Every new skincare product is like a small, carefully packaged container of hope. Will it rid you of wrinkles or dark spots? Will it zap your acne? Depending on the product, it could very well address these issues and effectively, but how long it will take to see those results is a different story.
“When you think about the skin cycle, imagine an escalator,” says Dr. Julia Carroll, director of Compass Dermatology and lecturer at the University of Toronto. “Your skin starts at the bottom where it’s always replenishing, and it works its way up to the top where it falls off. That cycle lasts anywhere from four to six weeks, so you have to look at any skincare routine in terms of immediate effect and long-term effect.”
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It also depends on whether you’re using over-the-counter products or prescription ones, says Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, director of Toronto’s Bay Dermatology Centre. The latter will always be more effective and produce faster results.
We broke down skincare products into moisturizers, serums, cleansers and masks, and examined how long it would take for each individual product to have an effect on fine lines, hyperpigmentation, dark circles, dry skin and acne.
Depending on what you’re hoping to get out of your moisturizer, it could produce immediate (and pleasing) effects or it could do nothing at all.
“A lot of moisturizers have ingredients in them that will fill in the peaks and valleys in the skin, like hyaluronic acid, and you’ll see an improvement right away, but it will be short-lived,” Carroll says.
Of course, you’ll never be able to get rid of wrinkles by using a topical product, but Carroll points out that many of the latest moisturizers include ceramides, which are naturally occurring lipids in our skin. They improve the skin barrier, so they would help with issues of dryness and smoothness. Results can be seen in as little as a week and they’ll extend over the course of your natural skin cycle.
Look for ingredients in your moisturizer like retinol and vitamin C, which have the best science behind them in diminishing the appearance of fine lines, Skotnicki says. Using a product with one or both of these ingredients will yield results anywhere from several weeks to months after starting to use it. But continual use is necessary.
There’s little that an over-the-counter moisturizer will do to address hyperpigmentation or Rosacea, but if you’re using a prescription cream, which will usually be caffeine-based to help with the restriction of blood vessels, you’ll start to see improvement in as little as two to three days, Skotnicki says.
For a minor acne inflammation, an over-the-counter product with benzoyl peroxide in it will take effect in a couple of days; a prescription medication will likely take care of it in one application.
Dark circles, however, are a much more difficult issue to tackle.
“Nothing works topically for dark circles,” Skotnicki says. “There’s actually little that we understand about what causes them. There are creams with vitamin K that are supposed to help, but your best course of action is to use a camouflaging product that has mica in it to reflect light away from the area.”
Serums are a lot like moisturizers in that they contain active ingredients, but they mostly produce long-term results.
“If you’re using a serum with alpha hydroxy acid or vitamin C, it’s going to take longer to work because they’re active ingredients that will change the structure and function of your skin,” Carroll says.
So, if you’re using this kind of serum to improve skin smoothness, diminish fine lines, repair dryness or address dark spots, give it at least four to six weeks to see results.
Carroll says the real hero ingredient to look for is vitamin C, since along with all the aforementioned benefits it confers, it also helps repair sun damage, and its effects are both immediate and long-lasting.
“It acts like a mop that cleans up some of the damage from the UV rays that can get through your sunscreen. You’ll see results right away but if you use it regularly, in one to two years, when you compare your skin to someone who didn’t use it, your skin will look healthier.”
Contrary to popular belief, a serum can be a crucial component of an acne-fighting skincare routine. Because some people perceive serums to be oily, they may be inclined to skip using one if they’re acne-prone, but regular use of a serum with salicylic or glycolic acid may even treat pimples before they surface. In essence, they could have a preemptive effect.
Here’s the thing about cleansers: they won’t have much of an effect on any particular skin issues, but using the wrong one could create a host of problems.
“Switching to a proper, more gentle cleanser without irritating botanical ingredients will yield a noticeable improvement in the texture and appearance of your skin in one to two weeks,” Carroll says. “Cleanser is not magic — it won’t wash your acne away, for example. You want to use a gentle cleanser, but it won’t do any of the heavy lifting in terms of improving your skin.”
No matter what you’re using a mask for, you will without a doubt see an immediate improvement in the tone and texture of your skin after one use.
“As a tool, a mask is formulated to take off the stratum corneum of the skin and it will clamp down on your pores,” Skotnicki says. “Any mask will do that and create an instant effect.”
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But it can also work long-term. Using a mask once a week with an active ingredient, like salicylic acid for acne, will result in noticeable skin improvement in six weeks, Carroll says.
“Masks are like serum-meets-moisturizer, so if you use it on a regular basis, you’ll find that the texture of your skin will improve and your pores will shrink after a few months of use.”
When it comes to hyperpigmentation, however, that requires something stronger like a glycolic, beta or lactic acid peel, which you can do in a dermatologist’s office or at home.
“You’ll see an improvement in your skin after several uses,” Skotnicki says. “A peel will decrease the melanin that causes hyperpigmentation, but it will take a few weeks to see improvement.”
As for any concerns about your skin becoming too accustomed to a product and therefore no longer reaping the benefits of it, that’s a huge misconception.
“We call that tachyphylaxis in the medical world, but it’s not true when it comes to skincare,” Carroll says. “It might be that when you first start a new skincare routine, you’re really diligent about it and see impressive and immediate results, but after time, you stop being so diligent and you think it has stopped working. But that’s not true. By keeping up a skincare routine you’ll see results and continued use will maintain those changes going forward.”
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