How Beauty Ideals Evolved from Anti-Aging to Successful Aging in a Single Generation

Boomer women began their adult lives being told never to look old—now, many have embraced aging well. What changed?
By Marci Robin
September 01, 2021

"This is where a wrinkle could start." It is 1981: A barely 30-year-old Lynda Carter, famous for her role as TV's Wonder Woman, is staring into the camera, pointing to the corner of her eye, imploring her fellow Baby Boomers to use Maybelline's Moisture Whip just like she does. "I do more than moisturize my face. I protect it," she explains. Even superheroes need a shield against wrinkles, the ad seems to shout.

Few have seen the aging landscape change more than Boomers, those currently between the ages of 57 and 75. They were born into an era when Clairol was asking, "Does she or doesn't she?" about gray hair coverage, as if choosing to use dye was scandalous and being seen with silver strands even more so. These consumers knew they didn't want to look like their grandmothers, but had no legitimate conception of what it meant to "age well."

This lack of information led to a deleterious mistake: In an effort to look their best—read: their tannest—without the abundance of self-tanner options that exist today (the active ingredient, dihydroxyacetone, wasn't approved by the FDA until 1977), some Boomer women not only made a habit of laying out in the sun without sunscreen, they also slathered on oil, in hopes of maximizing their UV ray exposure. Little did they know, the method used to achieve the "perfect" tan was self-sabotage.

They understand now, but the dawn of science-backed skin care wouldn't break until decades later, in the late '90s and early 2000s. According to Paula's Choice founder and Boomer Paula Begoun, our understanding of skin physiology was practically nonexistent in the decades prior; it wasn't even close to the data that we have today. "You can compare it to a rotary-dial telephone and your cell phone," she says.

Quote card ("The 'anti-aging' products marketing to women over the age of 40 back in the '70s and '80s were ineffective and full of empty promises") next to close up beauty cream
Credit: Florian Sommet / Trunk Archive

It's no surprise, then, that the "anti-aging" products marketed to women over the age of 40 back in the '70s and '80s were ineffective and full of empty promises, according to Dr. Lara Devgan, MD, MPH, FACS, a board-certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon in New York City. "In reality, there is no product that can erase 10 to 20 years of aging, sun damage, and external factors," she says. 

Close up of green beauty cream next to quote ("The ingredients we now know to be the most effective in fighting fine lines and photodamage weren't identified by researchers until decades later.")
Credit: Betina du Toit / Trunk Archive

"Back then, the best thing that skin care could do was moisturize," adds BeautyStat founder Ron Robinson, who began his career as a cosmetic chemist over 30 years ago with Clinique. The standard moisturizing ingredients used over the last five decades, including lanolin, glycerin, fatty acids, and mineral and plant oils, could never have lived up to the lofty anti-aging claims made by the cosmetic companies of the age, Begoun says. Factor in chemistry limitations and the products Boomers grew up with would be laughed off the shelves today.

Come the early '60s, Germaine Monteil claimed that its Super-Royal Cream was "nature's most mysterious gift to beauty"—probably because its efficacy was a mystery; during the '70s, Coty's Equasion line was said to "restore your skin's balance so skin looks younger," supposedly thanks to peach kernel oil; and in the 1980s, that famous pink bottle of Oil of Olay suggested it could do for your complexion with unlisted ingredients what today's more sophisticated, ingredient-focused formulas can actually do.

conceptual white waves graphic next to close up of cactus
Credit: Getty Images; Fernando Gomez / Trunk Archive

The ingredients we now know to be the most effective in fighting fine lines and photodamage—namely retinol, vitamin C, and hyaluronic acid—weren't identified by researchers until decades later. "Dr. Sheldon Pannell, the founder of SkinCeuticals, is considered the father of vitamin C and topical antioxidants," says Dr. Corey L. Hartman, the founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama. This game-changing work, he says, didn't happen until the 1990s, after Dr. Pannell's 30-plus year career at Duke University, where he discovered the mechanisms of photoaging and developed a stable formula. And even then, his now dermatologist-favored skin care brand wasn't widely distributed until the new century, in 2005, notes Dr. Mona Gohara, Associate Clinical Professor of Dermatology Yale School of Medicine. Similarly, retinoic acid, she says, was discovered in 1971 for the treatment of acne—but "it was not until the '80s that it became part of the anti-aging lines." Alpha hydroxy, glycolic, and lactic acids were close behind, adds Robinson.

The resulting product arsenals (and the many campaign strategies constructed around them), however, were decidedly white-centric; Black and Brown women had no way of knowing if these new-age formulas would support melanin-rich skin. According to Dr. Hartman, topical antioxidants, including vitamin C, were not advertised to people of color when they hit the market, despite the fact that they were both "corrective and preventative" for hyperpigmentation, a condition that impacts deeper skin tones. He adds that we are—just now—rounding the corner on inclusivity in this sector. "By including more BIPOC at the decision-making tables and on marketing teams, the industry is finally starting to reflect the general population and fulfill the desires of the people."

pull quote from dr cory hartman ("By including more BIPOC at the decision-making tables and on marketing teams, the industry is finally starting to reflect the general population and fulfill the desires of the people")

The same can be said of injectables and fillers: Women of color, notes Dr. Hartman, were excluded from their clinical trials (Botox was approved by the FDA in 1989). "There was a false narrative that Black and Brown women weren't interested in these treatments, when the reality was that they weren't marketed to or educated on how these products could benefit them," he continues. "In essence, no one was speaking to them or addressing their specific aging patterns based upon ethnic variation."

