Teen and common beauty treatments: What parents need to know

Hair dye, piercing, waxing ... navigating the best age for teens to start.
Hair dye, piercing, waxing ... navigating the best age for teens to start. Photo: Getty Images

Tweens and teens aren't immune to the allure of treatments that aim to make their skin tanner, their teeth whiter, and their eyebrows shapelier. So what should parents consider before allowing their children to indulge in various techniques they think would improve their physical appearance?

First, parents should discuss with the child why they want to use a treatment and understand what he or she hopes to gain, says Victor Fornari, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in the US. "Teens don't need gel manicures and they don't need teeth whitening," Fornari says. "On a case-by-case basis, the parents have to use their judgment and decide if this is something they can support. The question is, is there anything that's potentially harmful?"

We asked the medical and beauty experts to weigh in, and here is there advice on 12 common treatments.

1. BODY PIERCING

The most common piercing is, of course, the earlobe. But people also pierce the cartilage at the top of the ear and the tragus, the nose, the lip, the tongue, the eyebrow, the belly button and more.

"Body piercing is permanent," says Pamela Basuk, vice president of the Long Island Dermatological Society and a dermatologist in private practice in New York. While the jewellery can be removed, it leaves a hole, and maybe a scar, she says. "That's critical to me." 

Cleanliness is paramount when choosing a piercing business, to avoid infections, Basuk says. Christian Reilly, a body piercer at Tattoo Lou's Selden, recommends only having piercings done with sterile, one-time-use needles, not with piercing guns, because needles part the tissue more gently.

Reilly prefers waiting until the teenage years for piercings other than earlobes. Teens have to keep their piercings clean. "If the child isn't mature enough to handle that part, maybe piercing isn't for them," Reilly says. If a tragus piercing gets infected, for instance, the infection could move to the nerve endings, he says.

The belly button shouldn't be pierced until the child is done "growing vertically," Reilly says. Otherwise, as the body stretches, "you end up with a horrible scar," he says.

He's not a fan of tongue piercing for anyone. "I make it a point to warn people and tell them the risks to their teeth," he says. "While you're sleeping, your body tries to spit it out. It wears on the enamel of the teeth. You could bite it and chip your teeth. If the back of the jewellery meets the gum line, it can tear it."

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Howard Schneider, a pediatric dentist, echoes the warnings about piercings in the mouth area. "Don't do it," he says. In addition, because antibiotic creams can't be applied to the tongue, for instance, there's a higher risk of infection post-piercing, he says. "If you don't place it right, it can damage nerves and cause severe bleeding," he says.

2. TANNING TREATMENTS

Teens should avoid tanning salons "at all costs," says Adrienne Haughton, a dermatologist and residency programme director at Stony Brook Medical Center. Studies show that using a tanning salon prior to age 18 increases the risk of melanoma, Haughton says. Some people may feel it's safe because they don't get a sunburn, but that's a misconception, she says.

As for spray tans as an alternative for someone determined to be bronze for, say, a prom or other special event, "I actually encourage patients to have spray tans done," she says. But she reminds them that the spray tan won't protect them from the sun's rays, so they still need to use sunscreen outdoors.

3. HAIR REMOVAL

Different options exist for different parts of the body, and children often start to express a desire for hair removal once they hit puberty, says Janet Trabosh, a physician's assistant who is associate director of the Bellavie Medspa at Stony Brook University. "That's when hair becomes an issue," she says.

Shaving is the least invasive, least expensive and least painful route for removing hair on the legs and underarms, and for boys shaving their faces, but kids should be old enough to be able to handle the razor without cutting themselves. They should consider using a multiple-blade razor because it can be gentler on the skin and should use shaving cream or other sudsy substance instead of shaving on dry skin, dermatologist Basuk says. They should never share razors, which can spread disease.

Hair removal creams also are pain-free methods of hair removal for the legs, as long as the cream doesn't irritate your skin, Basuk says. She suggests testing a small area first to make sure there's no allergic reaction.

As far as the face, threading is a possibility for smaller areas such as shaping eyebrows, Basuk says. Threading has been done in India, Turkey and the Middle East for hundreds of years and involves looping unwanted hair in a cotton thread to pluck it. The practitioner should employ a clean thread for each spot being threaded, and also between customers, Basuk says.

