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Teenage is a period of significant transformation- both internally and externally.
Unfortunately, this phase of the emotional roller coaster is accompanied by a series of changes in the skin which usually catches the teens off guard. After more than a decade of near-perfect skin, they start waking up to moody skin and pesky zits.
To add to that, the frenzy of influencers talking about skin care for a teen (or tween) presents a lot of confusing options leaving behind a cupboard full of products, but not necessarily better skin.
And since in this phase of peer pressure, appearance plays such a significant role in self-esteem, troubled skin is almost often accompanied by troubled feelings.
So in this article, we are going to do this Herculean task of navigating through the skin care for teens (and tweens) – the essentials, the best skincare products, and just how much is too much.
Understanding teenagers skin
At puberty, the amount of hormones circulating in the blood dramatically increases. This causes the maturation of different structures present in the skin.
These include, amongst others, the facial hair and oil glands. Under the influence of these hormones, the oil glands enlarge and start producing more ‘sebum’ (1). This sebum production is responsible for oily skin, and then, in due course- the infamous acne.
Acne brings a whole new set of problems- redness, pigmentation, and scars.
But of course, not every teenager suffers from acne. While some fight an unsightly pimple, others suffer from irritated skin due to change in weather or cosmetics, redness, or dryness.
And, thanks to social media, a lot of trendy skincare products and procedures experiments leave behind a not-so-happy skincare barrier, just adding to the list of problems by increasing inflammation.
Towards the end of teenage, sun damage starts catching up, and even though the skin has an extraordinary capacity to regenerate at this age, some signs of sun damage, like open pores, pigmentation, and dullness, slowly start becoming visible.
Teenagers’ skin would need a little more attention and extra care than tween skin, especially when it is nearing the 20s.
How skincare for teen and tweens is different from adults
As a dermatologist, I am often asked if a teenage girl can use her mother’s products. The answer largely depends on the kind of products her mother is using.
Skincare for tweens should best be purchased separately, as the needs of the skin at that age are completely different. The priority at that age is not to treat, but to prevent.
The best tween skin care products offer the basic support to the skin to keep it in a healthy state. The skin at that age needs minimum and basic care, and going extra at any step will be overkill and could do more harm than good.
In teenagers, especially in the late teen years, some products can be borrowed from the mother’s vanity. A mild but effective face wash, a sunscreen suitable for that skin type, and just maybe a vitamin C or niacinamide serum.
Teenagers’ skin has a very healthy turnover, so the need for exfoliants is very low unless it is acne-prone skin. Other ‘adult products’ like retinoids or strong alpha hydroxy acids are not needed or routinely recommended in a teen skincare routine.
Building a teenage skincare routine: Steps, tips, and products
Just like any good skincare routine, the best skincare for teenage skin also consists of the essentials- cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen. The addition of toner or exfoliation is optional, and serum or treatment depending on the skin’s condition (like acne).
Best tween skincare could essentially comprise of the same steps, similar products, but without toners, exfoliants, or products with a lot of actives.
Let us take a deeper dive about how to choose products for each step of teen and tween skincare to build a good skincare routine. I have also included what I consider some of the best teenage skin care products on the market.
1. Cleansing the teen skin
Cleansing the skin right is the first step to healthy skin. It is important to remember that the most important function of a cleanser is to clean- clean the skin from environmental pollutants, remove the extra oil and residues of other products. Any other function that it serves, like delivering an active ingredient, is secondary.
A cleanser should be used every day- once or twice- depending on the time spent outside, activities, and other products used.
Cleansing product for tweens:
For tweens and early teenage years, the only important factor should be mildness. A lot of parents let their children wash their faces with soap. Soaps, with an alkaline pH, could cause dryness and irritate the skin.
Instead, using a mild and hydrating facewash will protect the skin from getting too dry, and still effectively remove the grime (2).
