Too Much Too Young? The Worrying Rise in Pre-Teens Using Actives
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Like most women of a certain age, anti-ageing skin care is becoming an increasingly important pursuit in my life.
Although I’m not opposed to ageing (after all, what’s the alternative?) I am keen on finding products that can help extend the more youthful aspects of my skin’s appearance. Smoothness, plumpness, and glow are the goal, and I’m happy to try out any non-invasive product that promises to help out.
But, not to put to fine a point on it, I’m of an age where this is largely considered appropriate.
When my wonderful editor told me a story of seeing a nine-year-old child crying in Sephora because her parents wouldn’t buy her a retinol it made me think about how my TikTok FYP suddenly seems filled with adolescents and early teens preaching the gospel of acids and preventative anti-ageing skincare.
Tween skin deserves gentle care, not a pricey, extensive skincare routine! As a mom and derm, I’m here to spill the tea: harsh chemicals aren’t meant for those in-between years. Drunk Elephant products may be fine adult skin but for kiddos, it is definitely not! This skincare line is packed with potent ingredients meant for adults, not young skin.#skincaretrends #teenskincare #dermatologist #derm #tweenskincare #drunkelephant #dermreacts #dermatology
And while this sounds shocking, it’s part of a wider conversation. How young is too young to start using retinols and acids to minimise the appearance of ageing skin?
And as beauty ‘education’ becomes more accessible to a wider audience, could younger consumers be doing more harm than good to their skin?
To help answer these questions, and figure out the truth about who really needs actives, we’ve asked the experts. Aesthetic nurses, dermatologists, and skincare line founders have all offered their valuable insights into the truth about the actives and anti-ageing trend.
Too much too young?
“I have many patients and their parents who are concerned about the use of retinol amongst other products that their children see on TikTok and other social media,” explains Dermatology Physician Assistant Nevada Norris
“I have seen a huge influx of younger patients coming in with a huge bag full of popular skincare products, some of a very high price, which may not even be age-appropriate for their skin.”
In fact, the phenomenon has become so widespread that a backlash against children and tweens reaching for the actives used in brands like Drunk Elephant has already prompted a raft of TikTok videos on the subject.
Harley Street aesthetic nurse Nina Prisk agrees that the rise in pre-teens trying out actives not formulated for their skin is a worrying trend.
“Our skin is smart and has a natural way of creating balance to serve and protect us.
“Over the course of my career in the beauty industry, the number one thing I see younger people do in their skincare routine that can be damaging is incorporating too much of something, adding products too fast, or using products too often,” she explains.
Manuela Valenti, a cosmetic chemist and skincare expert, agrees. “AHA and BHA in particular can and will burn the skin if not applied correctly. Younger skin, like the skin of a pre-teen, is still too sensitive and delicate, and should avoid strong acids at all costs. More mature skins can tolerate these products better.”
The blame game
As an avid consumer of online beauty content, I’ve seen this trend myself and it begs the question; is the rise in beauty’s popularity on social media to blame?
After all, a few years ago, most people wouldn’t have even heard of retinol or glycolic acid, and now more people seem to be applying actives to their faces daily from a concerningly young age.
While the proliferation of skincare information via social media can be a good thing, misinformation and bad advice can spread like wildfire. Is this a case of the wrong information falling into the wrong hands?
Tween skin is not adult skin and shouldn’t be treated as such. #tweenmoms #teenmoms listen up. #drunkelephant #drunkelphantnotforkids #dermatologist #fyp #Acne #tweenskincare #teenskincare #momsoftiktok
“I think that there is now a great deal of advice about skincare on social media and whilst knowledge and education is always a positive thing, it’s important to question the source of the advice you’re following,” Prisk says.
“There are a vast number of new skincare trends constantly emerging on social media and it’s important to exercise caution if the advice hasn’t come from a qualified and experienced practitioner.”
Amanda Thomson, the founder and CEO of Kick Peach skincare, goes even further. “While social media has brought unprecedented access to information, it has also cultivated a heightened sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) among individuals.
“The constant exposure to seemingly perfect routines and youthful appearances can inadvertently instil insecurities and drive premature decision-making when it comes to creating their skincare routine.
“The psychology of social comparison can lead to unnecessary steps and costly habits, often overlooking an individual’s unique needs.”
But who has the responsibility here- especially when it comes to young children- the consumer or the brand (or influencer)?
Valenti thinks the onus should be on those providing the information themselves to think carefully about the information they’re giving away – and who is going to be viewing it.
“I think both brands and influencers need to be careful about the message they’re sending to the masses and who is intended for. Often times we find teens speaking about retinols, acids and other products not realising these products are not intended for youngsters but for more mature skins instead.”