This was one of many problems that arose as injectable and ingredient science came to the forefront of skin care and marketing: Simultaneously, as the eldest Boomers entered their 40s, they were told to fear and fight looking old. The term "anti-aging" appeared on every jar, in every ad. This anxiety spilled into pop culture: Every other joke at Blanche's expense on The Golden Girls—a sitcom about women who would be Boomers if the show took place today—stemmed from her staunch denial that she was growing older. Aging abashment was reaching full steam, seemingly in lockstep with the promises of progress.

"I think the anti-aging urgency in the 1980s and 1990s had a lot to do with the general shift to [this scientific] discourse to sell skin care and cosmetics—and the fact that Boomers were beginning to age and becoming the primary market," says Dr. Stephanie Sadre-Orafai, associate professor in the University of Cincinnati's Department of Anthropology.

To say that aging anxiety dissipated in the new millennium would be to lie: The desire to remain young-looking is as prevalent and marketable as ever. The surge in advanced in-office treatments at dermatologists' and plastic surgeons' offices is both a symptom of and a solution to this phenomenon. "The current trend in minimally invasive procedures is facial optimization, a unique combination of Botox and fillers," notes Dr. Devgan.

Dr. Hartman says that the majority of his patients want to age gracefully, but not necessarily naturally. "They understand the technological breakthroughs that we have made and appreciate the value in utilizing this knowledge to mature as the best version of themselves," he says, naming laser resurfacing, radiofrequency microneedling, and biostimulatory fillers like poly-L-lactic acid (known by the brand name Sculptra) as some of the most popular remedies for concerns like sagging skin, loss of volume, pigment changes, and texture abnormalities. "No one is really seeking to be other than their personal best and thankfully, our toolboxes have expanded to allow for that to happen."

close up of pink beauty cream
zen garden raked sand
Left: Credit: Fernando Gomez / Trunk Archive
Right: Credit: kikkerdirk / Getty Images

Openness about such procedures has also risen—and the reason for this, says Dr. David Shafer, MD, FACS, a double-board certified plastic surgeon in New York City, is twofold. First, there was the advent of less invasive procedures, like filler and laser, which served as "gateways" to surgical interventions, like facelifts. Then came the Internet: "The social media explosion exponentially exposed people to information, pictures, reviews, and behind-the-scenes views of patients' lives," he says. "While we used to refer to someone's 'beauty secrets,' now people are online demonstrating and exposing those secrets for everyone to see. Women (and increasingly men, too) are now talking openly about what they have 'done' or what to do and are interested in the latest technology and newest procedures."

tan beauty cream smear close up
holding hands beige background
Left: Credit: Jenna Gang / Gallery Stock
Right: Credit: Dylan Cauchon / Getty Images

As popular as innovative products and procedures have become, Boomers' outward attitudes towards aging have also gotten a makeover. Little has made that clearer than the enthusiastic embracing of gray hair, especially from their millennial and Gen-Z counterparts. Mel Kobayashi of Bag and a Beret, an over-50 style and beauty influencer who has garnered nearly 45,000 Instagram followers, believes the "grow-gray movement" was kickstarted in the mid-2010s by the blog Advanced Style, run by New York street style photographer Ari Seth Cohen. "He showcased the dazzling style of enigmatic women over 60," she notes. "Now, it's becoming cool to be old and it's not uncommon to see gray hair on runways and in major ad campaigns."

Moreover, "anti-aging" language has been removed from a myriad of brand mission statements, product labels, and magazines. Olay's modern formulas—originally circulated in the 1980s with the message, "I intend to fight aging every step of the way"—now fall under the "Regenerist" line, a term that celebrates renewal, not reversal. In 2007, Dove launched a "Pro Age" skin care initiative—and a decade later, in 2017, Allure officially dropped the use of the term on its pages and website.

Boomers are now embracing aging in a more holistic way, and making decisions based on science. "They want a comprehensive approach, including advice on lifestyle, diet, skin care, procedures, and at home devices," says Dr. Gohara. This overarching lifestyle shift, notes Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali, Martha Stewart's go-to board-certified dermatologist, is the ultimate complement to cosmetic treatments. After all, embracing wellness and prioritizing healthy habits, which range from regular exercise to nourishing nutrition plans, are key parts of healthfully and mindfully growing older, he says.

Some of this change in attitude can be attributed to celebrity Boomers, who are embracing the march of time—and creating (or endorsing) products that they say are helping them age well. Consider Martha's upcoming launch of her highly anticipated skin care line 86 Elm, developed in partnership with Dr. Bhanusali. The line was announced on the heels of her viral Instagram pool selfie, which garnered nearly 250,000 likes; many of the 12,000 comments came from users asking Martha to reveal her skin care routine.

matha stewart beauty aging quote

And then there are L'Oréal' Paris' A-list brand ambassadors—including Kate Winslet, Viola Davis, Eva Longoria, Diane Keaton, and Helen Mirren—who fall between the ages of 45 and 76. "It is very important to us that our spokespeople reflect our consumers," says Maude Brunschwig, the brand's Senior Vice President Marketing & Communication. "This type of recognition can forge a sincere connection."

Yes, a better balance has been struck in Boomers' approach to aging, but Begoun points out that there are roughly 78 million Americans who fall under this demographic. Inevitably, consumer and brand opinions and attitudes differ. "Some of us want to fight aging every step of the way," Begoun says. "Others are choosing the attitude of 'damn the wrinkles—full speed ahead!' But there's also every approach in between those disparate convictions," she adds, suggesting two main reasons for the spectrum: Boomers are living longer and have more options to do something about how they age. Somewhere in the middle of this continuum is the pro-aging movement, where proactive intervention, holistic wellness, and acceptance converge. It has many names and iterations, but it certainly isn't anti. "I don't like the word 'anti-aging,'" Martha once said. "I say successful aging."

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