Members of different generations often have very different attitudes to skincare. They might view the whole subject through a lens that just doesn’t occur to their younger or older counterparts. In addition, they have different needs and their priorities change as they age. While there are some universals in skin health, there are also major variations based on age and the lifestyle and cultural factors associated with each major generation. So if you’ll forgive us for generalizing, we’ll start with Generation Z and ask: what does each generation need? How do they view healthcare? And what should they be doing to look after their skin?
Generation Z (1995–2010)
The youngest generation, Generation Z is also the soberest, and most interested in self-care (though it was millennials who invented the phrase). Uninterested in gender labeling, Generation Z is drawn to ethically-sourced and sustainable products, and interested in natural ingredients. The trend toward a naturalistic approach to beauty reaches its peak in Generation Z.
Moreover, that ‘natural’ attitude means Generation Z are more interested than previous generations in learning how to properly take care of their skin. That includes managing their skin biome properly, rather than relying on harsh chemical cleansers and heavy cosmetics.
What’s a skin biome?
A biome is the living ecology of a thing. Everyone’s skin hosts microbes, and they’re vital to good skin health. (Of course, skin is alive too!) Killing all the bacteria on your skin doesn’t keep you safe from infection, it makes it more likely that hostile microbes will move into the ‘biome desert’ you’ve created. This is all a little too touchy-feely for older generations, maybe, but Generation Z are all ears!
What should Generation Z do to look after their skin?
Generation Z are more likely to individualize skincare routines, meaning they’re unlikely to be using inappropriate products. And they have the most ‘skin capital’ — this is the youngest generation, with the best, healthiest skin. They’re also the most amenable to learning about how skincare really works. These are the people you can talk to about maintaining their acid mantle, and helping to build out a skincare routine that’s based on real expertise.
Millennials are the heaviest buyers of skincare and cosmetics. It’s teens behind the latest Tik-Tok trends in cosmetics, but out of the limelight, Millennials are quietly buying up toners, moisturizers, and sun protection in unprecedented quantities. They’re the first generation to grow up knowing the full effects of smoking, drinking, and sun exposure, and they’ve taken those lessons to heart. They’re also old enough to care, but young enough to still be working on keeping their youth rather than aging gracefully. So paradoxically, they may be more interested in more aggressive interventions like fillers than Generation X; meanwhile their appearance goals are typically more natural and they’re less likely to be looking into what they consider plastic surgery.
However, for millennials, it’s not all good news. Tanning has always been popular among millennials and up to 37% do not realize that tanning can increase the risk of skin cancer.
How can inappropriate skincare products damage the skin?
Skin has a delicate pH balance that suits the microorganisms that naturally live on it, and the physical structures it’s made of. The occasional mask won’t hurt, but products designed to cause major sudden changes, including harsh cleansers and exfoliators, can damage this balance. Even moisturizers can lead to trouble if they don’t suit your skin type; the oils they’re made from aren’t all created equal and some are a poor match with some people’s skin. When in doubt, it’s best to consult a professional.
What should Millennials do to look after their skin?
Millennials often don’t need to be told that they need a skincare routine: they often already have one. Male millennials belong to the generation that normalized skincare for men; female millennials can discuss serums and facial masks, not just moisturizers. So rather than just trying to get them to wear SPF at all, it’s often useful to consult with them about what they’re using and when. Adding or even subtracting just the right ingredient from skincare routines can help keep skin looking better longer. Oh, and get them to drop the tanning salon too!
Generation X (1965–1980)
Generation X already spends significant sums on skincare and cosmetic procedures. Partly that’s about age: someone born in 1975 is likely to want to remain looking youthful, even if that’s a youthful 47. They’re also the first generation in which it was normal to retain interest in elements of youth culture and pursuits into adulthood and middle age. These are the people who want to look their best for the REM reunion tour (no, it’s still not happening, sorry; but you can’t blame people for hoping…)
If Generation X have different expectations they also have different issues. Typically raised in a period where parents sought to minimize excessive sun exposure, Generation X were the peak generation of drinkers, smokers, and recreational drug users, and both those effects are visible in their skin. This generation is likely to have superficial wrinkles and some loss of facial volume, some skin loosening, but are less likely than boomers to have significant volume loss from aging. They’re also less likely to have pigmentation issues, which usually result from sun damage.
As a result, Generation X is more likely to want to use non-filler options, though they’re significantly interested in Botox and similar treatments.
Why does sun protection matter so much?
Sun damage is one of the leading causes of visible skin aging. UV light from the sun is ionizing radiation: it knocks electrons out of atoms and turns them into ions. When that happens in your skin it leads to poorer skin quality including wrinkles, pigmentation abnormalities and thinner, more vulnerable skin. Even getting a single sunburn can measurably increase your risk of getting skin cancer, too.
Getting some sunlight on your skin is important, but you should seek to combine barriers like clothes and hats with UV-protective sunscreen to keep your skin safe.
What should Generation X do to look after their skin?
Generation X are still at an age where prevention is the priority for most. So more invasive procedures might include microneedling and laser therapy on mottled skin, but for many, it’s a question of building real skin care routines, not just cosmetics. This means at a minimum cleanser, toner and moisturizer. In addition, many Generation X members still have relatively little wrinkling, meaning they stand to benefit from Botox and similar treatments that reduce the appearance of lines before they even become visible.