Like Cerave Hydrating Cleanser with ceramide to strengthen the skin barrier and glycerine and hyaluronic acid to moisturize the skin. If a bar of soap is preferred, syndet bars can be used (like Dove Soap). They have a neutral pH and are pretty gentle for the skin.
Cleansing product for teens:
Skin in the middle and late teenage years may need a different cleanser, which should also be mild but controls the oil production, without irritating the skin, like the La Roche Posay Effaclar Foaming Cleanser.
In case of mild outbreaks, a cleanser containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid could purify the pores and prevent clogging. Remember to keep these cleansers in contact with the skin for a couple of minutes for the best results.
Cleansing product to remove makeup:
When makeup comes into play, an extra cleansing step needs to be added, as a normal gentle cleanser may not be enough to remove the waterproof makeup and pigments thoroughly.
Micellar water or oil cleanser as the first step before using the regular cleanser ensures that every last bit of that stubborn makeup gets washed away. I personally love the Bioderma Sensibio Micellar Water which is gentle enough for all skin type, but still powerful enough to remove everything which does not belong on your skin.
Develop the habit of removing your makeup and washing your face before going to bed as a teenager. This habit will pay off later in life.
Cleansing product before shaving:
Teenage boys, even the ones with oily skin, should not use a drying face wash before shaving, as it may result in more razor burns and cuts. Use a hydrating cleanser with lukewarm water to cleanse the face before shaving to avoid that and to soften your hair for a smooth shaving experience.
A product like ZELEN Life Cleanser (Face Wash) which moisturizes the skin, while also controlling the sebum production could be a great choice.
Oiliness and acne have got nothing to do with hygiene. Cleansing the skin multiple times a day just worsens acne and dryness (4). Stick to cleansing your facial skin not more than twice a day.
More cleansing tips:
- Avoid harsh surfactants like sodium lauryl sulfate in teen and tween years (3). Even though the skin’s capacity to heal is excellent at this age, harsh detergents can result in contact irritation and allergy.
- Even though it cannot be generalized to all products, when in doubt, gels and foams are more suitable for oily skin, whereas lotion and cream-based cleansers work best for the dry.
2. Toning and/or exfoliating- Needed or unnecessary splurge for teen skin?
The holy grail of skincare has been cleansing-toning-moisturizing for decades. As we understand skincare now, toner is not always a must-have, but a nice addition to have with its multi-functionality.
Exfoliating toners are rapidly becoming one of the most loved skincare products across skincare lovers of all ages. But, is it wise to start so soon with toning and exfoliating in your tween and teen years?
Let us start with toning. Toning was used to balance the pH value of the skin when most cleansers used to be alkaline. A toner brings the pH to the normal acidic levels and restores the healthy mantle. But since most of the cleansing products are near to the skin’s natural pH value nowadays the basic need for toners is eliminated.
Another place where a toner was used a lot in the past is as ‘astringent’ with high alcohol content to control the oil production on the skin. A high alcohol content removes not just the extra oil, but the protective oil layer from the skin which increases moisture loss resulting in dryness and irritation.
Toning product for teens and tweens:
As a teenager, if you really want to integrate a toner in your skincare plan, choose a light hydrating toner without alcohol which imparts moisture to the skin, without making it oily.
For example something like ZELEN Life Toner, which contains not only moisturizing and soothing ingredients but natural astringents to achieve the ideal balance.
When it comes to exfoliation, tweens definitely do not need it. The cell turnover in this age is superb, and no other external agents are needed to facilitate that.
Teens with acne-prone skin could use a salicylic acid-containing product for exfoliation. Salicylic acid is oil soluble and thus dissolves the contents of pores, preventing the pore-clogging and acne lesions. Ideally 1-2% salicylic acid used once a day can do this job really well without being harsh on the skin. (5)
In case of pigmentation or uneven skin tone, a mild alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) – like glycolic acid or lactic acid can also be used 1-3 times a week. A practical and easy-to-use option would be to use exfoliating pads, the ones from Peter Thomas Roth, which also has 2% salicylic acid, in addition to 10% glycolic acid complex.
