Wednesday Wisdom

May 15, 2024

Skincare, #SephoraKids and Self-Esteem

By Dr Cassie Rhodes

Skincare, #SephoraKids and Self-Esteem

Reflect

Due to one of my children’s sporting activities, I spend a lot of time at a London swimming pool, which is positioned dangerously close to a very large shopping mall. A few months ago, I popped in at about 4.30pm to grab a few essentials, and found myself battling through hordes of tweens and teens to reach the shop I needed. Live music was booming from the upper floor, and a huge crowd was being whirled into an excited frenzy by a hype man on a thunderous PA system.

Long lines of youngsters (mainly girls) snaked through the shopping centre in a lengthy queue, and as I walked closer to the eye of the storm, I could hear loud screams of excitement. Was there a huge star in the mall? Harry Styles? Taylor Swift? Some TikToker or YouTuber that I am too old and uncool to have heard of? Well, no! Turning a corner, I finally saw what all the fuss was about… the grand opening of a new branch of Sephora.

For those who aren’t familiar with the brand, Sephora is a French multinational retailer with over 2,700 stores globally, selling premium skincare, fragrance and beauty products. Teens queued for literally hours to be one of the first 500 shoppers into the bright and shiny new store, and I saw many walking away excitedly rummaging through their free goody bags. For several weeks afterwards, the new branch was so busy that there was significant levels of security on the door, specific entrances and exits, and a one in, one out policy. I was amazed, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

Over the last year or so, there has been a huge boom in interest in skincare from young teens and tweens. Fuelled by influencer hype and the huge trend for #GRWM (get ready with me) videos on social media, young people are flocking to stores like Sephora to buy often pricey moisturisers, serums and masks from brands like Drunk Elephant, Glow Recipe, Laneige and Sol Janeiro. Many of these have bold, colourful packaging, appealing fragrances, or eye-catching gimmicks, and are designed to look striking on the dressing table or bathroom shelf. Mimicking their idols, videos of girls in the upper years of primary school demonstrating make-up and skincare application are now commonplace on TikTok, YouTube and Instagram. Amongst young girls in particular, there seems to be a prevalent focus on looks, and many children are now very aware of their skin, critique its appearance and want to change it.

What’s the harm, you might ask? Didn’t many of us experiment with make-up as kids? Like many teens of the 90s, I certainly remember wearing my fair share of the ubiquitous ‘Heather Shimmer’ Rimmel lipstick and spending many Saturday afternoons mooching around Boots and The Body Shop buying bath pearls and moisturisers. Many of us adults (me included) remain partial to creams and potions, and quite enjoy the odd trip to cosmetic stores ourselves. So does it really matter if young adolescents want to explore skincare products in this way?

Well, an enlightening conversation with dermatologist Dr Emma Wedgeworth and psychologist Dr Anna Colton, recorded during our Tooled Up conference on ‘Reaching Girls Early’, shows that, from the perspective of both their skin health and their mental health, this trend towards a preoccupation with validation seeking and appearance ideals, and the use of ingredients often meant for much older skin, should be discouraged.

Motivate

Dr Wedgeworth explained that the skincare choices being made by many young teens are frequently not grounded in dermatological advice and that accurate messages about what normal skin (our biggest organ) looks like and how to keep it safe and healthy are being lost.

For teens and tweens who are experiencing body changes and are keen to establish a sense of belonging within their peer group, keeping up with skincare trends can feel like an easy way to fit in. In fact, Sephora’s slogan, ‘We Belong to Something Beautiful’, taps into this very natural need that teens often feel to be accepted and part of a group. For us parents, whilst it’s a challenge, encouraging them not to succumb to every new TikTok craze will help to protect their skin longer term. Where possible, we should aim to open up conversations which explore the fact that whilst it’s natural to want to experiment and have fun, skin is fundamentally an organ that we really need to take care of and treat delicately.

I learned from Dr Wedgeworth that children’s skin changes dramatically during adolescence. Sebaceous (oil-producing) glands within the skin only wake up with the onset of puberty. Once oil begins to be produced, the skin’s microbiome - the balance of good and bad bacteria - changes, and it’s this that can lead to those almost inevitable teen spots. In fact, around 85% of teens have some degree of acne. This all means that tween and teen skin has quite specific needs which aren’t met by many of the ‘wonder’ products that have been popularised by influencers.

Often containing active ingredients meant for older skin, such as retinol or exfoliating acids, these products may even be harmful. Their soaring popularity amongst the young prompted the founder of Drunk Elephant, Tiffany Masterson, to post on social media, advising children and teens to avoid any products in the range that contain these chemicals as their skin simply doesn’t need them. It’s also apparently led some retailers to implement additional training around younger skin for in-store beauty specialists.

Dr Wedgeworth suggests that a sensible skincare routine for teens with relatively normal skin needn’t involve multiple, expensive brands. Tweens and teens really only need to cleanse and moisturise with gentle products that are designed for their specific skin type and pop on a bit of sun protection when they are going into sunlight. To determine the best type of products, she recommends that you have a chat about their skin, look at it together and consider how it behaves and feels. Is it a bit dry? Is it oily? Is it sensitive? Nudging tweens and teens to understand their own skin and notice what works for them will help them to get into healthy habits from the get go.

Teens with oily skin might benefit from a cleanser that reduces oil, such as products containing salicylic acid. Less oily skins, Dr Wedgeworth noted, need a more gentle cleanser, perhaps one which is non-foaming and cream-based. Moisturiser will benefit most people, especially those living in changeable climates like ours in the UK, where lower temperatures and central heating often causes skin to dry. Gel consistency moisturisers are better for oily skin and drier skins will enjoy a cream consistency. Any individual pimples can be spot treated with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide bought over the counter at a pharmacy. Whilst it’s not a TikTok favourite, Dr Wedgeworth highlighted CeraVe as an affordable brand that can be very helpful for teen skin.

