St. Louis dermatologist details the most important steps for skin care at any age

Multi-step skin care routines are all the rage on social media. “Get-ready-with-me” videos often feature a bounty of products like serums, toners, sunscreen-infused moisturizers, and anti-aging creams. Generations Z and Alpha are taking part in the complex morning and evening routines, too. Just search “Sephora kid” on TikTok to see how obsessed—to use a common influencer word—the younger generations are with skin care. Some of the products touted by preteens on social media are meant for older skin and become an unnecessary expense for those under 30, but some are helpful for building a sustainable skin care routine that reaps benefits through the teenage years and into adulthood. So what’s worth the time and money? Dr. M. Laurin Council, Washington University in St. Louis’ director of dermatologic surgery, says it depends on your age and unique skin conditions.

We know the benefits of wearing sunscreen include sunburn prevention, but what are other important reasons to wear it daily? We’re exposed to a lot of ultraviolet radiation. Even if you don’t necessarily plan on being outside, you’re gonna find you’re outside during the day, even just walking to-and-from your car. If you put it on in the morning, every morning, you’re at least somewhat protected if you inadvertently find yourself outside. Sunscreen will also prevent signs of aging. Most people don’t want to have brown spots, and we know that’s caused by ultraviolet, too. Make sure that you choose something that says it’s “broad spectrum.” That means it’s going to protect you against UVA and UVB. UVA is the one that can cause signs of aging. UVB is the radiation that causes skin cancer. Ideally it should be SPF, or sun protection factor, of 30 or above. 

Are there any other sunburn misconceptions or mistakes that you come across? Sometimes people think that they need to get a little bit of a burn first so they can get what’s called “a base tan.” They feel that they’ll tan more easily if they get a little bit of a burn. But we know that ultraviolet radiation is the single most-modifiable risk factor for skin cancer. You can’t change your genetics, you can’t change the type of skin you have—like how light your skin is—but you can change your behavior. If you get even one blistering sunburn in your lifetime, that increases your risk of developing skin cancer. It’s important to realize that it’s so much easier to prevent sun damage than to reverse it.

How early should kids start using skin care products? Sometimes people will have skin conditions earlier in life, like children who have eczema. If you have some sort of skin condition and you need to start skin care earlier, it’s totally fine. Normally, people start with breakouts around age 11 or 12. Teenagers might need to use some acne- or oil-control products at night. Kids also start wearing makeup around those ages, so it’s important that we get used to cleaning the skin really well when we go to bed and then maybe applying an acne product. It’s also really important that kids get in the habit of wearing sunscreen. A lot of our sun exposure happens before the age of 18. If you get in the habit of protecting your skin every single day, especially if you’re going to be outside for extended periods of time, that sets you up for good lifelong habits. In the late 20s and early 30s, you still want sunscreen in the morning, but that’s when people start needing something in the evening (like a retinoid product) to help with fine lines and wrinkles.

Is there any harm in starting skin care routines too early or using certain products too young? A lot of those products are for things like lightening brown spots or exfoliating the skin, and certainly children don’t yet have a lot of sun damage and wouldn’t really see the benefit of using something like that. They’re also expensive, and you can develop allergic reactions to them. They can also cause some irritation if they’re used often or incorrectly. So it’s probably not something that I would recommend. I think that, when you’re 12 years old, sunscreen is great. Sometimes you might need a gentle cleanser and moisturizer. If you tend to break out, you can use products for your acne. But beyond that, you don’t really need serums, and you don’t need anti-aging products when you’re a kid.

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