Inside the 'harmful' tween skincare trend: is your child damaging their skin?

Last modified on Wednesday 31 January 2024

Sephora shop exterior

'10 year olds at Sephora' is going viral on TikTok, as increasing numbers of young kids shop at the cult beauty store. But why are more children obsessed with skincare routines ... and what damage are they really doing to their skin? Netmums investigates.

Reading her 10-year-old daughter Lily's* Christmas list, Rebecca* was more than a little surprised. Gone were the Barbie dolls and toys from previous years, and in their place were high-end – and anti-ageing – beauty products.

'Lily loves nothing more than spending her pocket money on skincare in shops like Boots and Bodycare', said Rebecca. 'But when she put branded items like Drunk Elephant and Glow Recipe on her list, I looked into them more. And I was shocked when I found out what the ingredients can do to a child's skin.'

Rebecca is right to be concerned. Skincare experts have told Netmums that children as young as 10 are using products with ingredients such as retinol and Vitamin A, which are designed for an adult's skin. Experts say these ingredients are harming their skin's natural barrier and could lead to problems later in life.

So worried are they in fact, some dermatologists are now calling for the sale of products with certain ingredients to be banned for children under the age of 16.

'Sephora Kids' trend

Children are shopping in high-end shops including Sephora and the kids' skincare trend hit the spotlight last month when TikTokker Chloe Grace asked why so many children were in the cult beauty and skincare store Sephora. Her video has been viewed more than three million times.

Why are so many children interested in skincare?

Niamh Ryan, a Skin Therapist, and Ella & Jo skincare co-founder, says there's been a huge rise in the amount of primary school-aged children investing in skincare.

Before hitting puberty, children are now exfoliating, cleansing, toning and using products such as eye creams and overnight masks – complete with 'harsh' ingredients designed for adult skin.

'I don't think many parents are aware of the dangers,' said Niamh.

'It's similar to technology – many children have surpassed their parents in terms of technological knowledge, and we see a similar situation with skincare.'

Influence of social media

Skincare content is unrestricted on social media and many daily routines and 'get-ready-with-me' videos achieve millions of views.

And young kids – known as Gen Alpha – are among the viewers. This has led to them buying and using products their young skin does not need.

Children are not only viewing other people's skincare regimes on TikTok and Insta, they're making videos showing their own skincare haul.

'Children often believe they know what's best for their skin due to influencers on platforms like TikTok and social media but in reality, they may be using products that are not suitable for their skin,' added Niamh.

'What we don't want children to get into is stripping their skin and causing more harm than good. They end up damaging their skin because they’re using high percentage active ingredients which will strip their skin and they’re not adding any hydration back in.'

a woman
Niamh Ryan is a skin therapist, and Ella & Jo skincare co-founder

Dr Ross Perry, Medical Director at Cosmedics skin clinics agrees with Niamh.

He said: 'The rise primarily of TikTok users in this age bracket has seen a significant change in the younger generation wanting to start a skincare regime earlier than ever before.

'Clever marketing, unrealistic results and the use of influencers and celebrities is driving this forward in a big way and it’s not a surprise this is a multimillion dollar business.'

What damage can skincare cause to young skin?

Children's skin is more delicate and sensitive compared to adults, and their skincare needs can be different, the experts tell Netmums.

They say tweens simply don’t need certain skincare. And in fact, using skincare at a young age with active ingredients that are unsuitable for young skin can:

  • Strip the skin of its natural barrier
  • Damage the skin long-term
  • Cause irritation and discomfort
  • Increase the risk of dermatitis and eczema
  • Result in flaky patches, soreness, red patches and rashes
  • Make acne worse
  • Cause future pigmentation and redness
Drunk Elephant is a popular brand with tweens

'Lots of primary school-aged girls now getting into skincare'

Dr Perry said he's seen the effects of wrong skincare use.

He said: 'We’ve seen a rise in more young people wanting to see us more about acne treatments, and that their parents have spent a fortune on cleansers, moisturisers and exfoliators which simply just haven’t worked.

'In fact in a lot of cases it’s made acne worse and created a lot of irritation on the skin due to the products being too harsh.'

