Ignore cosmetic puff, but do use sunscreen

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Some youthful-looking stars seem to defy gravity and nature's aging processes. Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler and Diane Keaton all turned 50 while filming "The First Wives' Club."

Add to that comely list: Cher, Barbra Streisand, Raquel Welch and Jane Fonda, all over 50, and you have a batch of youthful, attractive middle-aged women.

Personal trainers and repeated cosmetic surgeries aside, are there things mere mortal women can do to improve their looks and stay attractive as they age? You bet.

Take skin care. Laser surgery and chemical peels are always options, but there are plenty of topical products to try first.

Moisturizer and cleanser ingredients such as AHAs, tretinoin, collagen and liposomes sound like compounds only chemists understand. Do they work? Some actually do. Others are more appropriate to science fiction than science.

Alpha hydroxy acids work on the premise that exfoliating skin stimulates cell renewal, repairs sun damage and clarifies texture. AHAs work, according to most doctors. They remove the top layer of the skin and plump up collagen, making skin appear smoother. The nub is the concentration of AHAs in your moisturizer. Those containing 5 percent to 14 percent AHAs can produce visible improvement quickly.

But many manufacturers don't list the amount in their product. In fact, some less expensive moisturizers from drugstores work better than the expensive, department-store varieties.

Tretinoin is a prescription drug concocted to combat acne. Recently, though, it received the Federal Drug Administration's approval for sun-damage repair and is impressive in clearing surface discolorations. Both AHAs and tretinoin can temporarily irritate sensitive skin, so it's wise to begin with small amounts.

Topical skin care products containing collagen don't deliver because collagen molecules are too large to penetrate the epidermis. Collagen injections from a dermatologist may smooth wrinkles, however. Liposomes likely won't deliver anti-aging ingredients deeply into the skin, as is often promised, since they're easily damaged from processing heat.

The key to sifting through skin care products? Read labels carefully. Use common sense. If a moisturizer claims to hydrate undereye puffiness, think twice. Liquid accumulation is how the puffiness began in the first place. Carefully scour labels for information that relates to your own skin.

Most important, use sunscreen. The sun contributes to 80 percent of wrinkles and skin damage.

Make sure products come with money-back guarantees so you can try them out at home and return them if they don't deliver.

Hair loss is another problem women face as they age. What to do? Talk to your doctor about products such as Rogain (recently available over the counter) that are designed to help hair grow.

Find a good hairdresser who's familiar with contemporary styles and shampoos and conditioners older women should use. Perms can add body and bounce to thin, lifeless hair, and coloring is a plus if you want to cover gray or add highlights. As a hidden bonus, coloring also adds body.

Women should wear makeup as they age, as long as it's applied with a light hand. Too much foundation and powder can make skin drier and appear caked into wrinkles. Be sure to moisturize before applying makeup — it helps keep the face dewy-fresh.

A woman's fashion sense and clothing style reflects her personality and taste; that shouldn't change as she gets older. By the time a woman reaches 40, she probably knows what does and doesn't look good on her.

Classic casual clothing makes any woman appear youthful and elegant. Timeless pieces (khakis, button-down blouses, cardigans, well-fitting T-shirts) are great.

For formal occasions, the rules remain the same for women of all ages: Dress to flatter your good features and downplay others.