Is Skincare Just Diet Culture For Gen Alpha?

I can’t walk into a Sephora or Ulta these days without having to weave myself around more than a few groups of tweens and teens who are hanging out in the aisles, browsing labels, and searching for the just-right products to add to their multi-step skincare routine.

I have no problem sharing this space with younger girls — shoot, I wish I had started taking skincare seriously earlier than I did — but I do find myself worrying that this pursuit of having flawless skin will be to Gen Alpha what diet culture was to us. And as a mom of two young daughters, ages 4 and 7, it really scares me.

Like many millennials, I vividly remember the days of ultra-low-rise pants, obsessions with thigh gaps, and the seemingly collective pursuit of the perfect flat-but-still-toned stomach. I spent more than a decade of my life following “healthy” diet tips and going to the gym with the sole purpose of desperately trying to achieve that perfect Britney Spears body circa “I’m a Slave 4 U”. Regardless of all of this effort, I never shrunk my body below a size 6. What I did do was land myself in treatment in my late 20s for disordered eating and exercising.

What’s worse is that my story isn’t unique, because millennials were constantly inundated with diet culture rhetoric at very vulnerable ages.

Now that we’re adults, in hindsight, we know these how-to guides were full of crappy advice that only made us feel like failures when they inevitably didn’t work, and that the images of celebrities we saw were regularly photoshopped. But you never could have convinced us of this at the time.

It’s troubling to me that tweens and teens are hearing new, skincare versions of these promises if they just use “this” hyaluronic acid or “that” vitamin C serum. Sure, our “advice” came from glossy magazines and theirs comes from TikTok influencers, but the result is the same: a narrative that everyone can look exactly the same if they take the right steps. And if you don’t nail that look, it’s because you did something wrong, or you are wrong in some way. It ignores the reality that everyone’s skin is different, that you only have so much control over its appearance, and that no beauty routine has the power to make you love yourself.

All too often, these skincare influencers also neglect to acknowledge that some skincare products can be dangerous for younger skin. My 11-year-old niece throws the word “retinol” out in conversation like it’s something everyone could use a little of (fortunately, her parents do not agree). It’s great that these tweens and teens want to take care of their skin, but when influencers and self-proclaimed “experts” fail to mention the dangers of these products, it sounds awfully similar to how “experts” left out warnings about the dangers of crash diets. It’s the same BS in a different package.

Right now these promises are simply planting little seeds in these young kids’ brains, and most parents still have the power to intervene before their 13-year-old starts shopping for chemical exfoliants. But look down the road 10 or 15 years, when the first signs of fine lines appear, or melasma shows up during pregnancy, will today’s tweens and teens spiral because they’ve been told for more than a decade that they could fight off aging with the right skincare routine? Will therapists be overwhelmed with adult patients seeking treatment for their body dysmorphia as their skin changes with age?

There are some serious potential long-term consequences to this skincare craze. It makes me so sad to know that Gen Alpha has no idea that they are being sold lies disguised as basic hygiene, self-care, and wellness. Of course, no matter how hard we try to expose this lie, to tweens and teens we’re just out-of-touch parents, so what do we know?

Ashley Ziegler is a freelance writer living just outside of Raleigh, NC, with her two young daughters and husband. She’s written across a range of topics throughout her career but especially loves covering all things pregnancy, parenting, lifestyle, advocacy, and maternal health.

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