Wrinkle creams for preteens sound safety alarm

Skin-care products from the Ordinary, Glow Recipe and Drunk Elephant. (WSJ)
Skin-care products from the Ordinary, Glow Recipe and Drunk Elephant. (WSJ)


Dermatologists say antiaging products can have harsh effects on young skin, while companies say they aren’t marketing them to children.

This spring, amid preparation for cookie sales and planning a white-water rafting trip, the Girl Scouts of Larchmont-Mamaroneck welcomed a special guest speaker: a dermatologist.

Preteens and teens across the country have ditched their crafts, videogames and toys, embracing antiaging and other beauty products, and parents are concerned. Some of the most popular products contain active ingredients such as retinol and glycolic acid, which can thin the top layer of the skin and cause peeling and irritation.

While long-term impacts are still being studied, most children have a healthy skin barrier that becomes easily disrupted when using harsh topicals, according to dermatologists. Some girls have reported getting rashes after using such creams and serums; others say they have gotten sunburned more easily.

“No child was talking about alpha hydroxy acid before the pandemic," said Leah Ansell, the dermatologist invited to talk to the Girl Scouts in the New York suburb, referring to an active ingredient found in some products. “Now, everyone is talking about specific skin-care ingredients. It’s a worrying and surprising trend."

Girls in their preteens and early teens have helped fuel a renaissance in the $430 billion global beauty market. Dubbed “Sephora Kids," they follow influencers on TikTok and YouTube who post “get ready with me" videos touting antiaging creams and serums.

American teens spend an average of $339 a year on beauty products, according to Piper Sandler Companies’ semiannual “Taking Stock With Teens" survey, the highest average recorded since 2018. The survey didn’t break out the amount spent on specific types of beauty products, such as antiaging creams and serums.

Retailers and product makers generally say they advise preteens and early teens to stick to gentler products. They have largely resisted efforts to mandate product warnings or age requirements.

The warning debate

Earlier this year, California assemblymember Alex Lee introduced a bill that would require warnings or age verification for antiaging products. The legislation was quashed at the appropriations-committee level. Lee said he is considering his next steps.

During the hearing for the bill, then-10-year-old Scarlett Goddard-Strahan testified that she began using products that had antiwrinkling and brightening properties—so that “she wouldn’t look old, no offense"—after listening to influencers on TikTok and YouTube.

She started getting burns and bumps after using them.

“I wanted glowy skin, and instead I have red, itchy skin," Goddard-Strahan told the committee.

Beauty retailers Sephora and Ulta Beauty, along with owners of popular brands such as the Ordinary, Drunk Elephant and Glow Recipe, don’t market antiaging products to younger customers in stores or on their websites. They have said preteens and younger teenagers should stay away from products with these ingredients.

Sephora, a favorite destination for tweens, referred questions to the Personal Care Products Council, a trade association that includes hundreds of cosmetics and skin-care brands as well as chains such as Sephora and Ulta.

The group said that it supports dermatologists’ views that antiaging products are unnecessary for preteens and teens and that they should look for mild cleansers, hydrating moisturizers and protective sunscreens. The trade group has said it would be “largely impossible" to enforce any age requirements on products.

Ulta said it recommends younger customers avoid retinols and active ingredients and instead reach for gentler alternatives. It said it looks to brands to provide age recommendations.

Some companies have highlighted potential risks for younger customers. The Ordinary, owned by Estée Lauder, in February put out an Instagram post titled “Teens, you don’t need ten steps," recommending teens “avoid ingredients like retinoids and alpha hydroxy acids at the start of your skincare journey."

The social-media effect

Bubble Skincare has a line on some of its product pages for formulas with higher levels of active ingredients, such as its Moon Walk Gentle Exfoliating Serum, that says it is recommended for those ages 14 and up. “If you are younger than 14, talk to a dermatologist before using Moon Walk," the product description page says.

Shai Eisenman, Bubble’s founder and chief executive, said the brand has a responsibility to educate its customers about the risks of using active ingredients before they are necessary. Eisenman said that since Bubble launched in 2020, she has noticed younger and younger girls flocking to social media to tout their skin-care routines, many featuring products with highly active ingredients.

The shift sparked discussions with Bubble’s development team about how best to include age guidelines on their product. When the company launched its Moon Walk serum six months ago, it added the warning to the website and to TikTok advertisements for the products with an overview of age recommendations for the full product line.

“I don’t want to see anyone doing anything that could potentially damage their skin," Eisenman said.

Drunk Elephant, the colorfully packaged line owned by Japanese beauty giant Shiseido that is popular with younger customers, has no such warnings on its pages for specific products.

In response to one of the frequently asked questions, “Can Drunk Elephant be used by children?" the answer says: “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."

“Safety is always our top priority," a Drunk Elephant spokesperson said.

Glow Recipe’s Watermelon Glow PHA + BHA Pore-Tight Toner says on its website page that the product is suitable for all skin types and ages. “You may wish to consult a dermatologist before using actives on young skin," it says.

Glow Recipe didn’t reply to requests for comment.

Kathryn Kirchoff-Torres, a neurologist who leads a seventh-grade Girl Scout troop that attended Ansell’s presentation, has been concerned about how social-media marketing to tweens and teens contains little factual information on skin care that is healthy and safe. She has noticed it sometimes seems to have inflated claims from paid spokespeople.

“It’s a field even we as adults find challenging to navigate," said Kirchoff-Torres, who has a teenage daughter. “We wanted a science-based resource for our girls to have, so they’re not just buying items in order to fit in or to follow trends."

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