Teens often base skincare routines on sponsored cosmetics for adults
Teens often base skincare routines on sponsored cosmetics for adults
Kate Xia

Teens often base skincare routines on sponsored cosmetics for adults

Social media can promote uninformed use of these products, concerning dermatologists

A blurred version of herself clouded by steam stands in front of junior Pippa West as purple, yellow and blue bottles stare back at her. Looking down from her bathroom mirror, West picks up a yellow-blue jar from her array of hair and skincare products to cleanse her face.

For the past three years, West said she has been using skincare products to help maintain her skin’s condition while preventing acne and dry skin.

“I sometimes use micellar water if I’m wearing makeup to take it off,” West said. “I also use a cleansing balm. But normally, I mostly just use moisturizer and wash my face with water.”

Brooke Jeffy, a board-certified dermatologist in Arizona, said the use of skincare products has become increasingly common among young adults due to social media.

“(Skincare) brands have seen this interest, and they’ve pivoted to making their products look more appealing to younger people,” Jeffy said. “People are also more and more concerned at younger and younger ages about aging, partially because we all see ourselves on camera so much more now.”

But Marqueling said focusing too much on one aspect of your physical appearance can lead to worsened mental health.

“Middle school and into high school are stages where you’re starting to look much more towards your peers,” Marqueling said. “There is a focus on external beauty and how to make your skin look perfect or have this glow, as opposed to the beauty that’s within. Spending hours on these regimens takes away from the other important aspects of who you are.”

West said she was able to find a balance with the influence of social media with a minimal skincare routine.

“I found most of my products on social media or from my sister,” West said. “For the makeup remover, I was actively looking for one. For the moisturizer I just found it naturally through social media, but I’ve been using pretty much the same products for the past few years.”

While utilizing skincare can be beneficial, Abigail Waldman, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Harvard and a Clinical Director at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said teenage skin should be treated differently than adult skin.

“The stratum corneum, the outer layer of the skin, is a little more sensitive when you’re younger,” Waldman said. “Someone’s hands when they’re younger are nice and soft, and as you get older, they become callous. That’s an indication of what your stratum corneum looks like. As everyone’s skin ages it develops a thicker brick wall around it.”

Because of these differences in skin condition, Jeffy said some products may be irritating for teens.

“One of the processes of skin is that it replaces itself, and kids do that very quickly and evenly,” Jeffy said. “Since the skin is thinner, (it) makes it more easy for products to penetrate which makes them more likely to cause a problem. Younger skin also doesn’t hold in moisture as well, so it’s also more prone to being irritated.”

And because most skincare products are considered cosmetics, Annie Marqueling, a Clinical Assistant Professor at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, said teenagers should be especially careful when purchasing products.

“When companies say that products work for certain things, a lot of that is based on research on adults,” Marqueling said. “A lot of these products don’t have to go through rigorous testing, so we don’t always know to what extent they’ve been studied. And in clinical trials, it’s very difficult to study individuals under 18 because it’s hard to obtain consent.”

To find more appropriate products, Waldman said reading ingredients is especially important because brands typically do not advertise all active ingredients in the product, so it is easy to overuse chemicals which can lead to more irritation.

“A lot of hyaluronic acid serums actually contain other active ingredients in them, which is great,” Waldman said. “They do more by doing that, but they don’t advertise it. Since they’re not medicines, it’s up to you to figure out what’s doing what.”

West said she follows this approach and only uses the most necessary products with active ingredients, but social media has helped educate and enhance her routine by bringing awareness to potentially irritating products.

“I knew I needed to remove my makeup, so I was originally using micellar water,” West said. “But then I heard on TikTok that using something like that can damage your skin barrier. People said you should use a cleansing balm instead. So I decided to use that because I want to prevent damaging my skin barrier.”

Even without the influence of social media, Waldman said many teenagers seek to combat skin problems from puberty, motivating them to develop a skincare routine.

“When you go through puberty, your hormones change and the increase in androgens, which are hormones for both men and women, ” Waldman said. “They increase the sebum production of your skin (which) can lead to acne by blocking the pores and leading to increased bacterial growth on the skin.”

When dealing with acne breakouts, Jeffy said people should initially begin by analyzing their current skincare routine before adding further products.

“When someone first starts to notice that they’re breaking out, the first thing that they want to do is be sure that they’re really doing the basics of skincare,” Jeffy said. “Focusing on consistency, being sure that you never skip a day of washing your face and not going to sleep with your makeup on are important in making your skin more able to resist acne.”

However, when adding additional products to a routine, Marqueling said people should be cautious as some products targeting acne can pose risks to the skin barrier.

“Most acne medications do have ingredients that can cause irritation,” Marqueling said. “Starting with products that are on the lower strength to minimize those risks can be really helpful. We often recommend a benzoyl peroxide wash that is under 5% versus the ones that are at 10% because they work similarly, but the 2.5% and 5% are not going to give you the same irritation and dryness as the 10%.”

For other acne products like chemical exfoliants, Waldman said using them once every three nights and closely monitoring the skin is crucial.

“When using chemical exfoliants, a small amount of peeling, especially around the mouth and nose, is normal,” Waldman said. “If it’s a significant amount of peeling, redness, irritation or a lot of stinging whenever you put any product on, that’s a sign that you’re damaging your skin barrier –– that outer layer that’s protecting your skin. If that happens, you should back off using that product and really let your skin repair.”

After using chemical exfoliants, Jeffy said it is important to use sunscreen because the effects of sun exposure can be intensified when the skin is exposed to certain exfoliants.

“People don’t really realize that sunscreen is actually very helpful in helping acne,” Jeffy said. “If your skin is inflamed because it’s getting chronically damaged by the sun, the skin barrier is not working well, and you’re more prone to getting acne.”

Waldman also said teenagers with a balanced diet typically have sufficient amounts of antioxidants like vitamin C, which provide stronger protection against sun damage by reducing collagen breakdown.

“When you get sunlight exposure or an injury when you’re younger, vitamin C can help counteract that faster,” Waldman said. “As you get older, you don’t have that vitamin C as much, and your skin starts to degrade rapidly after 30 until you may need to replenish it.”

In addition to antioxidants, Waldman said a proper diet provides other nutrients necessary for skin health.

“Diet is well established to help maintain your skin barrier,” Waldman said. “When you eat fiber, it feeds your microbes, and those gut bacteria use that fiber (to) make fatty acids that you can’t make or eat otherwise, and those actually make up your skin barrier.”

Waldman said protein is crucial in maintaining the elasticity of skin which can combat some signs of aging.

“Getting sufficient protein is key because you need to make all the proteins in your skin like collagen and elastin,” Wladman said. “You have to eat full proteins, so you’re getting all the amino acids to build the proteins not just in your skin (but) in your whole body.”

Jeffy said certain dietary choices are associated with worsened skin conditions, so cutting out certain foods can determine root issues.

“Dairy is contributory to acne by increasing oil production,” Jeffy said. “Skim milk and whey protein are very contributory to oil production and acne. High sugar diets, highly-processed diets, (and) heavy red meat diets can all cause inflammation in your gut, which causes inflammation in the skin as well.”

But Waldman said everyone’s skin is different, so mimicking other routines is not always effective.

“There are a lot of rules on social media like, ‘Oh, you can’t do this,’ but everyone’s skin is different,” Waldman said. “If you want to do skincare as a young person, really listen to your skin and see how you’re reacting to things. Start with one thing at a time and use it for several weeks, so you really get a good sense of how your skin responds.”

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