Waxing is another option for most body parts, including the back. Heated wax is applied and covered by a paper that, when yanked off, pulls the hairs out, which can hurt. Kids using acne medication or other skin-care medication should check with their doctor prior to having areas waxed, Trabosh says.

The wax shouldn't be so hot that it burns the skin, Basuk says. Waxing can also spread infections such as warts from customer to customer if the practitioner is applying the wax with a stick and double-dips it into the wax between patients, Basuk says.

Waxing can cause temporary redness, irritation and sensitivity, and kids should stay out of the sun for several days before and after treatments to avoid unwanted pigmentation.

Laser hair removal is the most permanent option, as follicles are destroyed by the concentrated heat, Trabosh says. It usually entails six to eight treatments over the course of a year or more to complete and can cost hundreds. Laser zaps can feel like the snap of a rubber band, so the child should be willing and able to tolerate the discomfort. Parents should be sure their teens understand that the hair removal can be irreversible; for this reason Trabosh won't use lasers to shape eyebrows, for instance, because styles may change.

4. TATTOOS

Most Australian states have laws that forbid a child under the age of 18 from being tattooed, with the exception of the Northern Territory. Alternatives for children include henna or other temporary tattoos.

"Henna tattoos are fine," dermatologist Haughton says. She recommends testing a small area of skin before doing a large tattoo to ensure the child isn't allergic to the henna. Also, henna tattoos fade away and aren't easily removed, so getting one means having it for several weeks.

Glitter tattoos are popular among younger kids and are easily applied and removed, says Lisa Formato, owner of the Darlings & Divas spa for kids in New York.

5. FALSE EYELASHES

Teens need to be careful to keep false eyelashes clean prior to application to avoid eye infection from dirt or bacteria, says Steve Rubin, chief of pediatric ophthalmology.. They also need to be careful with the lash adhesive, and test it first on a small area of skin to make sure they aren't allergic to it. Know that the adhesives may contain formaldehyde or cyanoacrylate. While formaldehyde is a carcinogen, the amounts in the adhesive won't likely cause cancer, Rubin says. But the solution could cause a chemical conjunctivitis if accidentally applied to the surface of the eye, and, if the user is sloppy, the cyanoacrylate could even accidentally glue the lids together, Rubin says.

"The main hazard would be if they get the glue in their eye," Rubin says. Kids should also be careful not to stab themselves in the eye with any implement such as a tweezer that they may be using to place the lashes, he says.

Lashes should be removed at the end of the day. They can be reused, but should be stored in the container they came in, says salon owner Sandy Oringer. Using care when removing the lashes will avoid inadvertently tugging out real lashes as well. If mascara is desired, apply it only to the tips of the lash to avoid clumping.

Some teens go for individually applied lashes done at a boutique, where the same caveats regarding cleanliness and allergy testing apply. The person applying the eyelashes should be licensed to do so, says Joann Donnelly, owner of Little Lash Boutique. "Our youngest client is probably 16," Donnelly says. Her protocol is that teens need parental permission to have the lashes applied. The fake lashes "piggyback" on the natural lashes, Donnelly says, and grow out and shed with the natural lash.

6. GEL MANICURES

The two concerns with gel manicures are the ultraviolet lights used to seal the gel, and the tendency of the manicures to dry out, thin or otherwise damage the natural nails, says dermatologist Haughton.

She recommends applying broad-spectrum sunscreen to the hands prior to a gel manicure or wearing UV protective gloves during the UV light exposure to reduce the risk of skin cancer and premature aging.

The tools used to remove the gel can thin or damage the nails, so she also recommends taking a "nail polish holiday" every month to give nails a chance to rehydrate and strengthen, applying petroleum jelly to the nailbed and cuticles during the time off. She says she recommends that kids and teens only get four gel manicures a year, perhaps only for special occasions. Make sure kids don't start peeling the gel polish off if it chips, which can damage the natural nail. Parents need to also consider the cost of maintaining the nails every couple of weeks.

7. PEDICURES

Avoiding infection is the main concern. "It's very important not to shave within 24 hours prior to the procedure," Haughton says. Shaving nicks in the skin might allow an infection that would need to be treated with systemic antibiotics, she says. People should wash their legs thoroughly after the pedicure, and also should avoid shaving for two to three days post pedicure, says Jill Creighton, an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Stony Brook University Hospital.

