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The skin care craze has hit tweens. But what is actually worth it?

Dobrila Vignjevic/iStockphoto/Getty Images

Tweens and young teens aren’t always clumsily playing with what is in their parent’s makeup bag anymore — they are on a mission.

With a collective sigh of frustration over stores run amuck, adults on social media are now calling beauty obsessed pre-adolescents “Sephora kids.” As young as 9, you can find them hunting through cosmetic store aisles or posting their multistep skin care routine online, said Dr. Jodi Ganz, a dermatologist based in Atlanta, Georgia.

“I can’t even imagine all the things I had to worry about in school and then having like a 17-step skin care routine,” said Dr. Rahma Hida, an attending pediatric psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

But this latest craze for products promising perfect skin poses two big potential problems when kids are involved: First, people often waste a lot of money on pricey formulations that don’t offer benefits to young skin. And once applied, the active ingredients contained in those beautifully packages creams and serums might do more harm than good, said Javon Ford, a cosmetic chemist based in Los Angeles.

“We’ve now actually started to see 9- to 13-year-olds in the office for cosmetic consultations on a somewhat regular basis,” said Dr. Jessica Weiser, a dermatologist based in New York.

Their families are bringing them in because the conversations at home about how unnecessary it is for them to spend sometimes thousands of dollars on products are falling flat, Weiser said. And their skin has begun to show the ramifications.

Threats to the tween skin barrier

Kids are often finding these products on social media when an influencer raves about the changes their skin has undergone, but they don’t realize the person they’re watching on a screen is speaking to an older audience, Ford said.

Ingredients like retinols, exfoliating acids and vitamin C may be part of an adult’s regimen, but for kids it can be damaging to the skin barrier, Ford said.

“The skin barrier when you’re 9 years old is not a fully formed skin barrier. It’s not meant to handle those kinds of ingredients,” Weiser said. “Collagen and elastin are robust in (kids’ skin), so they don’t need those things .”
Kids may also develop allergies to these substances, but if they have multistep routines, it can be hard to weed out which product is causing the problem, Ganz said.

“Some of these kids are coming in with acne, some of them are coming in with redness and dryness and irritation and because the parents feel like they just don’t have the authority to say, this is bad for you,” Weiser said.

To judge whether products might be too harsh for your prepubescent kid, look for words like antiaging, tightening, wrinkle-reducing, brightening and firming, all of which may be signs of active ingredients not meant for young kids, Weiser said.

What tweens and teens actually need for their skin

It’s great that younger people are interested in caring for their skin, but doing so is simpler than they may think, Ganz said.

A good routine for tweens who have not yet gone through puberty usually includes a gentle cleanser, a lightweight moisturizer and sunscreen, she said.

“That’s really all you need at that age,” Weiser said,

A dermatologist may add in a more serious cleanser or topical product if a tween or teen is prone to breakouts, but otherwise, it is important to focus on removing sweat and oil build up from the day with a cleanser at night, a moisturizer to nourish the skin overnight, and a protectant SPF during the day, she said.

And you don’t have to shell out a lot of money to get good results — there are plenty of brands at drugstores that can do the job without stripping or drying young skin, Weiser said.

A word about ‘prevention’

In many cases, young people are purposely seeking out anti-aging products because they’ve been misinformed about how the ingredients work.


“You don’t understand!” your teen may say. “I need this to prevent problems in my skin in the future.”

That may not be the case, Ford said.

It’s hard to study how much using anti-aging products earlier prevents signs like wrinkles and fine lines, so there isn’t a body of research pointing to benefits of starting early, he said.

When it comes to products marketed as anti-aging, like retinol, there isn’t usually one perfect age to start. Everyone’s skin is different, and the time to start treating aging is whenever that person’s skin shows visible signs of fine lines and wrinkles, Weiser said.

“ The most preventive skin care product that anyone can use is sunscreen,” she added. “Sunscreen is going to help prevent UVA and UVB damage to the skin which are the two most important and influential factors in the aging process.”

How to talk to tweens about skin care

If someone were to tell you not to think of chocolate cake, what is the first thing you would think of?

That is why it might not be the best idea to try to curb a tween or teen’s skin care obsession by saying, “You shouldn’t care so much about skin care,” Hida said.

Instead, Hida recommends a collaborative conversation, where you start by asking open-ended questions like, “I see you have been doing a lot of research on skin care. What brought this interest up for you?”

“That can open up a conversation versus asking more closed-ended questions … (which can) get the kiddo in a more defensive position,” she added.

It is also important to keep an eye on whether an interest in skin care is a normal part of self-exploration or a sign of deeper issues.

“Be aware of mental health vulnerabilities for eating disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorder, because those can be tied to trait like perfectionism,” Hida said. Families are the experts on their kids, Hida said, and she suggests looking for signs like fixated worry over appearance or a rigid skin care regimen.

“A lot of these kids who might be like having this very like dogmatic and step-by-step routine approach to skin care, they might have those vulnerabilities for developing (a deeper mental health issue),” she said.

Skin care itself isn’t concerning, but how a person responds to it is what determines whether it is healthy or not, Hida said.

It may be an attempt to be part of the trends — like teens in the past who wanted to straighten their hair, get dramatic highlights and wear under-eye liner to fit in, she said. Or it could be a playful investigation into what it means to grow up.

“The parent and the child have to frame it correctly,” Ganz said. “It is experimentation, and this is something fun that I can do with my friends. Not that I have to have this product to be cool or to look a certain way.”

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