Leave the Sephora Tweens Alone

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vintage aapri magazine ad from 1981

When I was in middle school, I began getting acne. I battled it with Aapri apricot scrub, Stridex, Sea Breeze, and whatever harsh cleanser I saw advertised in Seventeen. I had no clue how to tackle my skin, my mom said I looked beautiful and my skin would eventually calm down. Ads and advice in magazines made me believe the harder I worked on cleaning my skin, the more likely my zits would go away.

I had a friend from swim team who went to a private school. She invited me to her birthday sleepover and I didn't know another girl there. Many brought Caboodles full of makeup and skincare, brands I never heard of like Clinique, Mary Kay, and Estée Lauder. It was thrilling to try out these fancy beauty products; we even did mud masks. It made me realize that there was more out there than what I found in the aisles of Drug Emporium.

vintage noxzema ad from the 1980s showing a teenager examining her face in a mirror. Overlay text states Every day you face your toughest critic. It is an ad for Noxzema with a jar of the skincare product in the corner

In high school, I did all sorts of DIY treatments for my hair and skin. Mayonnaise, lemons, oatmeal, tea bags, honey, yogurt… no refrigerator ingredient was safe, nor was my hair, which turned an unnatural shade of orange, and my skin, which was both greasy and flaky dry.

I'd lay out for hours, coated in baby oil, knowing that first burn would turn into a base tan. It could be the middle of March but if we had one day above 50 degrees, my friends and I would be out on lounge chairs in the backyard, holding anything reflective to capture every ray possible.

vintage Coppertone suntan lotion ad from the early 1980's. It shows a blonde woman in a yellow string bikini and a dark tan. She is surrounded by several tan men who are smiling at her. Text is Flash 'em a Coppertone Tan

In college, I was super into mud masks. At least once a week, I applied a product that seemed to draw every impurity and drop of moisture from my skin. I'd then apply makeup without moisturizer, go out and drink liquor, and start the next day with coffee and Diet Coke and wonder why my skin looked so tired and dry.

I'd go to the tanning salon at least once a week, relaxing under those lights, believing it made me both more attractive and made my skin look better. One spring break, my friend and I couldn't afford Cancun or Fort Lauderdale so we stayed on campus but went to the tanning salon daily, so folks would think we could afford a getaway. The compliments on my dark tan were as addictive as those UVB rays.

Stridex pads ad from the 1980s. Woman in sunglasses with the lenses replaced with images of Stridex jars. She is smiling and holding up a round white Stridex pad. Text is It Even Wipes Out Pimples You DOn't Have and at the bottom are two jars of Stridex pads, one red and one blue

After college, One of my jobs was as a regional trainer for a skincare/body care brand. I tried a different product almost daily and fell for our high-powered Vitamin C treatment. I would apply it after using something that resembled a Scrub Daddy to exfoliate my face. Oooh, the burn must mean it's working! On weekends, I was still laying out in the sun, maybe being “safe” with Bain de Soleil SPF 2 tanning oil.

ad from the early 1980's used in magazines to advertise Bonne Bell's Ten-O-Six lotion. It shows a bottle of the lotion with a sneaker propped up against it. The text is Exercise your Body. Ten-O-Six your face. The sneakers were created by Ten-O-Six.

Why am I sharing all this? Because everyone's having a grand old time mocking tween girls for going bonkers in Sephora for Drunk Elephant and The Ordinary products. From the national news to dermatologists trying to go viral on Instagram, everyone is judging the “Sephora Tweens” for using retinol, peptides, and anti-aging serums as young as 10. They're destroying their delicate baby faces with these harsh ingredients and need to get off TikTok and play with Barbie. Heck in my day…

vintage ym magazine from 1994 featuring drew barrymore on the cover. She has a blonde chin-length curly hairstyle, sitting on the ground wearing dark jeans and a red and white striped t-shirt

In my day…

In our day, if we had Sephora and holiday gift cards as presents, we'd be doing the same damn thing. Instead of TikTok, we had YM and Seventeen and Teen and Sassy, which we read cover to cover multiple times, trading with friends, often having those magazines as our only advice for skincare, makeup, and caring for our young and changing bodies. Instead of Sephora, we had the beauty aisle of the grocery or drugstore, our parents' medicine cabinet and vanity, and a refrigerator full of random ingredients.

Leave the Sephora Tweens Alone

Over-processing young skin is nothing new, and chastizing tweens and teens for doing the 2020s version of what many of us did ourselves is hypocritical. Slathering on peptides is way better than slathering on Crisco and tucking a foil-covered album cover under our chins while putting Sun-In and lemon juice into our hair.

issue of Seventeen magazine with actress Phoebe Cates on the front. She has her dark hair loose in the breeze, she is smiling showing braces on her top teeth and she is wearing a white shirt with the collar popped.