She also reminded us that severe acne is not a rite of passage and that if your child has a moderate to severe skin condition, it’s always advisable to seek medical help. Skin conditions need treating, and they tend to respond really well when an effective regime is put in place. Treating skin problems can also dramatically change the way that teens feel about themselves, significantly improving young people’s cutaneous body image in the long term.

Support

If a short skincare routine and a lick of mascara helps your teen to feel good each morning, then that’s unlikely to indicate any problem. But if they feel unable to leave the house without lengthy application of lotions, potions and significant amounts of make-up, then this may indicate that they don’t feel at ease with themselves. Here in the UK, it’s Mental Health Awareness Week. As well as providing practical dermatological advice, Dr Colton and Dr Wedgeworth’s conversation was a timely reminder that building intrinsic self-esteem is particularly vital for teens experiencing the (sometimes challenging) physical changes of puberty.

For some young people, expressing too much interest in skincare and makeup can be a sign that they feel fundamentally insecure. Over-evaluation of weight or size, disproportionate distress around their appearance, or a desperation to have certain wonder creams or make-up in a belief that they will ‘fix’ perceived problems are all red flags to look out for. Remember that every child is different and warning signs for one are not necessarily warning signs for others. If your child does express a lot of interest in skincare and make-up, understanding how they really feel about themselves will help you to evaluate whether or not their behaviour is indicative of a deeper issue.

It’s also vital for us to keep our antennae up for evidence of social comparison and consider whether or not your child is using skincare as a way of seeking external validation. In 2022, children and teens in the UK spent an average of 114 minutes per day on TikTok (the most popular social media app). Professor Tracey Wade’s work shows that social media use is associated with a small increase in body image disturbance and that this happens more when our use of social media is ‘appearance-focused’. Continuously looking at people who meet appearance ideals can be especially harmful.

What are your children looking at on social media? Are they viewing material which disproportionately highlights the importance of beauty ideals? How do they talk about themselves in relation to the content that they are consuming? If they do compare themselves unfavourably to others, nudge them to consider how they can curate their social media feed in a way that makes them feel good. Try to initiate conversations about what social media content they find useful, interesting or in line with their values. What feeds feel authentic and real? Do some accounts make them feel good at first, but worse over time? Encourage them to take advantage of the options available on social media sites to control the kind of content that appears in their feed.

If you are worried about the amount of time (and money) that your child spends on their skin, gentle, curious conversations around the dinner table or in the car can help. Take an active, but non-critical interest in their skincare and make-up routines. Invite their opinions. Ask them why they do certain things. Be curious about what they think might happen if they go out without a full face of make-up. “What do you fear about it?” “Do all of your friends do this? What about the ones who don’t? Do you still find them fun?” Once you understand their thinking, it’s much easier to nudge them towards cognitive flexibility and help them to make incremental shifts in their mindset.

Given that many trendy products are from the higher end of the market, it’s also sensible to model how to work within a budget by buying skincare products that are within our means and which are tailored and effective for our specific skin needs. Dr Wedgeworth told us that whilst we can certainly splurge on fancy products, it’s also perfectly possible to get a great skincare routine by spending far less. Maintaining a common sense approach with tweens and teens about how much money is appropriate to spend is important. If they are reluctant to opt for products which differ to the influencer trends, try doing an ingredient comparison with some cheaper ones. They’ll probably be quite surprised to find that many of the ingredients are identical! For those readers who wear it, it’s also important to model a healthy relationship with cosmetic products. Going out make-up free can show your child that whilst it can be nice to dress up, you don’t need make-up all of the time.

Finally, Dr Colton advised that we should all try to encourage our children to have other interests and hobbies. She notes that when they spend more time doing things that they love with different social groups, they are less prone to social comparison, have less time to be on their phones and have more access to varied ways of building internal self-esteem. When they have confidence in themselves and the non-physical aspects of their identity, they are less likely to rely exclusively on ‘likes’. Remember, if you are concerned about your child’s body image, never be afraid to seek further advice. There is much that can be done to help.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

Find out more about the impact of skincare on tweens’ and teens’ mental health by watching our webinar with consultant dermatologist, Dr Emma Wedgeworth and clinical psychologist, Dr Anna Colton. You might also want to share with teens these guidelines about how to use social media feeds in a way that minimises unhelpful comparisons. Created by leading expert, Professor Tracey Wade, they will encourage teens to consider some of the research relating to the impact of social media on their wellbeing and reflect on how they might be able to 'curate their feed' in a way that reduces any negative impact. If you are interested in learning more about Professor Wade's work on social media and body image, tune in to our webinar or podcast interview.

On a different note, this Friday (17th May), we are proud to be holding a conference on ‘Protecting Children and Young People from Violence and Abuse', which will be hosted by Dr Lisa Sugiura from the University of Portsmouth, a renowned expert in the fields of cybercrime and gender. It will focus on developing a greater understanding of the impact of abuse on children and young people, and outline proactive measures that can be taken by educators and parents to protect children and young people from violence and abuse both on and offline. Book your place now.

On Monday 20th May at 7pm, we're also excited to be hosting a webinar with Emma Leeson from philosophy charity, SAPERE. Emma will explore how to use books, questions and statements to stimulate conversations with your children, and outline the kinds of concepts ripe for philosophical investigation - all in one interactive 90 minute session. Book your place now.