Amy Bird, Nurse Practitioner, and owner of KAST Aesthetics in Sandbach, Cheshire said:

'There are lots of primary school-aged girls now getting into skincare, which is incredible on one hand because, yes, we want them to look after their skin.

'But equally, we know that the skin is still developing at that age. Therefore, if they're using things on the skin like acids or anything too abrasive, it will actually damage their skin long term.'

Parents have now been urged to take a closer look at their children's skincare products, to ensure their children aren't using any items with ingredients that will actually 'do more harm than good' to their delicate skin.

woman headshot
Amy Bird, Nurse Practitioner, and owner of KAST Aesthetics in Sandbach, Cheshire

Which brands are children using?

Brands including Drunk Elephant, The Ordinary, Byoma, Glow Recipe, Sol de Janeiro and Bubble are all big names on social media and many come in bright packaging, which is attractive to children.

But it's not just the big name brands young children are spending their money on.

Visit any Primark store across the county on a Saturday afternoon and you can guarantee the beauty section is full of young girls crowded round the skincare, where products with ingredients including retinol are readily available for under £4.

Shops including Home Bargains sell items such as retinol-firming moisturiser for as little as £2.99. In baby pink packaging, it's a tempting buy for young girls with pocket money to spend. And crucially, there's no minimum age limit when it comes to buying skincare.

'Naive to it all'

Many parents, including Rebecca, from Leeds, are blissfully unaware of the potential damage being caused. She told Netmums:

'It all started when Lily discovered TikTok. I'll be totally honest, I didn't realise the problem. I was so naive to it all. I preferred her doing her skincare to my son gaming for hours on end.

'I thought it was healthy. It was great she was taking care of herself and her skin, and all her friends were doing it. She would sit at her dressing table and face-time her friends and they'd all do their skincare routines together.'

Skincare on sale in Primark
Skincare in Primark

'Need to warn my friends'

Rebecca added: 'Lily is absolutely obsessed with Sephora, even though she's never been to one. When I was talking about holidays she asked if we could go to Barcelona because apparently there's a slide that takes you down into the shop! The amount she knows about it all aged 10 is crazy really.'

Rebecca admits she hadn't checked any of the ingredients in the items her daughter was using until recently. But following the 'Sephora Kids' phenomenon, she's gone through Lily's beauty products. And she's taken away unsuitable anti-ageing products.

'What's really bad is I've also bought skincare for several of her friends over the last year, too. I'm not even really sure what we've bought as Lily chose it.

'I now feel like I warn to warn all my friends as I know they're quite casual about their children's use of skincare products, too.'

Skincare on sale in Home Bargains
Skincare is readily available without restrictions in shops including Home Bargains

Which ingredients are harmful for young skin?

The experts we spoke to agree skincare products with the following ingredients should not be used by children:

  • Retinol
  • Vitamin A
  • Bakuchiol
  • Peptides
  • Hydroxy acid
  • Anything labelled as 'anti-ageing'
  • Anything labelled 'brightening'
  • Vitamin C – depending on potency

The experts say the following are safe – only under the guidance of a skin therapist or dermatologist  

  • Salicylic Acid
  • Succinic Acid 
  • Azelaic Acid 

Which ingredients are safe for tween skin?

Some ingredients may sound scary but our experts say they're perfectly safe for young skin.

They agree the following ingredients are not going to cause your tween any harm – but stress only small amounts are needed on young skin:

  • Succinic Acid 
  • Niacinamide 
  • Hyaluronic Acid  
  • Jojoba Oil 
  • Squalene
  • Glycerin 
  • Oat extract / Avena 
child using skincare

What does a 'sensible' skincare routine for tweens look like?

The experts say they are not suggesting parents force their children to stop their routines. However, because their skin is delicate, it’s best to opt for natural products. And they say young children only need a three-step skincare routine, including:

  1. Cleanser
  2. Moisturiser
  3. SPF

Julia Vearncombe, beautician and skincare expert, founder of Skin Genius said: 'Start with a very simple routine to clean and protect your skin.

'You need to clean your skin after a day at school and playing sport, so use a gentle cleanser with ingredients that are kind to the akin.