Creighton recommends using plastic liners in the pedicure tub that are changed between each user, and she recommends bringing your own instruments. Haughton agrees, and she even recommends bringing your own polish to avoid using brushes used on someone else and then dipped in the polish bottle. "To be a purist, that would be safest," she says. "You're recreating your own pedicure at the salon."

8. TEETH WHITENING

Whitening strips aren't safe for kids younger than 15. That's because adult teeth and roots are still forming, and it's not known how bleaching might affect their development, says Ron Kosinski, a pediatric dentist.

Once using the white strips, which contain a low percentage of peroxide, the teen should be sure to follow the directions on the package. They shouldn't leave the strips on for longer than instructed, and should avoid swallowing the bleaching agent, for instance. Side effects can include tooth sensitivity.

Bleaching in a dentist's office is more dramatic and faster because the concentration of peroxide is higher, Kosinski says, but it's also more costly and most kids don't need it. "I always say to kids, 'Start off with the white strips,' " Kosinski says.

Kosinski says he doesn't want to see kids be overzealous, using white strips too frequently or using them at the same time as whitening toothpaste.

9. HAIR DYE

Studies are under way to see if hair dyes increase the risk of certain cancers, pediatrician Creighton says. Kids can also have an allergic reaction to hair dye, and it can be caustic to the scalp.

"It's best if you only colour your hair within three shades lighter than your natural colour," dermatologist Haughton says.

That's because changing it further requires more peroxide, which can damage the hair. "People don't realise that once you damage your hair, there's not a lot you can do. It has to grow out," she says.

Creighton favours the idea of going to a salon rather than teens doing it themselves at home. At-home box dyes are "very instruction dependent," Creighton says. Kids need to follow the directions for mixing and for how long to leave it in, and they shouldn't use it "off-label," for instance to colour their eyebrows. "I've had kids burn their scalp. They don't know what they're doing," Creighton says. "Licensed salons really know how to handle dyes better." If kids are going to dye at home, parental supervision is important, Creighton says.

10. MAKEUP

"I would say they could start doing a touch of colour at 13, 14," says Sandy Oringer - pink cheeks, lip gloss. More makeup would be OK for a party or special occasion - adding mascara, eye pencil. "I still don't like them loaded with makeup," she says. "I don't want big royal blue eyes and false eyelashes. What would be a nice touch of mascara becomes a big blog of eyelashes. It takes away from their youth and freshness."

11. HAIR STRAIGHTENING

Cynthia Latorre, director of the Long Island Beauty School's Hempstead campus, is not a fan of hair straightening procedures such as Brazilian, Japanese or Keratin treatments or relaxers for minors. "Whatever product that straightens or changes the texture of the hair is a chemical," Latorre says.

Even if a process claims to be formaldehyde free, for instance, it may still have chemicals that release formaldehyde when they are heated, dermatologist Basuk says. Because the processes use heat applied through a straightening iron, the carcinogen can be released, Basuk says. Parents should research the ingredients in the formula they choose, she says.

The processes work by breaking the bonds of the hair shaft to straighten it, Basuk says. That's not as much of a problem as the chemical ingredients, she says, though repeated treatments can cause hair to become brittle.

"I don't do anybody under 13 years old," says salon owner Judy Abreu, and parents must sign a waiver, she says.

Parents also have to consider the costs of the processes, which can run into hundreds of dollars.

12. HAIR EXTENSIONS

Most kids who come to her salon are more interested in extensions to add a streak of colour to their hair rather than whole-head extensions that add to the length, says Beautiful People owner Abreu.

Adding a neon streak, for instance, only entails attaching a couple of strands of extensions. Adding a whole head of hair lengthening extensions costs $150 or so a bundle, and several bundles may be necessary depending on the client's hair. Extensions can stay in for several months.

Parents should ask about what kind of bond is being used to attach the extension. "My suggestion is beaded extensions," she says. A less expensive alternative may be clip-on extensions that are taken on and off at will and can be purchased at beauty product stores.

"Hair extensions are pretty safe," dermatologist Basuk says. "As long as it doesn't create tension on the roots."

Tribune News Service