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Unpacking the Debate: Can Active Skincare Ingredients Harm Teens' Skin?

A tween girl washing her faces. A teen girl washing her face. A young girl wearing a white shirt and head band doing her skincare routine.

To be honest, as an esthetician, I saw this debate coming when I created a TikTok account and saw what this social media platform was all about. Sure, the choreographed dances and some of the DIY home improvement videos are cute, inspiring and absolutely addicting to watch, but the number of people out there giving advice on topics they have no business discussing is astronomical! Even more disturbing is the amount of people who blindly take their "tips," "must-haves," and advice as facts. I am not naive; I was a kid once and certainly would not have paid much attention to the qualifications of the person offering "expert" advice at a certain age. But in this digital world we live in with access to the internet, many people deem themselves experts on just about everything, leaving the actual experts in any given area scratching their heads with concern.

I kept mostly quiet on this topic until recently when clients and fellow moms reached out to me regarding their tweens/teens and skincare. Turns out, my inclination about where this was headed was not too far off as their daughters were asking for luxury skincare brands and products as gifts for the holidays. What began as a rant about tween/teen-lead trips to Sephora, how expensive the products were and how the women themselves often did not splurge on these products, quickly turned into another topic entirely once I mentioned the effects these products can have on their daughters' skin. I am not shaming anyone for not knowing the ins and outs of every ingredient in their products {I am guilty of buying plenty of things that I realize later were not the best choice for me, skincare or otherwise, upon reading the ingredient list--I am human}. Once I know better, I make better choices. Please take the information in this post as knowledge, from a licensed esthetician {former young girl}, fellow mom of 2, and absolutely under no circumstances should you allow this to contribute to any form of mom guilt/shame. We don't do that here...

As tweens (ages 9-12) begin to approach puberty, their skin undergoes a series of changes that can leave them more prone to sensitivity and irritability {on their skin, not just their emotions--that's out of my scope of practice}. As a result, it is important for tweens to be mindful of the products they use on their skin, because some are simply not made for them in this stage of life. I am talking about most active skin ingredients, including benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, often found in acne-fighting products. While these active ingredients are often effective for treating acne in adults with more mature skin, depending on potency can be too harsh for tweens' sensitive skin. They can cause damage to the skin barrier in the form of dryness, flaky patches, and overall irritation--to name a few.

Tweens should first opt for gentler alternatives when starting a skincare journey. Look for products that contain natural ingredients like tea tree oil or witch hazel. These ingredients can be just as effective at treating acne without causing harm to tweens' delicate skin.

It is important to remember that everyone's skin is different and what works for one person may not work for another.*

During the teen years (13-19), we can be prone to more blemishes, breakouts and acne, mostly due to hormonal changes. It's natural to want to take care of your skin and look your best, however, with so many skincare products out there it can be difficult to know what is right for you.

Other buzzworthy popular ingredients, such as AHA's (i.e. glycolic acid, lactic acid), retinoids, and hydroquinone should never be used on teens/tweens as they are very powerful ingredients created to treat specific skin concerns in mature skin. Using active ingredients on young, delicate skin can cause damage not only to the skin barrier, stripping skin of essential oils and moisture, but also in the deeper layers of the skin at the cellular level, especially without proper use of SPF/sunscreen. To put it mildly, that is a scary problem! Never mind how it will look, imagine the "new skin" coming to the surface is already damaged before it even reaches the skin barrier. This leaves your skin, your body's largest organ damaged and not working as it is designed to. A weakened defense against the sun (putting you at higher risk for all forms of skin cancer), free-radicals and pathogens our skin is to protect us from day in and day out.

Let's talk about the science for a moment. Cell turnover rates are quickest when we are babies (about 14 days), which is why babies have that sweet, soft skin we cannot get enough of. By the time we reach our 20's, cell turnover reduces by 24 to 30 days, meaning we are naturally starting to hang onto dead skin cells longer at the surface level. This is when and why we start introducing active ingredients to help our body shed dead skin cells faster, to bring healthy, hydrated, glowing skin to the surface level. Notice I said we start to introduce active ingredients, not that we use them all at once. It is simply not necessary and can cause way more damage than good using them before needed and/or using the wrong combination of them in excess.

No doubt, there is an overabundance of information out there on social media, tv, the internet and likely within your circle of friends too. You/your child can choose to listen to the influencer living under their parents' roof or the beauty guru with "perfect" skin and makeup (thanks filters) with no qualifications or your favorite celebrity who is likely getting paid to promote a product if you want to. Though, as a licensed esthetician whose job it is to know ingredients, what they are proven to do and the latest science behind it all with thousands of hours of education/state board testing as well as hands-on education performing facial treatments in the studio--I am begging you to make a better choice for your skin health.

As a teen, focus on consistency in your skincare routine, using gentle, nourishing skincare products that will help keep your skin healthy and hydrated without causing any harm. Look for gentle cleansers, moisturizers, and sunscreen that are specifically formulated for younger skin. That's truly all you need to have healthy skin in your tween/teen years! Always remember to be gentle when applying skincare products at any age, as rubbing or scrubbing too hard can also cause damage. Most-commonly, broken blood vessels on your cheeks, nose, or chin and premature sagging of the skin.

No question, active skincare ingredients have their benefits, however, they are not always the best choice for young people. To answer the question everyone is debating: Yes, active skincare ingredients can harm teens' skin. But with the guidance of your trusted esthetician/dermatologist, a little effort and the right products, you can achieve healthy, glowing skin that will last a lifetime. I am here for that--as an esthetician, fellow aging woman and a mom!

*If you are unsure about what products to use on your tweens/teen's skin, consult with me. an esthetician or your dermatologist. Always seek skincare advice and discuss concerns with a licensed, state regulated and/or educated medical professional who is trained in all things skin-related and can recommend products that are safe and effective for your/your child's specific skin type to avoid skin damage. This blog post is not, nor intended to be a substitute for medical advice.


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