In response to the increase in tweens using its products, Drunk Elephant in fact put out a statement clarifying which of its products could be used by pre-teens in an Instagram post in December 2023.
With many young influencers still promoting actives from this brand (and others), will this continue to be an issue until child consumers look to new role models on social media?
If pre-teen really is too young to begin to start thinking about actives, when should we all be starting? And what- if anything- should younger consumers actually use on their faces?
While advice varies slightly on when one should begin using anti-ageing skincare, the median age recommended by experts seems to be the mid to late twenties.
Dr. Jennifer Baron, a double board-certified dermatologist, says: “Start using a topical retinol at 20 years old.”
Prisk agrees, adding: “There is no specific age when you should begin to use anti-ageing skincare ingredients such as retinols and acids.
“In general, however, it’s usually a good idea to start using retinol and acids in the mid to late twenties because this is typically when collagen production starts to slow down, as does elastin.
“For some people, the use of retinol may begin earlier than this, such as in the teenage years, for example in order to address acne. But if so it should be guided by an experienced and qualified medical practitioner.”
There are some basic skincare habits the experts agree it’s never too early to get into though.
Thomson explains: “Establishing preventive skincare rituals such as wearing SPF daily and cleansing before bed is wise at any age.”
Valenti agrees. “Definitely no anti-ageing products for teens or pre-teens, there’s no need for them in that age range at all,” she says.
“Instead, as soon as puberty starts I would recommend introducing a basic skincare routine comprised of a good mild cleanser, toner or spritz and a mild moisturiser with SPF without any active ingredients in their formulation.
“Starting a skincare routine at an early age, just like brushing your teeth not only creates a good grooming habit but helps skin remain clean mitigating many of the common problems that come with puberty such as acne and breakouts.”
The science bit
Prisk echoes this less is more approach, too, explaining that we should all be cautious of overdoing the actives.
“Too much of a good thing can become a bad thing and actually create unnecessary skin issues. Overuse of acids and retinols can over-exfoliate the skin, leaving it irritated, red, flaky, peeling, and even causing breakouts, which can disrupt the skin barrier, perpetuating hydration loss and an imbalance of natural oils.”
Valenti agrees, “From your 20s on it’s a good idea to start adding products slowly to a basic routine leaving a good 2-3 months before adding a new one.
“AHA and BHA acids can be added to the routine in the 20s age group, which I recommend not using more than once a week. Overdoing peeling acids is not recommended no matter the age.”
Finding the balance
Whatever your age, implementing a good skincare routine can help with the eventual ageing process. It’s all about looking for the appropriate steps to take for your age group, which doesn’t necessarily mean introducing acids and retinols – yet.
Prisk explains, “My advice for addressing the signs of ageing and helping to look the healthiest, most youthful and best version of yourself is to take a 360 approach to your skin – whatever your age.
“Look at ensuring you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet and staying hydrated, that you’re protecting the skin against sun damage and environmental pollutants, as well as looking at lifestyle factors such as alcohol consumption, stress, and sleep. This will ensure that your skin stays looking healthy and younger for as long as possible.”
It’s clear that exfoliating acids and retinol products can have a beneficial impact on the skin, particularly when trying to tackle the signs of ageing. But the experts agree – this should never apply to pre-teens.
Regardless of what the social media beauty space might have you believe, product overload isn’t always the answer. Sometimes, it seems, it’s actually quite the opposite.
Meet the experts
Manuela Valenti, former psychologist turned cosmetic chemist and skincare expert, is the CEO/Founder and Head Formulator at By Valenti Organics, a natural skincare brand for women with dermatitis formulated from the ground up.
Nevada Norris is a NCCPA Certified Physician Assistant. Nevada received her Bachelor’s Degree in Health Sciences from the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL. After receiving her bachelor’s, she proceeded to continue her studies at University of South Carolina where she earned her Master’s Degree in Physician Assistant Studies.
Amanda Thompson is the founder + CEO of KICK PEACH BEAUTY. Her insatiable curiosity paired with data-driven research and intuitive leadership, is creating meaningful disruption in the beauty industry.
Dr. Jennifer Baron is a double board-certified dermatologist with a premier skincare line. For more than a decade as a private practice dermatologic surgeon in San Jose, California, Dr. Baron continues to pair her medical training and experience with research and innovation of effective skin care treatments for her patients.
Nina Prisk is an aesthetic nurse prescriber and owner of Update Aesthetics Cosmetic Clinics, both in London’s Harley Street and Cornwall. Prisk is a lecturer and ambassador for global industry brands. She advocates for the importance of a multi-faceted regime that incorporates both injectables and skincare products. Qual: RGN, INP, BSc, MSc.