Tweens will be tweens. Their bodies are going bonkers and suddenly it's smelling different and acting differently and is shaped differently with different curves and angles and hairs. And looking at fellow tweens, it's hard to know what's right and what's wrong because tweens and early teens all age and grow at different speeds, reacting in different ways to puberty.

vintage issue of sassy magazine from september 1988 featuring kevin dillon

One thing I must say, these tweens and teens have way more skill with makeup than we ever did. I learn from my daughter on the daily: how to apply false lashes, how to blend blush, how to highlight my cheekbones, how to groom my brows.

I see these “Sephora Tweens” on social media looking like glowing suns, rosy milkmaids, and colorful kaleidoscopes, rocking winged liner that could cut a b*tch, contour so perfectly applied that their face looks a completely different shape and concealer so expert you have no idea they have acne patch-covered zits underneath. They know not to use a loofah on their face or peroxide in their hair.

Today's tweens and young teens are creative and talented, and as they go through the 2024 version of Clearasil, Ten-o-Six, and the Clinique 3-step system, let's remember how long it took before we figured out our skin and ourselves… if we have even figured it out yet!

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32 Comments

  1. There is nothing wrong with experimenting with makeup and face products – we all do it when we are young. However, as you noted, we experimented with drugstore products, not $50 lip glosses, Drunk Elephant products, or other expensive Sephora beauty products. I think it comes off more as being spoiled. The question is where are these kids getting the money to experiment with expensive beauty products? Maybe they are using their birthday/holiday money – I don’t know – but if their parents are paying for their expensive beauty products on a regular basis, these kids are going to be in for a rude awakening when they are adults and find they don’t have the money to buy luxury makeup and have to spend it on things like rent, gas, etc.

    1. This is such a weird take. I had friends in the 80s and 90s who got new cars for their birthdays, carried designer purses, owned dozens of Guess jeans and Forenza sweaters, had makeup from department store brands like Clinique and Estee Lauder and Ultima II. They just didn’t have platforms to advertise it or tools to make it so easy to access them. Even my mom remembers how some girls had the charcoal tipped blazers and the penny loafers and others didn’t and how some girls came to college not knowing how to darn a sock, cook an egg, or balance a checkbook. Nothing is new other than the new tools to show off what they got. The quickest way to get old is to forget how it truly was when we were young.

  2. This was a great blast from the past post. And like your daughter, my daughter could teach classes. They have so much more access to information, which will naturally lead to more informed choices, but they are still teenagers. Thank goodness they are so bold and willing to try new things – today’s teens become tomorrow’s innovators.

  3. Definitely don’t bash the kids — this isn’t their fault, like it wasn’t our fault that we got suckered into believing advertisers’ promises about how their products would make us prettier, sexier, more in control of what people thought of us. Advertising is powerful, and it takes an act of will and a critical mind to recognize when someone’s trying to sell you stuff you don’t need and may even hurt you. Most adults don’t have those critical faculties — of course teenagers don’t either.

    But it is BEYOND NAIVE to imagine that all of this is harmless, especially in today’s digital media environment. Advertisements follow us around now, interweave themselves into our personal digital profiles. Children and teenagers and young adults who have grown up with smartphones, and are trying to figure out how to be loved and respected in the world, are especially susceptible to these direct digital ads, and to influencers whose content towards children is insufficiently regulated. Whether you think it’s harmful, dermatologically or in deeper ways, for teenagers to be pursuing “anti-aging” skin products, please be clear that 1) your kids’ interest in these products is part of a broader influencer environment, which likely includes other products and ideas that you don’t know about; and 2) all of this will get worse and more noxious until these practices are strongly and decisively regulated.

    So yeah, don’t bash the tweens. Call your congresspeople. Fight for regulation that protects the tweens, as well as everyone else. (And read Jessica DeFino! Her critique of the beauty product industry is super solid.)

  4. Agree, though I haven’t heard of this recent bashing sector.
    Gee whiz, though, that Coppertone ad is really upsetting! How did we ever?

  5. Thank you for another great read. I, too, did ALL of the above. The memories you have awakened…

    Good reminder that today’s youth is not so different than we were/are.
    They certainly don’t deserve to be criticized. Except when they buy that last bottle of The Ordinary that I need….

    Please keep up the great work, Alison. You are the best.

  6. All of those products. Every. Single One. Especially “tanning” with the baby oil on the first sunny day. I would time myself, 10 mins front, 10 mins back. Like cooking a steak! gah! Thanks for the reminder to be gentle with the tweens. I do get irritated with them so I needed that reminder. 🙂

  7. Well said! I was thinking about this just the other day. I poured over those magazines hoping to find a solution for my perceived faults. The only good thing was that I did not have enough money to do much damage but I started bleaching my dishwater blond hair as soon as my Mom would allow. It is funny that it wasn’t until I decided to go gray that I fell in love with my silvery, ashy hair. I never gave it a chance when I was younger—gold highlights all the way!

