Skincare for teenagers: Keep it mild and beware of beauty influencers

Products with gentle ingredients are key to keeping breakouts at bay

Parents should watch out for active ingredients that can disrupt the pH balance of young skin. Getty Images
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Awkward limbs, ashy elbows and first crushes: There’s no denying teenage years can be tough. Especially when it comes to the wild hormonal ride featuring uninvited co-passengers clinging to bewildered teens – breakouts, acne, blackheads and sensitive, patchy skin.

“You can forget your first crush, but can you forget your first pimple?” a friend recently said in jest.

What’s not a joking matter, though, is the psychological impact skin conditions can have on young minds already grappling with fragile confidence, self-esteem issues and peer pressure.

Products meant for adults are not 'better' – they’re stronger because mature skin needs more maintenance and care
Anisha Oberoi, founder, Secret Skin

Acne is, by far, the most dreaded and the most prevalent. An estimated 85 per cent of adolescents experience acne at some point, regardless of gender. A 2022 study of acne-prone young women between the ages of 15 and 24 from Saudi Arabia, found that more than 85 per cent reported a negative psychological impact and effect on quality of life, owing to their skin condition.

A French study of close to 1,600 adolescents and young adults found that 48 per cent of those who had suffered from acne said that their daily life was affected by the condition, while 58 per cent felt lonely and 57 per cent felt anxious.

Skin quality, then, is a big deal during the delicate tween and teen years.

Mild products over mature formulations

“Teenagers go through hormonal changes, that’s a biological fact,” says Anisha Oberoi, founder and chief executive of Secret Skin, a beauty platform for clean products. “When physical and sexual characteristics mature, skin is the most sensitive and prone to reaction. While this settles over time, it’s important to protect kids from the social stigmas around less-than-perfect skin. And it’s important to help them discover a basic but effective skincare routine they can carry for life as habits for healthy skin.”

Dermatologist and author of Age Erase, Dr Rashmi Shetty, recommends three Cs – care, caution and common sense.

“Most Eastern cultures, and increasingly in the West now, have centuries-old traditions of massaging newborn babies with ghee or coconut oil. That’s skincare right there, and it is completely safe.

“Using sunscreens, and mild moisturisers and cleansers is recommended for kids of all ages, not just teens, especially if the child is spending significant time in the sun or swimming.”

The big secret of skincare among teens is that a good moisturiser, used regularly, will take care of most things
Dr Rashmi Shetty, dermatologist

Parents also need to watch out for active ingredients that can inadvertently disrupt the pH balance of young skin. While vitamin C and salicylic acid are all heavily marketed ingredients, even simple actives such as these can chronically irritate teen skin and must be used only under professional supervision after gauging the requirement based on hormonal or metabolic changes.

“It’s important to understand that products meant for adults are not ‘better’ – they’re stronger because mature skin needs more maintenance and care, which is why they have higher concentration of actives that address mature skin cycles,” explains Oberoi. “Products targeted at younger customers are and should be gentler.”

The right pH balance

“The big secret of skincare among teens is that a good moisturiser, used regularly, will take care of most things – even pityriasis alba, or the small scaly white patches that develop on the skin if it is too dry or due to sun sensitivity,” says Dr Shetty.

“I would urge parents to protect the pH balance and good bacteria on your child’s skin. It is crucial to keeping it beautiful, healthy and, most importantly, maintain its ability to naturally battle issues. Young skin has natural collagen, it still has a barrier that is intact, it has the good bacteria or the microbiome, which is intact. The minute, for example, you add even vitamin C, you're already turning the pH of the skin, which makes the skin irritable, which then spoils the barrier, which finally spoils the microbiome. It’s a chain reaction.”

For teenagers prone to breakouts, Oberoi lists products with gentler ingredients such as charcoal, tree tea oil and vitamin E. “It’s an antiseptic form of treatment that reduces inflammation rather than one that contains strong formulas, which can have negative downstream impact on fertility cycles and lead to endocrine disruptions in the future,” says the breast cancer survivor.

Beware of beauty influencers

Even when parents work hard to instil the simple habit of cleansing-moisturising-sun protection in their children, there’s no denying the challenges created by beauty influencers, many of whom are worshipped by teenagers, particularly young girls. Beauty is one of the most popular categories of influencer marketing on social media due to its visual nature, and YouTube, TikTok and Instagram have thousands of influencers peddling products and sharing personal recommendations in the name of decoding skincare and making beauty accessible.

Many a parent of a hot-headed teenager has stories of avoidable headaches and nightmarish situations resulting from being influenced by strangers on the internet. Every dermatologist and qualified skin expert has stories of harried mothers bringing in teenagers with angry skin reacting to unsuitable products.

“For teens wanting to experiment with make-up, don’t shut it down as a no-go from the start,” says Dr Shetty. “Instead, take them to dermatologists who can tell them what ingredients to never compromise on because, like it or not, there’s nothing that can come in the way of a teenage girl if she’s decided she’s in love with glitter!

Help them pick light gels, water-based products, and those that wash off and are non-comedogenic so don’t block the pores
Tania Rodney, founder, Dandydill Way

“It’s also a myth that just because it’s a home remedy, it's safe,” she adds. “Home face packs with honey, lime juice or other forms of citrus, or even home scrubs with aloe vera can irritate a teen’s sensitive skin. I would even suggest it is better to use the child variants with milder formulations of products by mass brands that have been around for decades, instead of new, supposedly natural home-grown brands that seem to be popping up every day because it is unlikely they’ve gone through the same kind of rigorous testing and safety checks.”

Awareness is key

One solution, according to Tania Rodney, celebrity make-up artist and founder of Dandydill Way, a London-based children’s skincare brand, is to get teenagers involved in the process.

“You want to teach them how to read labels of products and what each ingredient means, so they feel empowered to make decisions on their own, too – which they will, without parental supervision, whether we like it or not.

“Help them understand brands that use particularly child-safe ingredients without heavy essential oils that can cause allergic reactions, or fragrances and petroleum-based products that can be harsh. Help them pick light gels, water-based products, and those that wash off and are non-comedogenic so don’t block the pores, which is very important. The idea is not to add more unused products on the shelf, it is to help them pick out a few they enjoy using and build habits around them.”

Mira Kulkarni, founder of luxury ayurvedic skincare brand Forest Essentials, agrees.

“Given the resources that teenagers have access to today, it is important to induct them into the world of beauty and skincare with the right information. They need a balance of the excitement of exploration of products with particular guidance about cleansers, moisturisers and sunscreens, which are the building blocks of all skincare routines,” says Kulkarni.

“The crucial point to help them understand is that healthy skin isn't achieved overnight, but is rather a sustained process that has long-term results.”

Updated: October 20, 2023, 7:30 AM