Kids exploring skincare may be at risk from influencers hyping incorrect products

UCLA experts advise a minimalist approach and an empathetic discussion with parents.
A tween girl using a laptop
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5 min read

TikTok, Instagram — the entirety of cyberspace — are awash with Generation Alpha (under age 13) “influencers” advising tweens and teens to start a skincare routine post haste. Young consumers are taking it to heart. What’s a parent to do when faced with their kids’ requests for expensive skincare serums and night creams?

UCLA Health’s Carol Cheng, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology and board-certified dermatologist and pediatric dermatologist, and Jayden Galamgam, MD, board-certified dermatologist and pediatric dermatology fellow, offer important insights.

Q: What trends are you seeing in your practice among tweens and teens?

DR. CHENG: Parents are bringing their preteens and teens in for skincare routines, even though they have no skin pathology of concern — no acne or eczema, etc. These visits are requested by the children themselves who want a skincare routine, largely driven by what they have seen and heard from friends and on social media. Information is widely accessible, and so is misinformation. It’s overwhelming and confusing for teens and tweens who may not realize that even peer influencers may just be selling a product in their “instructional” videos.

DR. GALAMGAM: I have noticed preteens and teens coming in with allergic contact dermatitis of the face. Contact dermatitis is a hypersensitivity reaction that can occur due to direct contact with an allergen. It manifests as red, scaly, itchy rashes in areas of exposure. This may suggest that patients are being exposed to facial ingredients that are causing these reactions.

Q: Is there any benefit to this trend toward early skincare?

DR. CHENG: Preteens and teenagers are more aware of and motivated to take care of their skin compared to what I’ve seen in the past, which is a plus. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to start a routine early when it’s the correct regimen for their skin.

DR. GALAMGAM: On the one hand, it is great that children are realizing the importance of taking care of their skin. But they need to realize that some online advice can be harmful. Kids need to be educated.

Q: Are kids asking for help with specific trends? For example, have you heard of the “glass skin” trend?

DR. CHENG: Yes, I have had several teenagers recently come in and say, “I want my skin to look like glass.” It’s a buzzword for blemish-free, porcelain-like skin. Unfortunately, most online pictures of “glass skin” are curated with the heavy aid of technology, and it would be impossible for most of us to replicate this look in real life. Real skin has pores and blemishes. Part of this is also genetically determined.

DR. GALAMGAM: Teenagers are asking for glass skin because they’ve seen online influencers with perfect skin — achieved with a combination of makeup, Photoshop and filters. It’s unrealistic. There is no magic cream that can achieve that look overnight.

Q: What is an appropriate skincare routine for middle-school-aged kids?

DR. CHENG: A simple and practical routine is best. Cleanse the face once or twice a day with a gentle facial cleanser. Drugstore brands (Cetaphil, for example) are fine. Apply a “broad spectrum” sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater every morning is of utmost importance. At nighttime, add a facial moisturizer if the skin seems dry. That’s it.

DR. GALAMGAM: The number one thing we stress is sunscreen. Kids should develop that habit early so that it becomes part of their normal daily routine. Also, they should cleanse their face with a facial cleanser. Facial cleansers are formulated to have a pH level closer to the skin’s natural pH level. Preteens and teenagers also should avoid harsh exfoliating scrubs. These can cause dryness, redness and irritation. Other than a mild cleanser and sunscreen, people should find a facial moisturizer that works best for their skin type.

Q: What is NOT appropriate for children’s skin? 

DR. CHENG: Many products have what we call “active” ingredients — like salicylic acid, retinols, peptides. They are more suitable for mature skin to target wrinkles or skin with specific concerns like acne. But for tweens and teens, these ingredients can do damage, irritate the skin and cause the reverse effects they are hoping to achieve.

DR. GALAMGAM: Retinols and retinoids can sometimes be a problem for young children, especially if there is not a clinical indication such as acne. Retinols can sometimes cause retinoid dermatitis, a type of scaly rash. Additionally, retinols can make you susceptible to sunburn and sun damage.

Q: Do teens who use makeup need extra skin precautions?

DR. CHENG: They should use makeup that is non-comedogenic (non-pore clogging) and oil free. And they should always remove their makeup before bedtime.

DR. GALAGAM: Makeup residue itself can sometimes cause problems. They should use a makeup remover as a first step if needed, then follow with a gentle cleanser.

Q: Any additional insights for parents guiding kids on skincare and expected results?

DR. CHENG: Have a conversation with your child and ask them what they are hoping to achieve with their skincare requests. Products promoted on social media or those that are more expensive may not necessarily achieve the desired results and can place unnecessary financial burden on a family.

Discuss that social media often portrays unrealistic photos and expectations. Studies show that social media plays a large role in self-esteem and self-perception among youth and can contribute to anxiety and depression. Talk to your kids about expectations and discuss what is normal and healthy.

DR. GALAMGAM: I’ve had parents bring kids in and say, “Tell them they don’t need all of this stuff.” That’s not the best approach; I flip it around and ask the kids what their concerns are. That way I address their concerns and look at their regimen. Minimalism can often be very helpful.

Take the Next Step

If your child has a skin problem or related concerns, connect with UCLA Health’s pediatric dermatologists

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