Remember to boost up your sun protection if you are using AHA, as AHAs make the skin more sensitive to sunburns. (6)
More exfoliation tips:
- Avoid physical exfoliation. Walnut and apricot beads are abrasive and can cause micro-injuries to the skin leading to worsening of acne and more inflammation. A safer option is jojoba beads which have rounded edges and are relatively gentler to the skin of teens and tweens.
- Over exfoliation is a thing. Do not exfoliate daily with a high concentration of chemical exfoliants – it will damage the skin barrier, make the skin appear red and glazed, and turn it extremely sensitive to every other product and external condition.
3. Moisturizing- Tweenage and teenage necessity
All skin needs moisture support. The infants, the children, the tweens, and the teens. When it comes to moisturizers, all age groups with similar skin types can use the same moisturizers.
There are just a few things to be kept in mind when it comes to skincare in teens and tweens:
There are two main types of moisturizers- humectants which bind the water from the air and deep layers of skin to bring it to the surface, and occlusive which prevent the water loss from the surface.
Moisturizing product for oily to normal skin:
For an oily to normal skin type in a teenager, a humectant moisturizer like L’Occitane Moisturizing Gel with glycerin or hyaluronic acid is enough since sebum, the skin’s own natural oil does enough to prevent water loss.
Moisturizing product for dry skin:
For dry skin, an occlusive like petrolatum or silicone should be brought in the mix to prevent moisture loss like Embryolisse Lait-Crème Concentrate.
Remember, ideally, moisturizer should be applied daily, regardless of the skin type. It is best applied to the damp skin so that the hydrating ingredients penetrate deeper.
More moisturizing tips:
- Moisturizers are also very essential in the treatment of acne. Inflammation has a very integral role to play in the causation of acne. This inflammation gets worse when acne is treated and skin is dried out without the support of a moisturizer. It disturbs the skin barrier and worsens the acne and the redness associated with it. Remember to choose a non-comedogenic moisturizer with soothing properties. (8)
- A moisturizer also accelerates the healing of wounds and irritation in the skin due to acne, eczema, or other products. (7)
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4. Sunscreen: An essential across all the ages
Every day, sunny or cloudy, summer or winter, the one product which should always be present in your bag and skincare cabinet, is sunscreen.
It has been shown in studies that 80% of lifetime exposure to the sun in most people is during childhood. Thus, it is an essential part of the tweens and teens skin care routine. Using a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily reduces skin cancer risk, delays the signs of aging, and reduces uneven skin tone and pigmentation. (8)
Sunscreen product for tweens:
Early teenagers and tweens should use a mineral-based sunscreen with zinc and titanium oxide like MD Solar Sciences Mineral Creme Sunscreen, which is not only a powerful blocker of ultraviolet rays but also mild on the skin. They may look a little ashy on the skin, thus not very suitable if you are looking for an aesthetically pleasing sunscreen.
Sunscreen product for teens:
Broad-spectrum chemical sunscreens or a mix of chemical and mineral filters like Elta MD UV Clear Sunscreen could be started in the late teen years.
Remember, the best sunscreen is the one you will wear. It may take some experimentation before you find one with perfect protection and consistency, but do not give up! This one step could literally make or break your skin.
More sunscreen tips:
- While sunscreen must be SPF 30+, do not forget the UVA protection with PA rating (should be at least PA+++) or boots star rating 5.
- Always apply sunscreen generously, a minimum of half a teaspoon for the face, and two tablespoons for the face and body. Apply 15 minutes before leaving the house, and reapply every three to four hours.
- In case, you have planned a beach day, make sure you are using waterproof sunscreen and reapply in 80 mins.
- No broad-spectrum sunscreen is a substitute for physical protection. On a sunny day, if you plan on staying out long, do not forget your sunglasses and a broad-brimmed hat.
