Nearly a decade has passed since a dermatologist advised me to wash my face with Cetaphil cleanser because it was good for my dry skin. Turns out my fanatical devotion to this drugstore staple is one of the longest and most successful relationships I've ever had. It is also a stubborn (albeit cost-efficient) reminder of how resistant I am to change.
In spite of the passing years, or maybe because of them, skincare is the one area of my life that has remained unequivocally low-maintenance. I wash my face and use a moisturizer with SPF. That's it. Naturally, I've seen some changes when I look in the mirror. But whenever I spot them, I do what any self-respecting woman in denial would do: I remove the lightbulb in the bathroom and replace it with a lower wattage.
I'm not sure when exactly it happened, but one day it hit me: Those lines that I see on my face aren't going to go away. In fact, they're going to get deeper and more noticeable. And when I wake up in the mornings, the tic-tac-toe creases from my pillow take longer to disappear. I assumed it must be the linen. Then it occurred to me—it wasn't the quality of the sheets, it was the quality of my skin! Suddenly, a whole new world opened up. A world filled with words like firming and sagging, peptides and serums. And worst of them all—jowly. No woman should ever have to share a description used for an English bulldog.
It was impossible to avoid the truth. Every time I'd see Andie MacDowell in a commercial, I'd instinctively pay attention. I shunned the magnifying mirrors in hotel bathrooms—having decided to not see my face that close up again, ever. Confronting the truth meant facing the antiaging creams and lotions and serums and treatments that went with it. When I walked through department store skincare sections, it seemed as though I was wearing a sandwich board reading: Getting Older! It was a real test of my self-esteem. Every other question addressed my aging concerns as women with samples of creams called out to me and attempted to slather them on me as I passed by. By the time I reached the elevators, I felt like I resembled the Elephant Man.
So I had to ask myself why I was so resistant to all these treatments in the first place. It's not that I was afraid they wouldn't work. It's that I was afraid they would. Because then what? It was apparent that once I took that first step, it would be a commitment. And not just for the next few months, but for the rest of my life. What's more, I've never tried Botox, or lasers, or Restylane, or even chemical peels. I was an antiaging virgin. The most extreme thing I've had is a facial. Once. And I broke out afterward.
But people say change is good. And since my skin wasn't going to firm itself, I decided to test the waters of this antiaging universe. I had nothing to lose except lines and wrinkles.
I began with what seemed like a manageable and affordable option: Olay's Pro-X Intensive Firming Treatment, a mask and skin-tightening serum that work in tandem over five days. The mask—made of a flexible material that's saturated with moisturizer—stretched over the contours of my face and made me resemble Hannibal Lecter. I applied it before bed for about 15 minutes, let the cream soak in overnight, and in the morning noticed my skin was softer. The overachiever in me liked the idea of something productive happening while I was asleep. And by day four, my skin felt hydrated and more elastic. Ultimately, though, wearing the mask five nights in a row proved too much of a commitment (and lonely).
So I moved on to something that promised even speedier results: Peter Thomas Roth's Instant Firm. It doesn't get quicker than that. After applying a thin layer of the translucent gel to my face, I tried to remain "expressionless" for three to seven minutes, as the instructions say, while it dried. I attempted to watch the news on TV, but since I wasn't allowed to get angry, I had to turn it off. I ended up calling a friend who loves to talk, and I could feel my face being pulled and tightened. It was easy to remain motionless while I listened to her—interjecting every few seconds with "huh" and "really" until eventually the seven minutes had passed. Once I rinsed off the mask, my forehead looked as smooth as an ice-skating rink. Instant, indeed, and the firming lasted for most of the day, but by dinner, back to normal. A minor setback.
With a taste of what these potions were capable of, I sought out longer-lasting results, promised mostly, it seemed, by treatments that not only cost more but required a bioengineering degree to decipher their ingredients (platinum heptapeptide? Mamaku essence?). As I sat there reading through the colossal list of components, I could feel myself getting older by the second. I figured out that the best approach to determining what works was based on tactile things I understood: how it felt and how it smelled.
In my search, two products stood out. The first was Estée Lauder's Re-Nutriv Ultimate Lift Age-Correcting Crème. I was apprehensive about the cost ($250). However, after using it for two solid weeks, my skin looked better and I'd barely dipped into the pot; it's so rich that I only needed tiny dabs. Also, it smelled euphoric. I've been opening up the jar several times a day just to sniff it. A friend asked me to describe it, and, unable to place the scent, I told her, "It smells like youth."
I also fell for Sislea Global Firming Serum with botanical extracts like dill—an herb that worked as well on my jawline as it does on my poached salmon. Aside from how much I enjoyed the fresh scent, the texture was light and silky on my skin, making me want to pile it on every morning.
As I waited for my new investments to go to town on my slumping skin, I considered stepping things up with a visit to a cosmetic doctor's office. (Apparently, I'm the last woman in Manhattan without one on speed dial.) Among the latest no-knife firming procedures are Ulthera, which uses ultrasound for tightening and lifting lax skin, and Pelleve, a radio-frequency treatment new to the U.S. but already popular in Europe and Japan. This, along with the fact that Pelleve requires no anesthesia and no recovery time, sparked my interest.
It turns out Pelleve uses radio-frequency technology to precisely heat deep layers of the skin and painlessly tighten the tissue and stimulate the growth of collagen—all within six weeks. "An analogy would be if you have a balloon filled with air and the balloon starts to deflate," explained Dr. Philip Miller, a board-certified facial plastic surgeon in Manhattan. "You can only inflate a wrinkled balloon so much with fillers, or you can contract and tighten the skin—which is what Pelleve does." Treatments are recommended every six months, and prices range from $500 (eyes) to $1,500 (full face) per session. Depending on how much work is needed, one or two sessions (with a few weeks between visits) will suffice.
A commitment, in every sense. And after thinking it through, my hang-ups with cosmetic procedures trumped my hang-ups with my lines and sagging, and characteristically, I was too nervous to try it.
But Melissa, a friend who is far more adventurous and fearless when it comes to skin treatments, volunteered. A few days later, she went to see Miller. He performed the procedure by putting a cool gel on her face, and then for 45 minutes, Miller moved a metal wand-like instrument (which transmits the radio-frequency waves) back and forth over her lines, ironing them out. She emerged from the "painless" session refreshed and optimistic. "It was like having the warmth of the sun on my face," enthused Melissa. "My skin felt a little tingly and pulled, but I saw an instant improvement."
Tempting. But while I was thrilled that the treatment had worked so well for my friend, I still wasn't ready to go for it. Instead, I'm sticking with the age-defying creams that can be used in the privacy of my home. Will the results sustain? I'll let you know in 10 years. But in the meantime, I feel good knowing I've deviated from my old routine and am doing something different: shaking it up on the inside and firming it up on the outside.
Ariel Leve is a London- and New York-based writer with The Sunday Times Magazine. Her latest book, It Could Be Worse, You Could Be Me, was published in the U.S. earlier this year.