Before coronavirus shuttered the world, a typical month for Connecticut native Zac Mathias was packed with appointments for microneedling (a collagen-stimulating process that involves repeated pin-pricks all over the face), regular resurfacing hydrafacials, rejuvenating laser treatments and the occasional red-light therapy session.
The beauty influencer particularly misses his weekly infrared saunas, where light is used to heat the air instead of traditional steam. The technology has been praised
for reversing the effects of photo-aging. Mathias is 18.
"Anti-aging was never the main goal when I was putting together a skin care routine -- it happens to be a happy accident," Mathias said via video call. "Skin care was always a self-care time; that's how I decompress at night."
Mathias isn't an outlier. Young people are increasingly incorporating anti-aging products and treatments into their beauty regimes. In 2012, fewer than 20% of US women
between 18 and 24 years old considered anti-aging skin care to be important, according to a survey conducted by market research company NPD Group. By 2018, another US-focused study
by beauty consumer analysts The Benchmarking Company found that more than 50% of 18- to 24-year-old women said they wanted to add wrinkle-defying products into their routine.
Some younger beauty consumers say they're acting on an informed, science-first approach to skin care, while others profess a fear of premature aging.
In the past year, Reddit's largest skin care community -- boasting 1.3 million members -- has been awash with pleas from users claiming to be teenagers, including "Wrinkles at 19?!
" and "Premature aging at 16. What are my options?
" The subject line of another post reads, "I'm 16 and thinking about botox because of my forehead wrinkles.
" The posts' authors appear panicked as they ask for recommendations and reassurance: "If I look like this now what will I look like at 30?"
On TikTok, teens bond over their fear of getting older and penchant for obsessive sunscreen application. In a video
liked over 16,000 times, an apparently youthful creator scrapes a pink gua sha -- a wing-shaped massage tool used in Chinese medicine to smooth wrinkles and sculpt the face -- furiously across her cheeks. "I'm scared of aging...why do white people have to age so badly. I want to be young forever," the caption reads. "I'm SO scared of aging," one commenter sympathizes. "I'm 15 in 2 days and I'm already using retinol, vitamin C and gua sha with my sunscreen."
The next-gen beauty consumer
Brands have made the fear of looking older into a lucrative business, with the anti-aging market predicted
to pull in over $88 billion in global sales by 2026.
"Anti-ageing products are no longer just for older beauty consumers," said Clare Varga, Head of Beauty at global trend forecasting agency WGSN, via email. "There's a new beauty persona called the Skinvestors, a next-gen, science-first beauty consumer who sees skin care as an investment.
"Skinvestors are informed, investigative and favour science-first derma and skin tech brands backed by evidence. So the marketing of (anti-ageing) products has shifted to focus on science and proof."
According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, botox procedures have increased 28% among 20- to 29-year-olds since 2010. Credit: getty creative/cnn
Kennedy Hack-Juman, a 15-year-old Floridian who has absorbed an encyclopedic knowledge of skin care through YouTube, is a gleaming example of this budding consumer category.
"Before I buy any product, I read every single ingredient," Kennedy said in a phone interview. "Then I'll also run it through a website called the EWG (the Environmental Working Group) which shows you what things rank based on [a number's scale] so one or two, it's really good. Three or four, there are some bad ingredients."
Kennedy prefers semi-regular jade rolling sessions after school over aggressive anti-aging measures, but fine lines are already on her mind. "When you're massaging your face...make sure your skin has either an serum or an oil on it," she instructs
classmates on her blossoming YouTube channel, "because if...your skin is dry, you're going to be pulling your skin and that's just going to cause premature wrinkles."
“Society has conditioned me not to like the look of wrinkles.”
The 10th grader urges viewers to gently tap in eye cream if they want to avoid unwanted sagging and to always apply excess product to the hands, neck and decolletage -- "because those are the places we show age the quickest."
"It's not that I'm doing it for society," she said in a video interview. "It's mainly for me. I just don't like the look of wrinkles. And that's probably because society has conditioned me not to like the look of wrinkles. But here we are. It's fine. So I'll prevent it if I can."
Youth as a lucrative market
Christina Mendoza, a 25-year-old Bay Area native, also takes a meticulous, science-first approach to anti-aging. Mendoza has been using a NuFace -- a microcurrent facial toner hailed by A-Listers twice her age
for its purported effectiveness in erasing fine lines -- since she was 23. It works by pumping a minor electric current under the skin to increase the body's cellular energy concentration and gives users a face-lift effect.
A childhood spent weathering severe eczema meant Mendoza felt more "in touch" with her skin as an adult. She began to focus on "wrinkle prevention and the tightening of (her) skin" in 2019, after she stumbled upon an interview
with then-21-year-old Kendall Jenner, promoting the launch of The Estée Edit -- a now discontinued beauty line Jenner fronted for Estée Lauder. Concerned her dry skin would make her "more susceptible" to aging, Mendoza took heed of Jenner's tips.
In 2014, anti-aging skin care ranked second in the most purchased skin care category, according to Statista. Credit: cnn illustration/leah abucayan
"(Jenner) was talking about why she uses eye cream," Mendoza remembered. "She said she normally uses eye cream specifically for aging prevention, because wrinkles can form really easily under the eyes. And I had never thought about it like that."
But the technology of devices like the NuFace -- which uses nano currents to gently nudge skin cells into action -- comes at a cost. Having your complexion electronically plumped, fortified and ironed-out at home can cost anywhere from $149 to $495 -- not including the mandatory conducting gel.
