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Building a skin-care routine for teens and tweens can seem complicated. Puberty is often the first time kids are dealing with acne, blackheads, dry patches, and the general roller coaster of hormonal changes. That can stir up anxiety around self-esteem and the feeling that the body they’ve known is suddenly out of their control. But it’s best not to overthink or go overboard with skin care for teens and tweens — which explains the recent concern around tweens in Sephora. Quite simply, some of the products tweens are interested in buying (like retinols or Drunk Elephant products, which contain actives) are too strong for their young skin. “Skin-care routines for teenagers need to be simple,” says board-certified Manhattan-based dermatologist Dr. Carmen Castilla. “They don’t need to have all of these steps and harsh toners. It’s just not necessary.”
Every one of the 17 dermatologists I spoke to agreed that teen and adolescent skin really needs only a three-step routine, regardless of their skin type or concerns: cleansing, moisturizing, and applying SPF. Once they have those basics down, you can look at ingredients designed for specific skin needs. I’ve outlined the best starter routines for kids with acne, dry skin, oilier skin, sensitive skin, and a few products active kids should consider.
A couple of parting tips: Several dermatologists suggested not bombarding skin with new products but introducing them gradually instead. That way, if your teen’s skin reacts negatively to a product, it’ll be easier to know which one’s responsible. Finally, I do have to reiterate what most of the panel told me: If you have a serious concern about your child’s skin, it’s best to make an appointment with a dermatologist.
Regardless of skin type, every teen should be wearing sunscreen as the last step of their skin-care routine. “Sunscreen protects the skin from sun damage and skin cancer,” says Dr. Fayne Frey, a New York–based dermatologist and the author of The Skincare Hoax. “And the earlier a person starts using sunscreen, the better.” Think of it like brushing your teeth — just something that’s part of a teen’s daily morning routine. Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Angela Casey agrees, saying it will help teens suffering from inflammation such as redness and reactive skin.
I have to come right out and say that this Elta MD facial sunscreen isn’t cheap. Still, half of my experts suggested it as an SPF. “It feels like silk going on, is perfectly seamless, transparent, and lightweight,” says Philadelphia-based dermatologist Dr. Nazanin Saedi. Teens will likely be new to applying products to their faces — it’ll have been a while since they let parents slather sunscreen on them. So they’re hyperattuned to how products sink in and feel on the skin. Pointing them toward lightweight, nonsticky formulas should make them less tempted to skip a step.
About 85 percent of teens deal with acne of some severity, says dermatologist Dr. Anjali Mahto. Board-certified dermatologist and surgeon Dr. Kristina Collins adds that the hormonal changes of puberty often trigger breakouts, when “increased oil production can cause larger pores, clogging of those pores, and eventually acne.” Prevention is the best cure, so I’ve included some cleansers that teens should wash with even when active pimples haven’t appeared. I’ve also included products for teens who are currently breaking out.
Effective cleansers for all skin types should dissolve oil, dirt, and pollution, but teens with acne-prone skin will want to reach for something with active ingredients to help treat and prevent breakouts, like this one from CeraVe. It contains benzoyl peroxide, which Dr. Kseniya Kobets says “goes into the pores and cleans out the dirt and excess oil.” The 4 percent benzoyl-peroxide concentration in this cleanser is ideal, according to Dr. Kobets, since “you want to stick with 5 percent or lower. The higher percentages are more irritating, but they’re not necessarily more effective.” She says benzoyl peroxides are so effective because your teen’s skin shouldn’t grow resistant to it. “It uses reactive oxygen species, and the bacteria that causes acne can’t figure out a work-around to become resistant to that product.” But benzoyl peroxide can dry skin out and slightly bleach towels and bed sheets it comes into contact with — so your teen may prefer to use it in the morning and cleanse with something else before bed.