'Ingredients including aloe vera, witch hazel, calendula and nettle are perfect to clean and cleanse the skin leaving it soft.  

'Using a moisturiser that contains ingredients such as babassu, calendula and shea butter will be full of antioxidants to protect young skin from pollution and the elements.' product recommendations for Sephora kids from a derm, let’s not ruin your already perfect skin 😫 #dermatalogist #dermatologydoctor #skincare #skincareroutine #skintok #skincareproducts #sephora #sephorakids #drunkelephant #glowrecipe #teenskincare #tweens #foryou #fyp #fypシ ♬ original sound - Dr Adel | Dermatology Doctor

'It’s not about going for the latest craze or TikTok trend'

Julia added:

'As with anyone, first assess your child’s skin type and any problem aspects before buying products.

'A sensible routine is using what your skin actually needs. It’s not about going for the latest craze or TikTok trend because everyone’s skin is different.  

'Remind your child that their skin is different from their best friend’s and may need different products.'

Dr Saniyya Mahmood, Aesthetic Doctor & Medical Director of Aesthetica Medical Clinic agrees.

She said: 'As skin starts to change during puberty, many dermatologists often recommend using skin care products around age 12, or whenever puberty starts.

'It is important to understand what products teenagers are using.

'A 14 year old doesn't require a complicated skin regime, definitely nothing that is anti-aging at that age. Using a gentle cleanser, moisturiser and SPF is more than enough for most teenagers.  

'Using retinol may even be prescribed to help clear acne but it has to be consulted with a healthcare provider first.'

'Use an SPF'

Dr. Stephen Humble, Owner and Operational Director at Hedox Clinic also recommends children use a daily SPF.

He said: 'Children don’t need the same products as adults, and not only is it unnecessary, but it can be harmful to them as well.

'Children’s skin is delicate and is not ready to be introduced to an overload of products, so keep it natural and simple.

'The exception to this is using sunscreen, where a mineral-based sunscreen is vital for skin protection and reducing the risk of skin cancer.'

What age should anti-ageing products be used?

Many teens might be surprised to know they should not be using any products labelled as 'anti-ageing' until they're in their 20s.

Asked at what age people should introduce anti-ageing products, Niamh said: 'The standard industry answer would normally be around 25-plus.'

Popular branded products which ARE safe for young skin

Restricting your tween's use of ingredients doesn't have to mean they can no longer use the brands they've grown to love either.

There are more suitable options from big brands such as Drunk Elephant and Glow Recipe. Here's our experts' top picks of branded products which are safe for young skin:

  • Drunk Elephant UmbraSheer Physical Daily Defense Protection Suncream
  • Bubble Slam Dunk Moisturiser
  • Byoma Creamy Jelly Cleanser
  • Glow Recipe Blueberry Bounce Gentle Cleaner
  • Byoma Hydrating Serum 30ml
  • Ella and Jo Plump and Protect Day cream

What do the beauty brands say?

Drunk Elephant has become so popular founder Tiffany Masterson has had to tell 'kids and tweens stay away from our more potent products that include acids and retinols' on social media.

'Their skin does not need these ingredients quite yet,' she says.

Netmums has contacted the brands and retailers featured in this article for comment.

*Names have been changed

Should the sale of skincare to children be banned?

Some experts believe the sale of skincare to children under the age of 16 should be banned, while others say the products should come with a warning on the label.

Niamh said: 'I would absolutely support the regulation of skincare sales, with certain ingredients being banned for children under the age of 16.

'The skincare industry is heavily regulated. However, it's comparable to someone walking into a store and purchasing something over the counter. For instance, vitamins are beneficial if taken as instructed, but overuse can have an impact on your body.

'Similarly, with skincare, it's crucial to follow the manufacturer's guidelines on the packaging. I would be interested in having a conversation about this topic and helping with the educational progress.'

Dr Amina Albeyatti is a GP who deals with medical skin conditions. She is also the founder of Troikin– a new skincare brand for children and teens. She said 'I would recommend a warning label at the least.

'There are no warnings from the larger adult skincare brands, despite using strong chemicals that can actively cause harm.'

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