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Tweens are rushing to Sephora for skin care products meant for adults. Are active ingredients harmful on young skin?

A tween girl applying a white cream to her face in front of a makeup mirror.
Tweens are hooked on skin care. Is it harming their skin? (Getty Images)

It's the age of "Sephora kids." As teens and tweens as young as 9 years old roam the aisles of the beauty chain — filling their baskets with upscale skin care products and posting their product reviews on TikTok — parents fret over what this fascination might mean for their kids' self-image, and wonder whether this is just an elevated update on past generations stocking up on drugstore beauty staples in their own youth.

"Social media and trends play a large role," Dr. Nava Greenfield, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group, tells Yahoo Life about young people's interest in skin care. "Young women are always looking for ways to improve their appearance, and media has convinced young people that focusing on skin care is a way to tweak their appearance in a way that gives them some feeling of agency."

Greenfield has also noticed a resulting "level of anxiety" in girls feeling pressure to keep up with a "12-step routine" of the "latest and best products" being marketed. "That's challenging for any person to accomplish," she says. "In reality, the vast majority of tweens do not need anything more than a simple two-step routine."

And those two-step routines don't need to include products featuring active ingredients, which are intended for more mature skin and can cause issues for young users. Here's why dermatologists are sounding the alarm — and what to know about the risks of using active ingredients on young skin.

Why are active ingredients harmful for tweens?

Dermatologists have appeared on social media to call out the potential harm of young people adopting extensive skin care routines. In one TikTok, Dr. Ellen Gendler, a New York-based dermatologist, called the trend "a little bit disturbing" after learning what regimens her young clients were following.

"What 11-year-old needs glow drops from Drunk Elephant, needs hyaluronic serum, need pore tighteners, needs toners?" Gendler asked in the video. "I don’t think any of them do."

It's not just that these products are traditionally marketed toward adult consumers; they're formulated to work on more mature skin. Younger skin doesn't react in the same ways, experts warn.

"Tween skin is sensitive and changing and has not yet developed the hormonally influenced sebaceous sweat glands that may overproduce oil," says Greenfield. Therefore, "products may cause a reaction or disrupt the skin barrier."

Dr. Brooke Jeffy, a dermatologist specializing in teen skin care, shared in a social media clip that contact dermatitis, a rash caused by a reaction to certain cosmetics, fragrances or other products, could also result from using the wrong cream or cleanser.

Of particular concern is the presence of active ingredients in skin care products that are formulated to target a specific skin concern, such as wrinkles, hyperpigmentation or clogged pores. Greenfield calls out "concentrated alpha or beta hydroxy acids — like high concentrations of glycolic acid, lactic acid and retinoids." Products featuring strong fragrances or preservatives (like parabens or formaldehyde) and chemical sunscreens should also be avoided, she says.

Charlotte Palermino, a licensed aesthetician and the CEO and co-founder of skin care brand Dieux, adds vitamin C and exfoliants to that list, "unless a doctor is prescribing it."

"The reason people use some of these [active ingredients] is to speed up things that are slowing down," she tells Yahoo Life. "When you're a teen, you're not even done growing. You don't have hyperpigmentation, you don't have wrinkles — and if you use [these products] without a lot of sun protection then you can do more harm than good."

What skin care products can tweens use?

There's not much most tweens need to do maintain healthy skin at a young age, mainly because "skin issues do not generally present in the tween years," says Greenfield.

"For most tweens the only thing they should use is a gentle wash if they need it and possibly also a moisturizer if they have dry skin," she adds. That said, there is one skin care essential: "[Use] sunscreen daily. Prevention of sun damage with sunscreen may be the only concern worthwhile at that age."

It's also important to visit a dermatologist before adding any other steps to address conditions like acne, eczema and rosacea. Anything more extensive can cause further skin complications.

The main takeaway

Unless a tween or teen has a skin condition that should be investigated further — in which case a dermatologist can offer guidance on what products are most suitable — experts agree that those trips to Sephora aren't necessary.

"Tweens should be playing board games, reading books and socializing, not worrying about their skin care routine," says Greenfield. "Social media can make you believe you have an issue when you don’t."

It's hard, though, for young people not to get swept away in the skin care craze. Click on one post about a new face wash, and the algorithm adjusts accordingly, inundating the social media user with content.

"Say you see one influencer do a ['get ready with me' video] and you like it. All of a sudden you're flooded with ads on cosmetics and skin care and more lifestyle influencers, so the loop continues," says Palermino. "When I was a kid, I was influenced by ads. I remember I was adamant that I needed Cocoa Puffs and a Furby. Today, it's [Drunk Elephant's] Protini."