Tweens are psyched about skincare. But their approach is concerning

Mar 12, 2024, 9:00 AM | Updated: 5:24 pm

Kid carries Sephora bag...

A shopper carries a Sephora bag in the SoHo neighborhood of New York, on January 21, 2023. (Credit: Jordana Bermudez/Bloomberg/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

(Credit: Jordana Bermudez/Bloomberg/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

New York (CNN) — Tweens are obsessed with skincare. Their curiosity for all kinds of creams, gels, face masks and facial peels has even earned them a viral moniker: “Sephora Kids.”

“The Sephora Kid trend is a real phenomenon,” said Dr. Lauren Penzi, a New York-based dermatologist.

And skincare experts are applauding the fact that kids as young as eight years old appear to be invested in taking care of their skin. The evidence is all over social media. At the same time, they’re concerned these young consumers are going about it in a risky way – from what they are buying to where they are buying it – and causing unnecessary damage such as rashes, allergic reactions and even skin burns.

Scores of recent TikTok and Instagram videos have documented the so-called tween invasion of Sephora and Ulta stores, with many grown-ups bemoaning the Gen Alpha takeover of these popular beauty products chains.

Tweens gravitate to Sephora and Ulta for the same reason that adult shoppers do. Both stores offer customers the try-before-you-buy option for any beauty or fragrance product sold in their store.

At a Sephora store in New York City, a store employee told CNN that tweens are frequently flowing in, not really asking for advice or recommendations from staff, and making a beeline for trendy and pricey skincare brands, such as Drunk Elephant, Glow Recipe and Laneige, that are hyped up by influencers.

Not necessarily for everyone

Drunk Elephant, whose products range from $38 for a 30 ml bottle of its uber popular “D-Bronzi” peptide face serum to $62 for 50 ml of its Lala Retro Whipped Cream, has an online FAQ section addressing younger customers asking, “Can Drunk Elephant be used by children?”

The response begins, “Yes, however not every product in our line should be used by younger fans, 12 and under. In general, we do not recommend using products containing high concentration of active ingredients, which address concerns that aren’t present at such an age,” and goes on to urge parental supervision.

Dr. Stacey Tull, a cosmetic dermatology specialist in Missouri, worries that preteens are falling for the hype without properly understanding popular skincare products, such as retinol, their usage and whether those products are actually suitable for younger skin. Retinol is a form of vitamin A and is a popular skincare ingredient that is used to improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles on aging skin.

Tweens definitely don’t need to use retinol, said Tull.

“Retinol came from retinoic acid, which is actually for acne but probably 20 years ago it took off as an anti-aging serum,” she said. “If tweens are having acne then they should see their doctors or dermatologist and get it prescribed rather than go for an anti-aging serum which does have some retinol, but the original intent is not to treat acne and it’s also in the wrong formulation to treat acne.”

The retinol products sold in beauty products stores, she said, are for mature skin of older consumers.

Dr. Penzi shared similar concerns and said she fears she’s already seeing the consequences among her younger patients.

“This age is when skin issues do tend to arise. It’s a lot of hormonal changes, maybe stress, maybe hygiene isn’t as good. This is when they start to figure out what their skin type is like,” she said. “It is certainly a good thing that these young individuals have awareness of their skin type, but they need to learn how to properly take care of it.”

But rushing into Sephora and Ulta to find products might be overkill. The three products she encourages tweens to use are gentle cleansers and moisturizers that are suited for their skin and sunscreen. Any additional product should only address specific needs at this age, such as oily or acne-prone skin.

Among her recent younger patients, Penzi said she’s seen a number of cases of allergic reactions. “They come in with redness, burning, itching, scaling and rashes,” she said. “One of the ingredients they might be truly allergic to or it’s way too irritating for their skin barrier.”

She’s also seeing younger patients with worsening acne, “probably putting too many products and their pores are drowning in it. In the 10-to-12 age group I’m definitely seeing more frequent cases with these conditions than I have in the past,” Penzi said.

“They are young and don’t want to be forthcoming with me and the mom’s always sitting in the back of the room mouthing to me that their kid is using things they shouldn’t be,” Penzi said.

Sephora, which is owned by French luxury group LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, declined to comment for this story. The retailer operates more than 2,700 stores globally, including over 1,000 independent store locations in the United States. The beauty products chain also operates several hundred smaller format Sephora stores inside of Kohl’s department stores.

Ulta, which operates over 1,300 stores nationwide, told CNN in a comment that the retailer wants to be a resource for guests at every age and stage of their beauty journey.”

“While we love seeing teens and tweens embrace skincare and establish healthy rituals early on, we want everyone to engage with the category responsibly and have access to information on the best ingredients for their skincare needs,” according to an emailed statement.

Ulta said it provides educational guidance in store and on, which includes “dermatologist recommended offerings and brands formulated with tweens in mind. “Our store associates can help guests find products that are gentle and effective for all skin types, especially younger generations.”

‘It’s a status symbol’

Jennifer O’Brien celebrated her twin girls’ 12th birthday in January at a Sephora store in Long Island, New York.

The store offers birthday events before the store opens or after it closes for tweens and teens that include either a group beauty makeover or skincare 101 tutorial.

“After the event, they had an hour to go shop in a closed store. They had the aisles all to themselves and they were filling up their goodie bags,” said O’Brien, who does offer advice to her daughters about the products they buy.

O’Brien said she understands Sephora’s appeal to tweens. “It’s like an aspirational brand to them, similar to the Stanley tumblers craze. They see people using products from Sephora on social media. So it’s almost like a status symbol to buy products from there even if they don’t even know how to use them properly, but they can show their friends that they have them.”

At the same time, O’Brien, who used to work in the cosmetics industry and managed a Sephora store inside of a JC Penney in New York City, harbors a few concerns.

“My main concern is that when my girls go through those hormonal changes, they can’t be layering all these products on their face,” she said. “At a certain point they will see that their skin can break out from it.”

Penzi singled out social media for fueling the sense among pre-adolescents of not wanting to be left out. “Their friends are trying products, they want to do it and nobody wants to be left out at this age,” she said.

Market research firm Circana, which tracks point-of-sale data from retailers, said the most recent holiday season showed the popularity of skincare among Gen Alpha.

Receipt-based checkout data revealed that spending on higher-priced beauty products (including skincare) among higher income households (above $100,000) grew by 16% with children under 18 years of age, significantly higher than the 6% increase than households without children.

Sheryl Jorgensen Masowdi told CNN that she’s not opposed to her daughter shopping at Sephora.

Still, Masowdi has her limits on how much leeway she will give her tween daughter, who got a vanity for Christmas so she could display her skincare collection.

Masowdi said her 11-year-old is very knowledgeable about skin care, but sometimes still reaches for the wrong products. “She was looking at this skin tightening product and I said, girlfriend, I need skin tightening. You do not.”

Related: 5 ways parents can shore up a middle schooler’s self-image

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Tweens are psyched about skincare. But their approach is concerning