Elaborate Skin Care Routines Can Cause Teens More Harm Than Good

5 min read

Feb. 21, 2024 – Mary Margaret Gorman is no stranger to the skin care trends of teenagers. 

As the mother of two teenage daughters, she said she noticed face masks becoming popular birthday party favors and gifts among her daughters’ friends a few years ago. 

Her daughters, now ages 13 and 16, had expensive skin care products on their Christmas lists this year.

“They each have probably three times the skin care products that I have,” said Gorman, who lives in New Orleans. 

Largely driven by viral videos on social media, elaborate skin care routines have become a craze among teenagers, and even older children. TikTok videos walk people through 12-step routines that often include applying products that are meant for adult skin. But experts warn that younger people in particular should be wary of facial treatment fads.

Deirdre Hooper, MD, a dermatologist at Audubon Dermatology in New Orleans, said she’s seen her preteen and teen patients, and her own daughter, adopt two main routines. One is the use of daily sunscreen, which she said, “is fantastic.” 

“The second trend is complex, multistep regimens that are being promoted by social media and not by board-certified dermatologists,” she said. 

At worst, complex skin routines can cause more harm than good. At best, the products are usually a waste of money, Hooper said. 

Hopper’s daughter received a gift card for a major beauty retailer for Christmas two years ago. The dermatologist let her preteen shop for what she wanted, and came home with multiple products that all did the same thing –– mostly moisturize –– despite having different names. Both Hooper and Gorman said the most appealing products among kids have fun names, like Drunk Elephant, or vague marketing terms such as “glow.”

Some may see the routines simply as fun or a ritual that makes kids feel more grown up. But the obsession can cause real harm, according to Amina Ahmed, MD, a pediatrician at Stanford Children’s Health South Bascom Pediatrics in Los Gatos, CA.

“I’m definitely seeing a lot more teens proactively wanting perfect skin,” she said. “The expectation has really gone up as far as how flawless they should look at a younger age. There is a lot of pressure with social media to get the perfect picture.”

Ahmed has also noticed more teens are using more makeup, including for contouring and elaborate designs, “which can lead to other issues like dermatitis or irritation because of harsh products.”

More Harm Than Good

Many products that are for adult skin are also too potent for younger people. Hooper said most teens should steer clear of thick moisturizers, and most retinol and hydroxy acids.

Products that contain hydroxy acids, including popular ingredients like glycolic or lactic acid, are chemical peels meant to strip older skin, but are too harsh to be used on adolescent skin. Hooper likens the products to the rough exfoliating face wash that was popular when she was a teenager, like the iconic St. Ives face scrub.

Most retinol is also not medically necessary or appropriate for people younger than age 20, since these products are meant to build collagen to reduce wrinkles, not a problem most teens have. But if a young person is struggling with acne or blackheads, Hooper recommends seeing a dermatologist who can find out if prescription retinol treatment could help clear the problem. The only over-the-counter retinol she recommends is adapalene, but with a caveat. 

“It can be irritating, and if you don’t know how to deal with that irritation, it can make things worse,” she said, emphasizing that families can save time and money if they go to a health provider first, rather than managing the condition on their own.

While some products are too harsh for younger skin, others, including moisturizers meant for older skin, are too thick and can easily clog pores in adolescents who naturally produce more sebum as a result of hormonal changes, Ahmed said. Layering products can have the same effect.

Many of Ahmed’s patients also have conditions such as perioral dermatitis, which appears as a red rash on the face and can be the result of a disrupted skin microbiome. 

“Sometimes all these products upset the natural pH and microbe balance, which can make you more susceptible to things like dermatitis,” she said, noting that when people stop using too many products, dermatitis usually goes away. 

Antioxidants, such as vitamin C serums, can help protect the skin from pollution and sun damage, but just are not necessary for young skin, Hooper said. 

“If you try an antioxidant and it doesn’t irritate your skin, it’s OK with me as a morning routine. But the ones I know work are expensive, and I don’t think I would recommend it to kids because they don’t need them,” she said.

Which Skin Care Products Should Teens Use?

Both Ahmed and Hooper emphasize that, like most things related to health, skin care is not one-size-fits all. The skin is also an organ that changes throughout life, and will require different care. 

“A lot of patients think, if it works for my friend, it should work for me. But everyone’s skin type is different; you may be using something that is causing more acne on your face,” Ahmed said. 

There are some general guidelines teens should follow. 

“When you are young, you have such good natural protection and resilience to your skin, you don’t need to buy a bunch of products,” Hooper said. 

Ahmed said everyone should put on sunscreen in the morning and wear it throughout the day, especially if kids are playing sports outside. “Most sun damage happens when you’re young,” she said.

And teens can use a gentle cleanser – but just one. 

Twelve-step routines “usually have multiple cleansers. They don’t need to do all of that, they just need a mild cleanser to remove the excess sebum and dirt from their faces,” Ahmed said. 

Hooper said if the skin is dry, kids and teens can wash their face only at night, and use a light moisturizer. If they are struggling with acne, Hooper said they should see a doctor. 

Ahmed said parents should appreciate their kid taking an interest in their skin health and put a spin on a skin care routine being health-focused rather than beauty-focused. 

“It’s not a bad thing to take care of your skin,” she said.