If your teen is finding a benzoyl-peroxide cleanser too harsh, they can try this gentler (still powerful) Neutrogena cleanser instead. Its active ingredient is salicylic acid, which has some anti-inflammatory properties and can help unclog the gunk and bacteria that trigger blemishes. It also has brightening vitamin C and a kid-friendly smell — three experts told me their patients compliment the cleanser’s fruity scent (including Saedi, who thinks the pleasure of the scent makes her teen patients stay so consistent with it).
“Skin functions best when it is hydrated,” says Frey. “There’s adequate science that shows acne-prone individuals will break out less if the skin is well hydrated.” So even if it feels counterintuitive, you should moisturize acne-prone skin. Several experts mentioned this Strategist top seller since its hyaluronic acid — a humectant — draws water into the skin’s surface almost like water being sucked through a straw. It’s especially important for your teen to moisturize if they’re using benzoyl-peroxide products in order to stave off that drying effect.
To get into the science for a second, retinoids stimulate cell turnover and help reduce inflammation, calming the look and texture of acne. Differin gel contains a 0.1 percent concentration of a type of retinoid called adapalene. You used to be able to get adapalene only on prescription, but this gel is available over the counter (and works for adults experiencing cystic acne, too). Like benzoyl peroxide, it can dry and irritate skin unless you use it correctly. “It is best to introduce adapalene slowly, using it only a few times per week and increasing frequency of use as skin acclimates to the product,” says Castilla. “It’s important to remember a little goes a long way; only a pea-sized amount is needed to cover the entire face.”
For a teen who’s mid-breakout, eight dermatologists recommended these Hero Cosmetics hydrocolloid pimple patches, which draw up the gloop inside zits and create a thin, physical barrier over the blemish. “They are particularly helpful for those who pick their acne,” says Manhattan-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Jaimie Glick. Messing with zits (by picking or trying to squeeze them) can make them scar. The key is to be realistic. “Everyone’s a picker — I’m a picker. It’s just whether you’re going to admit or deny it,” says Saedi. “But the more you pick at any kind of acne mark, the more pigment you’re forming and the longer that mark is going to last.”
Lean into a playful option with Starface’s heart- or star-shaped pimple patches, which are more about protecting a blemish from picking fingers than pretending a zit isn’t there. We’ve covered the brand before, knowing Starface’s products make a solid gift for the Zoomers in your life. In this case, their patches work well for a teen who isn’t scared to stand out. If they’re good enough for Florence Pugh, they’re probably good enough for your teen.
“Dry skin has a lack of oils and needs to be replenished with those oils,” says Casey. “Without this replenishment, our skin becomes brittle and fragile like a dried-out leaf or flower petal. It cracks (often at the microscopic level) and becomes very irritable and sensitive.” To deal with dry skin, our experts recommend using products rich with humectants and emollients, ingredients that replenish the skin barrier.
Teens with dry skin should wash their faces at most twice a day and definitely once at night. “It’s important to avoid going to bed with a dirty face,” says Dr. Collins. Our dermatologists recommended gentle, light cleansers packed with hydrating ingredients such as ceramides and hyaluronic acid. Seven of them named this nondrying CeraVe cleanser both for its ingredient list and the fact that it doesn’t foam. “Foaming cleansers are harsher and strip necessary oil from your face,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Margarita Lolis.
Now that your teen has cleansed, they just need to moisturize. This CeraVe moisturizer stands out to Dr. Roberta Del Campo thanks to its lightweight texture but hard-working ceramides to keep the skin barrier healthy. Cerave came up most as a solid moisturizer brand for all skin types, and this one — like the Neutrogena gel moisturizer — contains hyaluronic acid. For a humectant like hyaluronic acid to work, “it should not be applied on dry skin,” Lolis advises. “Always add to skin that is already cleansed, patted dry so that it is still damp.”
