How to Build a Skin-Care Routine for Your Tween

Sacha Perlstein / Gallery Stock

While many parents are still trying to wrap their heads around their kids’ sudden obsession with skin care and the moral quandary posed by purchasing pricy potions for a nine-year-old, the so-called #KidsAtSephora trend doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. And, while older generations may balk at the idea of preteens putting so much effort, attention, and, yes money into their skin at such a young age, Gen Alpha represents not only a more informed and connected generation than those past, but one growing up at a faster rate.

According to a 2020 analysis of global data, the average age of puberty for girls in the U.S. has been dropping by three months every decade for the last 40 years, meaning kids are experiencing hormonal changes that can lead to skin issues like acne at younger and younger ages each year. Couple that with the bombardment of marketing messaging talking about “preventative” skin care and the rise of online communities like #SkinTok, and it’s no wonder preteens are so invested in their complexions.

To help you and your preteen better navigate this confusing landscape and determine what’s hype and what’s healthy, we asked top dermatologists (who are also preteen parents) to tell us what kids in the eight to 13 range actually need for their skin and how you can be a resource for your child as they become more involved with their beauty routine.

Meet the experts

  • Kavita Mariwalla, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in West Islip, New York.

  • Laura Scott, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in San Diego.

  • Mona Gohara, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale.

  • Corey L. Hartman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, AL.

How does puberty change skin?

Depending on their age and what stage of puberty they are in, a preteen could be experiencing any number of changes in their skin. “There’s three things we need to think about in skin: One is the microbiome. The second is the barrier function and the third is sebum production,” says Kavita Mariwalla, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in West Islip, New York.

Typically those three things are functioning in harmony until children start to undergo the hormonal fluctuations that come with puberty, she says. Puberty is tracked by doctors through what’s called the Tanner stages, with studies having indicated the changes each stage has on your skin’s microbiome, the collection of microorganisms that live on its surface. “These hormones influence the production of sebum,” explains Dr. Mariwalla. “So now you go from a relative state of normalcy to an abundance of sebum.” That sebum — the so-called “bad lipids” — combine with your skin’s “good” epidermal lipids to create dysfunction of your skin’s barrier function, says Dr. Mariwalla. “When you produce a ton of sebum, what flourishes is cutibacterium acnes — it goes from low levels to very high levels,” she notes.

The result, over those five stages of puberty, can be varying degrees of acne breakouts. And while historically those breakouts were not emerging until kids were in their early teens, dermatologists are noticing younger patients coming to them with instances of acne. Laura Scott, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in San Diego, says she gets messages on social media from parents of kids as young as 10 who are starting to experience breakouts: “I do think that’s driving some of the insecurities that young people are starting to face because now they are struggling with changes in their skin at an earlier age.”

What is the ideal tween skin-care routine?

With so many options available, it can be confusing for parents to know what’s appropriate and safe for their kids’ skin. While many parents are familiar with the ingredients and products that are effective for their adult complexions, deciphering what brands and products are right for preteens isn’t always an obvious choice. For those struggling to cut through the marketing noise, Mona Gohara, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale, says to remember that skin is an organ. “It deserves health, it deserves attention,” she says. “There are basic things that you should be doing — whether you’re five or 85 — like cleansing, moisturizing, and applying sunscreen. Those are the basic tenets of skin health, and skin health is something that I don’t have a problem with a young person taking ownership of. It’s like good dental hygiene.”

Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser

$14.00, Amazon

CeraVe Daily Moisturizing Body and Face Lotion

$12.00, Amazon

Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Face Mineral Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50

$14.00, Amazon

Dr. Scott advises a simple, efficacious routine with an emphasis on gentle formulations. “The best [products] are the things that are essentially setting up good habits for the future,” says Dr. Scott. That means a gentle, non-stripping cleanser, a lightweight moisturizer, and a mineral sunscreen, which is less likely to cause sensitivity than chemical formulations.

Within those buckets, preteens can experiment with textures such as gels, creams, and lotions. “When you get into trouble is when you start incorporating things like an oil and emollients that are thick and heavy like an ointment, because if you do have acne, then you’re going to have issues,” says Corey L. Hartman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, AL. For preteens with acne, Dr. Scott recommends a salicylic acid cleanser and, if that doesn’t help, consider potentially adding a topical retinol treatment like Differin into their routine.

The Inkey List Salicylic Acid Cleanser

$13.00, Amazon

Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment

$15.00, Target

Should tweens use active ingredients?

While active ingredients like retinoids, acids, and antioxidants may be seen as essential in adult skin-care routines, it’s a completely different story when it comes to preteens. Adults use these potent ingredients to help their skin act younger by shedding dead skin cells, promoting cellular regeneration, and boosting collagen and elastin production, says Dr. Gohara. Children don’t need them because their skin is already functioning at its optimal efficiency.