  8. I agree, Alison. Tweens today have so much pressure to conform to unrealistic standards of beauty. And it’s not a new problem – at least we’ve moved on from cosmetics containing lead, mercury, arsenic, and ammonia like they had in the good old days. Thanks for writing this.

  9. Teen and Seventeen were my go to’s as well. Funny enough I didn’t do a lot with my skin care as a teen (although Noxema and Ten-o-Six were staples in the house), but make up, absolutely I tried everything, and not very well LOL.

  10. I loved all of this – although, based on my 16yo and their friends, hair dye is alive and well. (Although it’s level 40 toner and Pulp Riot vivid colors, rather than peroxide and Manic Panic.

    1. The talent they have with haircolor astounds me! One color on either side, perfectly bleached portions and I remember destroying my forehead, neck, and my mom’s bathroom with Nice-n-Easy Blue Black dye. And the quality products now available makes it so easy to DIY at home and get good and safer results!

  11. Um, maybe. I wish we didn’t live in a world where a 12-yyear-old girl didn’t already feel she wasn’t good enough. I wish you had addressed the role of social media in amplifying a million-fold what we went through years ago.

    1. I don’t really see every 12-year-old having it worse now than we did. I remember thinking I had to look older. Like Margaret, we were stuffing bras and doing exercises to increase our bust, going to Weight Watchers with our moms, eating diet food, getting tans, and reading YA books thinking we needed to kiss boys and wear bras ASAP. Social media is scary, but just like us adults, there are pockets where kids find like-minded folks who make them feel more normal about their bodies, their desires (or lack thereof), and atypical interests.

  12. Nailed it! And wow- the ads and magazine covers totally brought me back! I wish we had something like Sephora when I was growing up along with the many different shades of foundation you could try. I could never find makeup for my Asian skin under the fluorescent drugstore lights back in the day because it just wasn’t available! I’m so glad for stores that let you try before you buy so as long as tweens leave some space for me aisles to experiment with products, we can happily coexist!

    1. My friend has a theory that the tweens are taking over Sephora because they lost some socialization and in-person shopping skills most got PrePan and they missed out because of Lockdown. It’s an interesting theory because I do feel as though kids just a couple years older aren’t so… overwhelming and overtaking in stores like the middle schoolers of 2024.

  13. Love this. I’ve made it my goal to never be one of those people complaining about “kids today,” and this post is a good reason why.

    Also, to the person who said the products were about clean skin (and not targeting kids with perfect skin), check out the ad example Alison posted above for acne pads for the “pimples you don’t have.”

    And scrubs etc are terrible for your skin. If tweens today know about chemical exfoliation vs physical scrubbers, they’re coming out ahead of us for sure.

    1. Agree. I think of how I scrubbed off and dried out my skin in an attempt to get rid of oil and pimples and how my 15-year-old won’t use anything but CeraVe and I finally realized an oil cleanser is what my skin needs to not be oily!

  14. Teens do need skincare. However, a gentle cleanser such as Cetaphil often works, and my daughter uses a Cerave moisturizer recommended by our dermatologist. A consult with a dermatologist is often best for acne. Most dermatologists are not likely to recommend Sephora products. I used Noxema for years as a teen. In the end, it was terrible. I am thankful for better options.

  15. YES! I wish I’d had some of the resources these kids have. Like you, I learned how to do everything from the covers of a magazine because my mom wasn’t really into makeup. Let them learn how to care for their skin with appropriate products (maybe skip the retinol) and do their thing.

    And my goodness, these images bringing serious flashbacks. oof.

  16. Sorry, but I disagree. The products of our youth were targeted at achieving a clean, healthy face and were not expensive. These products contain acids, retinol, etc. and are being sold as “anti-aging” to pre-teens. They are expensive and being applied to perfect skin. As far as we would like to think we have come with self-image, I regret to see this is just not the case.

    1. I think you missed the point of the article… but you are totally entitled to your opinion and I love discourse in the comments! Thank you for sharing, there is a lot of layers to the trend of these “anti-aging” products being used by such young kids.

  17. Exactly and thanks for taking me on such a nostalgic ride this morning! I remember those products and more. And I loved me some Seventeen magazine back in the day. I used to get mine from the library and devour them.

  18. Here, here! I used all those products you mentioned religiously and somehow my face didn’t melt. Agree with letting the teens and tweens do their own versions of experimenting. I still get excited when I try new skin care products.

  19. Here here! I teach G6 and those 11-year-olds apply makeup with incredible skill that I only wish I had in my 20’s. Hard enough that they will live the rest of their lives with social media reminding them of every youthful choice – let them do what the heck they want with their bodies, faces and skin! I, on the other hand, remember that YM magazine with Drew Barrymore so vividly!

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