The full-time student says she's aware of the "stigma (of using a NuFace) at a young age," but insists she is happy with her investment. Low-voltage facials are now a staple in her routine alongside retinol (an anti-aging ingredient for which online searches doubled
in 2020). A 30-milliliter (1-ounce) tube of retinol by Skinceuticals, a brand beloved by both Mendoza and Mathias, costs between $67 and $88, depending on the concentration.
Some brands seem to be homing in on this junior demographic, too. Last year, clinical skin care brand Murad recruited high-school influencers
to promote their top rejuvenating serums on Instagram. Murad was unable to provide further comment on this strategy.
Robert Pogue Harrison, a literature professor at Stanford University and author of "Juvesence: A Cultural History of our Age," believes the peddling of wrinkle-defying products to teenagers is nothing more than a savvy business strategy.
“Social media has completely shifted timelines.”
"The youth are a very lucrative market for consumerism, because the young, especially very young, are dominated by their desires," he said.
"The internet breeds paranoia around different things," says Charlotte Palermino, a 33-year-old skin care influencer with 250,000 TikTok followers, in a phone interview. "I'm almost 34 and I didn't start thinking about aging until I was in my late 20s. Now people are worried about it at 19. Social media has completely shifted timelines."
Viewed more broadly, Harrison said our societal preoccupation with youth is a fairly recent development. "Historically speaking, the condition of youth was not a particularly desirable one," he said in a video interview. "Even until the postwar period, the young were in a real hurry to grow up as fast as they could. Because that's where life got, in a certain sense, easier and better."
The social dilemma
For 26-year-old Daniela Rios, the fight against fine lines has at times proven to be "addictive."
The social media influencer, originally from Mexico, has been receiving "preventative" Botox injections -- a practice questioned by some experts -- since she was 22. Now, she finds herself reaching for her injector's number at the sight of any facial line, even if tied to an expression.
Growing up in the golden age of YouTube, Rios struggled with the perceived perfection of the beauty influencers she followed.
"I would edit (my videos) and I would see my forehead and I just hated seeing those wrinkles," Rios said. "Then I would see makeup gurus and they had no wrinkles. I would always think 'wow, their face just looks so smooth'. And so once I finally got Botox, I was like this is what people do, because now my face just looks perfect."
Nifty editing tools designed to smooth, blur and brighten have become unofficial accessories to platforms like Instagram.
"The thing about social media is that we're constantly bombarded with images that we can compare ourselves to," psychologist Diana Zuckerman said. "(But) we can easily adjust what those photographs look like."
“I would see makeup gurus and they had no wrinkles. I would always think 'wow, their face just looks so smooth.'”
While re-touching isn't new, Zuckerman worries the widespread accessibility of apps like FaceTune mean that impossible beauty standards are even more pervasive and mentally oppressive. "Now everybody can do it, it's not just actors on the cover of a magazine that have no wrinkles and perfect skin," she said. "It's your classmate or neighbor."
Palermino vowed to stop using face-perfecting filters when posting on her TikTok account for fear of causing "dysphoria" or intense dissatisfaction among her followers. But the app has become so frenzied on the topic of aging, Palermino had to step in
to defend a 35-year-old TikToker who received nearly 24,000 comments criticizing the appearance of her skin after she went viral. "Ur 35 pushing 60," one user jibed, "I thought she was like 40-45 lol."
For Palermino, the relentless pressure to look young is laden with misogyny. "It's become an issue for young men too, but the fear of aging disproportionately affects women. For women, we're told beauty and youth are one and the same."
A potentially risky preoccupation
The immediate physical risks associated with using anti-aging treatments such as botox may be low, but it's arguably too early to understand the impact of long-term use of the injectable as a preventative measure decades before it's necessary. Between 1989 and 2003, the FDA found 36 instances
of serious adverse effects brought on by the neurotoxin. Meanwhile data on the long-term risks associated with cosmetic use of botox is more sparse, given it was only FDA-approved for that purpose in 2002.
Dr Anjali Mahto, a consultant dermatologist at Harley Street in London, warns that younger people still are at risk of "overpathologizing what happens to all of us."
"My concern recently is seeing teenagers in the clinic who seem preoccupied with skin aging," she said over email, "and this is clearly too early to be worrying about injectable treatments such as Botox."
“We're told beauty and youth are one and the same.”
John Duffy, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist who works closely with teenagers, said entire therapy regimes have been built around teens' -- and especially girls' -- phobia of aging. It's a worry he describes as "new" among the age group.
"This was not a concern I heard 5-10 years ago," he said.
In an email, Duffy said he was "struck" at the increasing number of young girls convinced "their looks will change and 'deteriorate' as they get older." The emotional impact of which, Duffy says, is a sense of "hopelessness about the future."
"Instagram, TikTok and other social media leave the impression that an aging face is a negative thing to be avoided at all costs," Duffy said.
General skin care hobbyists aren't putting themselves at risk by indulging in a midweek mud mask; Dr. Mahto confirmed that some anti-aging creams can equalize skin tone, boost collagen production and have "anti-acne benefits." However, she said more invasive procedures should always be in response to something tangible.
"The area I feel uncomfortable with is before there is something to treat," she said. "For example a 22-year-old without a line or wrinkle on their face. It can be a slippery slope."
Palermino agrees. "Preventative botox is botox. It's just marketing. Botox wears off every three to four months, and then you just need to get more botox. When I see male dermatologists on TikTok telling their female followers that the best age to start preventative botox is 23, it makes me want to scream."