5. Actives: Should teens, and tweens, open that door?
Unless absolutely necessary, I would suggest keeping the actives in the skincare products tweenage and teenage to a bare minimum. With age, skin becomes needier of extra ‘boosters’ and also a little less sensitive to the irritation caused by the high concentration of actives. Using multiple high concentration actives in the teenage years could cause barrier disturbance resulting in a lot of irritation.
Actives for tweens:
No products with actives in tweenage. It is wise to stick to minimum cleansing, sunscreen, and moisturization.
Actives for teens (with acne):
Early teenage needs ‘actives’ only when the skin is acne-prone, or extremely oily. In acne-prone skin, acne-controlling ingredients like benzoyl peroxide or retinoid can be used. Ingredients like salicylic acid, green tea, niacinamide, or jojoba oil control sebum production and are extremely gentle on the skin. (10)
Actives for late teens:
Towards the end of the teenage years, an antioxidant and brightening serum can be added to the skincare routine to fight the sun-induced pigmentation, uneven skin tone, and delay the appearance of first signs of aging. The inclusion of a vitamin C serum could have a preventive effect on aging, as well as a skin brightening effect.
8 Easy tips for healthy skin in the teenage and tweenage years
1. Pay attention to YOUR skin
Even though social media plays a big role in this phase, do not buy every trendy skincare product your favorite influencer is recommending. Minimize the experiments around your skincare routine, and learn to identify your skin types and needs.
2. Focus on quality skincare products
Not all that is good to put in the mouth is good to put on the skin. The DIYs and kitchen-to-skin approach could end up doing more harm than good. Rely on quality products from trustworthy companies for your skin. And yes, on that note, no toothpaste on the zits either.
3. Watch what you eat
Do not underestimate the role of nutrition to achieve glowing and healthy skin. Try to eat a balanced diet with healthy portions of fruits, greens, fish, and meat every day. You neutralize a lot of damage on your skin with what you eat.
In the case of acne-prone skin, some studies show that milk products and ‘high glycemic index’ products can worsen acne. High glycemic index substances are the ones that shoot up the blood sugar very fast after their intake- like white rice, white bread, corn flakes, sweets, etc. Keep consumption of these to a minimum. (11)
4. Consume ‘skin superfoods’
Opt for a healthy lifestyle with skin superfoods like avocado and salmon, drink a lot of water, and avoid fad diets.
5. Do not pop your pimples
No matter how lucrative it seems, do not touch your face or pop your pimple. It could not only make the inflammation worse, but it also causes deep scarring which could persist for life. And always remember to wash your hands before you touch your face even to apply skincare products.
6. Be patient and consistent with any new routine
Always remember skincare is a process. Do not expect magical results overnight. Consistency is the key. If your skin is tolerating a particular product well, give it at least 6-8 weeks before you decide that it is not working for you.
7. Avoid tanning beds
Tanning beds are concentrated sources of Ultraviolet rays and can accelerate your skin aging by years in a few minutes.
8. Don’t forget the dermatologist
If you are not able to figure out the right skincare routine yourself, or the products you tried, have disappointed you, consult a dermatologist.
Also, consult a dermatologist if your teenage acne is not coming in control with OTC products. Starting an acne treatment early could prevent your skin from a lot of scars and your mental state, a lot of trouble.
Healthy habits built during younger years build a sound foundation for later life. Skincare is also a habit, to care for and preserve the largest organ of the body.
While skincare in the tween and teen years need to be uncomplicated and simple, the vital facts and essentials to build a solid skincare routine should be kept in mind.
Most importantly- Stick to the basics, do not experiment much with products, and routines, and be consistent.
Are you a teenager with a multistep skincare routine already? Let us know in the comments which products work the best for you.
Do you have a tweenage or teenage family member you would like to start on a skincare routine? Share this article with them.
I hope there were some relevant tips and information about skincare for you in this post. We love creating content which, is scientifically correct and helps you answer the questions you have in mind about the skincare routines. If you subscribe to our email list, you not only get all these delivered to your inbox but also get subscribers-only skin tips and how-tos from our team of medical experts. So do not forget to subscribe!
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