The big hitter. Many teens have oily T-zones, around the forehead and nose, and may feel like they need to cleanse excessively. But this is actually counterintuitive. “Don’t overwash — especially if you have oily skin,” says Saedi. When you do, you strip the skin of its natural oils, which it compensates by overproducing, and soon you’re in a persistent cycle (or spiral). Teens with oily skin may feel as though they don’t need to moisturize for similar reasons — another misconception. “Many patients with acne are scared to moisturize because they believe it will make their skin more oily or cause them to break out. This is simply not true,” says Lolis. The key to getting oil under control and preventing breakouts is to keep the skin cleansed and moisturized.
Eight experts recommended this cleanser from La Roche-Posay’s silky Toleriane line. It contains hydrating ceramides and niacinamide, an anti–inflammatory ingredient that’s great for oily skin. Niacinamide works by balancing the excess sebum, or skin oil, secreted onto the skin, according to Castilla. But we all need some sebum on our skin, so no matter how oily your teen’s skin is, they shouldn’t cleanse more than the recommended two times a day.
With cleansing done, “you want to aim for moisturizers that are noncomedogenic, which means they won’t clog pores or trigger acne,” says Miller. Generally, this day cream from CeraVe is well tolerated and has sunscreen built in. You’ll still want to finish with a dedicated SPF.
For teens with particularly reactive skin or conditions such as eczema and rosacea, it’s best to avoid complex ingredient lists and steer clear of fragrance or parfum on ingredient lists. Gentle, hydrating ingredients are key to not mess with the skin barrier. Sensitive skin can also be dry by virtue of having a compromised skin barrier — where skin breaks — so you can look to those recommendations, too.
“This is a gentle formulation designed to help cleanse the skin without stripping oils,” says Castilla. The cleanser contains glycerin, a plant-based ingredient that’s been a moisturizing stalwart for decades. The niacinamide should also soothe inflammation and, depending on your teen’s skin tone, redness.
The skin barrier is sort of like your face’s first line of defense: It’s meant to keep the good stuff (hydration) in and the less good stuff (pollutants, some bacteria) out. When that barrier’s compromised, the skin will flare up and react, so a moisturizer plays a major role in replenishing the moisture that essentially leaks out of a broken barrier. Many of our dermatologists recommend this oat-based moisturizer to their teen patients, including Casey, who likes the way its ingredients soothe inflammation. Lolis also appreciates its simple ingredient list. What she nicknames the “extra fluff” on an ingredient list “can irritate or even serve as allergens since your skin barrier is already compromised.” Instead, here you’ll find glycerin, panthenol (a soothing B5 vitamin), and oat extracts, which are often recommended to treat persistent patches of eczema.
You don’t need to worry about a special moisturizer for a sporty teen — any of those our experts have recommended will work based on your kid’s skin type. But for teens who play a lot of sports, “it is important to cleanse the skin on the face, chest, and back immediately after sweating excessively,” says Dr. Kim Nichols, board-certified dermatologist and founder of NicholsMD in Greenwich, Connecticut. “Sweat is excellent for cleansing pores, but if it is left on the skin too long, all of the dirt, oils, and bacteria can reabsorb back into the skin, causing breakouts.” And just washing the face isn’t enough, advises Collins. You’ve also got to wash helmets, hats and sports gear. “They can also harbor bacteria and wreak havoc on the skin,” she says. “Other notorious pore cloggers that need to be washed regularly include cell phones, masks, glasses, and pillowcases.”
Two of our experts recommend that teens who regularly sweat a lot wash their face and body with CLN’s sport wash. “This is a gentle anti-microbial wash containing sodium hypochlorite, which is essentially a dilute bleach. It can help treat body acne common in athletes without causing dryness,” says Castilla. Unlike products containing benzoyl peroxide, the CLC sports wash doesn’t stain towels or bedding, and Castilla’s active teen daughter regularly uses it herself.
On non-sporty days, a teen can opt for something a little less hard core. This cleanser suits several skin types from normal to slightly oilier to sensitive. It foams — so isn’t ideal for teens with dry skin — but also contains ceramides to protect the skin barrier, Saedi says. Categorize it as a sort of “rest day” cleanser when your teen needs something more soothing.
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