize and firm as you sleep; or Nivea Visage Q10 Advanced Wrinkle Reducer Night Crème ($11; at drugstores) with the antioxidant coenzyme Q10.
Feed your face. It's commonly said that you are what you eat, and it might also be true that your looks are a direct reflection of your diet. Antioxidants (especially vitamins C and E) may help boost the skin's power to fight free radicals. There's also some evidence that omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish like salmon) reduce inflammation and improve skin texture.
Equally important is what not to ingest: alcohol and sodium. Alcohol dilates capillaries and makes them more fragile (making your face look flushed, bruised or splotchy), and salt causes skin to retain water (think: swollen eyes and cheeks). Put the two together (in, say, a sushi dinner where you consume lots of soy sauce and sake) and you're going to wake up looking bloated. You can help feed your face topically with these editor's picks: IS Clinical Vitamin C Super Serum ($115; isclinical.com) with stabilized L-ascorbic acid, a potent topical vitamin C that works as a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, and Chanel Précision Hydramax + Sérum Intense Moisture Boost ($65; gloss.com), with vitamins B5, E and F to help protect against free radicals.
Believe in miracles. "We live in a golden age of ingredients," Gross says. "Even if you're genetically destined to have the same aging patterns as your mother, you have access to modern ingredients that can help build collagen, more effective sunscreens to protect against ultraviolet radiation and cosmetic procedures that can undo what you've inherited." He recommends consistently using modern "miracle" ingredients such as the antioxidant vitamins C and E, lycopene and green-tea extract (to fight free-radical damage), retinoids or genistein (to build collagen and elastin) and alpha- or beta-hydroxy acids (to speed skin cell turnover). Best product bets: Prevage Antioxidant Cream ($100; prevage.com) with idebenone, an ingredient that helps repair skin cells; Neutrogena Visibly Firm Lift Serum ($19; at drugstores), with concentrated active copper to restore firmness; L'Oréal Transformance Skin Perfecting Solution ($16.59; at drugstores), an oil-free serum with vitamin C to hydrate and protect; and CelGen Age Repair Moisture Solution ($45; stcbiotech.com), a toner that hydrates and promotes skin renewal.