“I don’t think an eight-year-old should be using a retinoid or salicylic acid or glycolic acid if they don’t have acne,” Dr. Gohara says. “I would tell a 40-year-old to do that because their skin isn’t exfoliating as much and isn’t producing as much collagen, so there’s a reason to boost those biological functions. But in a young person, their skin is exfoliating itself, their fibroblasts — which make collagen — are in overdrive and [their skin] is happy and plump, so they don’t need that.”

Some collagen-boosting ingredients, like peptides, won’t hurt the skin of preteens, but they won’t have a benefit that justifies the price tag. Other ingredients aren’t just superfluous, but can actually cause trouble. Using vitamin C, for instance, runs the risk of causing increased sensitivity in preteen skin, says Dr. Mariwalla. “I can’t imagine there’s some eight-year-old running around that needs that degree of antioxidant on their skin,” says Dr. Mariwalla. “Their skin does not have so much free radical or pollution exposure. Skin that is in the eight to 11-year-old range is perfectly functioning and healthy.”

Ultimately, for preteens, “there’s no need for a lot of extra ingredients,” says Dr. Hartman. “They just need hydration.” He points to ceramides (“good to restore the skin barrier”), hyaluronic acid, and niacinamide as ingredients to look for.

For kids just starting out on their skin-care journeys, the temptation to experiment with new products and ingredients can be irresistible, but Dr. Gohara warns parents to proceed with caution and opt for a slow and steady approach instead. “I think the most important thing is to not hop around from product to product because that’s a recipe for irritation,” she explains. “I’m seeing young people come in and they have a lot of perioral dermatitis. And the first thing I ask them is ‘What are you using?’ and they rattle off all these different things I would have never had access to as an eight-year-old that they can just have their parents take them to Sephora [to get].” Perioral dermatitis is a form of rosacea that presents as red bumps around the eyes or mouth; Dr. Gohara is also seeing young patients with contact dermatitis, allergic dermatitis, and acne brought on by their product experimentation. “Once you start deviating from a basic skin routine, that’s how you get these little skin grenades of inflammation,” she says. This can be especially detrimental for children with more melanin content in their skin, notes Dr. Hartman. “These kids might as well learn at an early age that high melanin makes you more susceptible to having issues like hyperpigmentation when you have breakouts and inflammatory reactions.”

How can preteens build healthy skin habits?

One of the most important things any parent can do with their preteen, especially one who is showing an interest in their skin, is to create a dialogue around healthy skin habits. Many parents may have a knee-jerk negative reaction to their child’s interest in what might seem like an adult practice, but as Dr. Gohara points out, it only benefits them as they get older. “It’s really good that kids’ attention is heightened to skin health,” she says. “The first freckle that a two or three-year-old gets is the first sign of aging. And once that skin cell is damaged enough to produce a freckle, you know that area is vulnerable to things like skin cancer. The sooner you learn to protect yourself, the better off you will be later in life.”

Dr. Scott notes that creating moments together with your child to practice your skin-care routines can function as both an educational and bonding exercise for parents and preteens. “I’ve got four daughters — ages 3, 6, 8, and 10 — and we do spa days all the time,” she says. “They’re not super crazy into skin care, but they appreciate my routine. I don’t necessarily want them to copy that yet, but we do have fun with a spa day where we’ll light a candle and all put a sort of mask on. But that should just be for fun. It’s never ‘Your face looks like XYZ, we must do this.’” Just be sure you are choosing gentle, hydrating masks — look for ingredients like hyaluronic acid and ceramides — and avoiding anything that says brightening or peeling, she notes.

If you are having trouble getting your child excited about a simple routine or using products that aren’t trendy on social media, Dr. Gohara says to take a mix-and-match approach, blending things they love with things they need. “To increase compliance, put their favorite products next to the ones you really want them to use,” she advises. “My sons have their skin care next to their can't-do-without cologne that goes on every morning.” Or, buy them one tween-appropriate item from a brand they love and create the rest of their routine from derm-approved brands for their age group.

And, while we all might have heard some good-natured jokes about Sephora looking more like a daycare than a beauty store these days, some, like Dr. Mariwalla, believe that Gen Alpha’s interest in skin care can have a positive impact on their self-esteem. “Teens are starting to normalize normal skin,” says Dr. Mariwalla. “They’re starting to be body positive about the normal function of skin, and that blemishes and pore sizes are normal to have. I think it's empowering for them to take ownership of how they want to look. Far too often, teens feel self conscious and want to hide. So if they feel that doing a skin-care routine brings them a sense of control over their bodies and makes them feel more confident, I'm all for it.”

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Originally Appeared on Allure