As a teenager, my skin-care routine was limited to bar soap, the infamous St. Ives Apricot scrub, and the occasional dab of Clearasil when a pimple reared its ugly head. As I got older, I added oil-stripping astringents to rid my skin of every last drop of sebum. But it wasn’t until I was well into my mid-30s that I finally found—and stuck to—a skin-care routine with ingredients that my skin benefits from.
Today’s teenagers’ skin-care routines are far more advanced and consist of numerous steps many dermatologists feel are unnecessary and potentially damaging to young skin. We spoke with three dermatologists about the impending rise of teenage skin-care habits, what’s necessary to use and what’s hands-off. What we learned may surprise you, too!
The TikTok Game
There’s no denying that social media, particularly TikTok, influences tweens and teenagers to adopt skin-care habits earlier than previous generations. Melville, NY dermatologist Kally Papantoniou, MD says the current digital age allows information from beauty influencers showing their routines to be disseminated widely, sparking curiosity in younger demographics.
Nanuet, NY dermatologist Heidi Waldorf, MD agrees that social media drives tweens’ and teens’ skin-care obsessions. “They are bombarded with filtered and edited images of seemingly perfect skin, which is not always attainable at an age when hormones play havoc with the skin.” Yet the influx of viral TikTok skin-care trends can be dangerous and misleading to younger skin, says Rochester, NY dermatologist Lesley Loss, MD. “Many of the influencers teenagers follow are older than them, so their suggestions might not align with what is helpful for teen skin.”
What Teens Are Gravitating Towards
Social media frequently exposes teenagers to more adult skin-care products. Dr. Papantoniou says ingredients like retinol, alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), and certain essential oils can be detrimental to their skin because it is still developing and easily irritated or sensitized. “Influencers glamorize viral products and buzzwords, but teens don’t understand their impact on sensitive skin.”
Then there’s the ‘skin smoothie’ concept. It involves mixing multiple products with different ingredients and applying the concoction to the skin. Dr. Papantoniou says mixing ingredients might be fun, but the skin can react unexpectedly, leading to over-exfoliation, sensitization, or allergic reactions. “So, it’s best to keep things simple.”
Still, teens overload their skin with too many harsh active ingredients, like vitamin C and retinol, which can irritate it and cause redness, breakouts or allergic contact dermatitis. Dr. Papantoniou sees the effects first-hand. “Some teens come in with over-exfoliated skin, sensitivity or reactions from using too many products,” she says. “I simplify their routine, focus on skin barrier restoration, and bring their routine back to the basics.”
Teen Skin-Safe Ingredients
Teenage skin doesn’t bear the signs of sun damage, pollution and the effects of time like more mature skin, so teenagers don’t often benefit from aggressive acids, chemical exfoliants and supercharged skin-care ingredients. “Many teens follow trends without knowing if they are right for their skin,” Dr. Papantoniou says. Dermatologists agree that teen skin care should consist of products and ingredients best suited for their skin type to minimize irritations and maximize benefits.
Although many teenagers think their skin-care routine requires multiple steps and fancy products, Dr. Waldorf says it shouldn’t be complicated. “Young skin should use a gentle cleanser twice daily, an oil-free moisturizing sunscreen in the morning and an oil-free moisturizer at night.” To combat the first signs of acne, she recommends switching to a salicylic acid cleanser and using a product with benzoyl peroxide all over or as a spot treatment. Even though dermatologists often recommend benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid to acne-prone teenagers, it’s best to use them cautiously.
One ingredient skin care–obsessed teens often implement into their routines is retinol. While Dr. Waldorf says a mild retinoid can be helpful for the first signs of comedonal acne, the key is to ease into using it and use it with moisturizer. When vitamin A–derived products aren’t necessary, Dr. Papantoniou explains using them too early is like putting the skin in the fast lane without a seatbelt. “It can cause excessive dryness, peeling and increased sensitivity.”
Should Aging Be a Concern as a Teen?
Some teens are implementing anti-aging routines to prevent the signs of aging. “There’s no need to worry about aging if teens have clear skin,” Dr. Loss says. “Their skin still makes collagen, so they don’t need to use products that people in their 30s and 40s might be using,” Dr. Loss says. “The most important thing to use that prevents aging is a daily facial moisturizer with sunscreen.”