Baby Boomers (1946–1964)
Baby boomers have different skincare concerns than younger generations, because they’re often already carrying some damage. The typical baby-boomer has similar issues to Generation X, but more advanced. In addition, this is the generation that grew up before modern knowledge about skin aging became widespread. Boomers are more likely to be current or ex-smokers, to have had significant sun exposure, and to have used harsher soaps and cleansers when younger. So we have two jobs: address some of the issues that are already there, and stabilize tissues which may be damaged or degrading.
Clients are likely to view addressing their existing issues as more urgent. Clinicians obviously have to take account of that. But we should also seek to guide our clients to an understanding of the benefits of addressing basic skincare quality. Issues like skin barrier homeostasis and wound healing are vital even if they don’t top clients’ to-do lists. When baby boomers who come to us for help, it’s up to us to show them how to take care of their skin long-term, not just fix specific issues today.
Boomers may have subdermal issues at a greater rate than younger generations, but their goals may also be different. Interventions are most effective when they appear natural, so boomers are likely to be interested in tightening procedures at jaw and brow, as well as loss of volume in cheeks and around eyes. Hyaluronic acid treatments can be used to address volume loss and skin tautness simultaneously. Botox-like treatments can be used to address some superficial skin issues but this must be done conservatively to avoid creating an ‘island effect’ of smooth skin surrounded by older-looking skin, or a generally unnatural appearance.
How does smoking affect your skin?
Smoking causes skin problems in several ways. Nicotine is a vasoconstrictor that narrows blood vessels, while smoke inhalation increases blood CO2 levels. Taken together that means less oxygen is delivered to extremities, including the skin. There are other dangerous chemicals in smoke too, and these tend to cause skin to become less elastic. The result can be characteristic crows-feet and wrinkles around the mouth.
What should Baby Boomers do to look after their skin?
Boomers should address and establish basic skin condition first. That means finding a relatively mild cleansing milk or total cleanser, as well as products that improve skin elasticity and quality, including fatty acids and vitamins. These can be ‘beauty-shop’ products, but they probably need to be specialized for thinner, less elastic and more vulnerable skin. Boomers may also need education about the effects of dietary and lifestyle choices that younger generations have already internalized. Quitting smoking can have a significant effect on skin quality quite quickly, even in an older person, for instance.
The silent generation (1928-1945)
The silent generation is often quite traditional, brought up during the great upheavals of the early part of the last century. They’re a small generation and often seen as having lived in the shadow of their War- and Depression-era parents.
What about their skin? The silent generation are in their seventies and older, so they face similar problems to the greatest generation in terms of basic skin quality. But, younger than the greatest generation, the silent generation may be more interested in addressing their skincare problems. That can be great — or it can lead to problems if they’re not guided by a knowledgeable clinician. One of the big problems faced by the silent generation is adverse reactions to combinations of prescription drugs for long-term problems like hypertension.
How can medications adversely affect the skin?
Most medications have side effects. Often these include drying the skin or stimulating excess oil production, as well as skin thinning. Diuretics and statins, both commonly prescribed for heart problems, can be particularly drying. Since these medications are often necessary and long-term, people need help managing their side effects symptomatically.
How should the silent generation take care of their skin?
People will be tempted to look for dramatic solutions, but it’s more sensible to consider more conservative and holistic approaches first. Rehydration solutions and drinking more water can have positive effects; so can introducing silent generation clients to the benefits of day and night moisturizers. Invasive therapies should be approached with caution so as not to damage the skin further — even fairly mild treatments like Retin-A, very popular for addressing sun damage, can dry out already-parched skin further and do more harm than good.
The greatest generation (1901-1927)
The greatest generation lived through the Great Depression and World War II. The youngest of them are now 95, meaning most invasive procedures are ruled out. But just because you’re 95 doesn’t mean you don’t care about how you look — and skincare goes way beyond looks anyway.
Older people with frailer skin can be at risk of skin tears, which can then become sites of secondary infections. Keeping skin healthy is a significant part of general health. And of course, people still want to recognize themselves in the mirror and feel like themselves, just an older version of themselves. Greatest generation men are still shaving, greatest generation women are still wearing makeup. Many of the greatest generation suffered periods of poor nutrition in youth and childhood, and that can have significant effects on skin. Some don’t eat well now or haven’t kept themselves informed about changing nutritional knowledge.
How does poor nutrition affect your skin?
Skin is made of collagen and proteins. With too little collagen and protein in the diet, there’s a risk that skin will grow and recover more slowly, meaning scarring will be worse and the skin will be thinner, less resilient and more prone to wrinkles. At the same time, vitamin C protects collagen in the body — including the skin. Without enough vitamin C, skin can begin to break down. Old wounds can reopen, and skin quality can deteriorate.
How should the greatest generation be taking care of their skin?
Skin health should be a priority. That has to start with diet, including more vitamin C and water than a lot of older people realize they need. But it can also include skincare products. Many of the greatest generation established their expectations and care routines in times of scarcity, and may be using harsh soaps and ineffective moisturizers. Gentler cleansers and moisturizers with vitamin E and C for skin health can have rapid, impressive effects on skin quality — which can equate to improved quality of life.
Different generations have different priorities, needs, and pre-existing issues. They need different interventions and different advice from their skincare professionals. We should remember, too, that some clients will lie outside the norm for their generation. We might see baby boomers with great skin or millennials with significant damage. But the message of a diet rich in leafy green vegetables, basic cleansing and moisturizer, and sun protection, is universal.