It wasn’t that long ago that teens on Instagram were horrifying their elders by flattening their dewy skin with a half-inch thick layer of foundation, concealer, and contour. But just when we finally started getting used to the extremes of YouTube-inspired makeup, a new teen beauty trend has started budding. Brace yourself: A small cohort of under-20something influencers are now using anti-aging skin care.
Before you start reaching for the smelling salts, I should mention this movement is still in its infancy and might just go away if no one writes trend pieces about it. (Sorry.) But I couldn’t help do a double blink when I saw 16-year-old high-school student and beauty influencer Nil Sani’s Instagram, where she credits her poreless visage to a range of retinol products. The line in question, Murad’s Retinol Youth Renewal, has products I was contemplating slathering on my own skin, a surface positively leathery and geriatric by comparison.
Per Sani’s agent, the posts were sponsored by the brand, but Sani became a devotee of Murad on her own. Sani says she started using retinol six months ago after researching anti-aging products. “A common misconception is that you don’t need to use it unless you have wrinkles or lines. However, it’s these products that preserve the youthful complexion of the skin,” she tells me via email. She unironically used adjectives like glowy, baby smooth, and radiant to describe her youthful, collagen-charged face.
Another beauty and lifestyle influencer, Doux Fairy, 18, moisturizes twice a day with Olay’s Regenerist, a retinol-based facial moisturizer which, until a few years ago, was found in the kits of women my mother’s age. Fairy, whose real name is Lily, brought retinol into her personal beauty orbit a year ago to start evening out her skin tone and to reduce smile lines. “I’ve seen a reduced definition of my fine lines, and my skin has been evening out nicely,” she says. “My parents both have deep lines, and it’s a bit of a concern for me. I hope to avoid that by using retinol.”
Like Fairy, 17-year-old beauty influencer Jake Warden has his eyes open for hereditary aging cues. “A lot of people in my family struggle with fine lines, sun spots, textured skin, and acne. I’ve personally never struggled with any of this so far, but I think taking care of my skin at such a young age will help me avoid these issues in the future,” he says.
Warden started out interested in makeup but made the journey to skin care — a fairly common trajectory in the beauty world. (I’ve taken that trip myself.) Makeup promises to instantly erase your problems and enhance your best features. It can contour in cheekbones where there was puppy fat, or give you a hedge of lashes when earlier you couldn’t even summon a sprig. You get deeper down the rabbit hole, mastering technique after technique (smoky eye, check; contour, check; winged eyeliner, check!) until you eventually come to realize that makeup will only take you so far. If you want the texture of your skin to be smooth, you’ll need skin care.
You have gotten to the true core of the beauty journey when six-syllable-long ingredient names escape your lips effortlessly, and when you bore unsuspecting friends by lecturing them about the difference between a skin-care acid and an ester. None of this guarantees perfect skin, but you will hit a few standard goalposts: you’ll be enchanted by acid toners till you end up overexfoliating, you will ceaselessly anoint yourself with so much oil that your pores gunk up, and you will be in perpetual suspicion at the state of your vitamin C’s stability.
This millennial version of this epic Tolkienesque quest happened fairly recently with one of the world’s biggest beauty bloggers, Huda Kattan, who, after years of disguising her blemishes under makeup, embarked on a long skin-care journey to fix her skin concerns. She used her learnings to recently launch her own skin-care line, Wishful. Most beauty junkies have walked this path, so logically, we should have been expecting teens — who have been makeup-obsessed for ages — to get here someday. Millennials are the generation who took skin-care addiction to the next level. Gen-Z is just getting there quicker, which shouldn’t be a shock to anyone who’s come of age in our youth-obsessed culture.
Now that we’ve gotten here, instead of tedious hand-wringing, let’s assess the damage. So far, it seems to be mainly teen influencers who are leading the charge, but would it truly be catastrophic if garden variety 15-year-olds started slathering their faces with ingredients typically marketed to their mothers? After all, this trend doesn’t seem to be as damaging as teens getting lip fillers, so should we just leave the kids to burn off their epidermis with retinol, like so many of us have done in the past?
Derms, at least, don’t seem to be too concerned. “I see a lot of it on Instagram and it’s more from people who really adore skin care,” says Papri Sarkar, a dermatologist based in Brookline, Massachusetts. “In general, teens don’t like to use stuff, they’re so lazy! Usually, they don’t have a really good regimen — on a Saturday night they’ll use 14 products and then forget to use anything for the next 10 days,” she says.
Even if anti-aging skin care were to become a raging trend, it would get Sarkar’s stamp of approval, because there are some anti-aging ingredients — such as sunscreen — that are age-proof. “A retinoid or a vitamin A derivative is great for acne so some teens are already on that. Without realizing, they’re getting the dual function of an anti-acne agent and building collagen at the same time.” Not that they’ll notice any surplus collagen, Sarkar says, since they have so much already. For teens with uneven pigmentation and dark spots, Sarkar recommends vitamin C, which is brightening, helps build collagen, and has antioxidant action which boosts the strength of SPF.
Sarkar does foresee problems if teens start designing their own anti-aging regimens. A lot of products marketed for aging are aimed at people with dry skin who are much older and potentially going through menopausal skin changes. “Those products have a lot of comedogenic ingredients like shea butter, that cause acne or cysts. You don’t want a teen to be using the same thing as their mom,” she says.
Sarkar also thinks if teens start cocktailing irritating anti-acne products with equally irritating anti-aging ingredients, that would be a red flag. “They [could be] layering all these irritating products on top of each other and although their skin is quite hardy, teens also get eczema, irritation, redness and peeling.”
Experimenting with skin care, at any age, is a journey, and most often we emerge wiser on the other side. Rara Nares, a mechanical engineering and art student, has the benefit of hindsight at the ripe old age of 21. “Skin care became a bit of an obsession at a young age, and I have relaxed more so now,” she says. She started using anti-aging skin care at 15, influenced by a mom who worked in the skin-care industry and impressed upon her the importance of moisturizing. She tried to get ahead of hereditary dark eye circles by starting retinol at 17. “However, I found that it lightened the entire area under my eye and did not make the skin feel thicker. I was not a fan of retinols.” She’s now switched her focus to hydrating products and ingredients. “I try to keep my skin moisturized to avoid dark circles, but mainly I attack [them] by trying to drink a lot of water, get ten hours of sleep daily, and not drink too much for liver health!” There you have it, right from the mouth of babes.
I’m just mad Gen-Z missed out on the whole apricot scrub moment. Now that’s a skin-care journey that will really ensure you’ve paid your dues.