For four days last year, Amelia Gregory lay in hospital hooked to a drip while doctors battled to treat a skin infection that had spread to her left eye, to stop it robbing the 13-year-old of her sight.
The cause? Amelia had decided to try a skincare treatment she had seen demonstrated by a teenage influencer on the social media platform TikTok.
Experts report a worrying rise in similar cases as youngsters increasingly watch tutorials on everything from exfoliation and skin peels to homemade moisturisers and masks — some of them given by children as young as ten.
Amelia, after watching one such video, tried a concoction of products on her skin in the belief they would have an anti-ageing effect and make her skin ‘glow’. But some of the products contained retinol, a form of vitamin A often used to reduce wrinkles.
While this ingredient increases skin cell production, when it is used in excess and on younger, more sensitive skin, it can cause burning, redness, flaking and shedding. ‘Amelia came running downstairs with a bright red face and was screaming in pain,’ recalls her mother, Claire, 41, who is a women’s health practitioner from Cheshire.
After watching a TikTok video, Amelia tried a concoction of products on her skin in the belief they would have an anti-ageing effect and make her ‘glow’
But instead, the teenager ended up doing long-term damage
‘She had skin peeling off her face and angry red patches. I asked in a panic what she’d done and she sobbed, “A skincare video”.’
Through her tears Amelia explained she had followed the instructions of a young skincare influencer, who told her followers how to make a ‘mask’ using a retinol cream, another retinol product and a weak acid product often used by older women to brighten and exfoliate skin.
‘Her face was red raw all over,’ says Claire. ‘Whatever she had put on it had burnt her skin so badly that she had welts and her skin was red and flaking. I was stunned.’
She took her daughter to the GP, who said it would clear up as it was only due to skincare products from a shop. But as the days passed Amelia’s skin became more sore, and her left eye became red and swollen. Claire then took her to a pharmacist, who took one look and said: ‘Go to A&E.’
Amelia was immediately admitted as, in a matter of days, she had developed a bacterial infection in the tissues under the skin — a condition known as cellulitis — and the infection had travelled to her eye.
‘That flaky, open skin had become infected and the infection had spread to her left eye and at one point looked like it would spread to the right one, too,’ says Claire. ‘Doctors told me the infection could cause her to lose her sight. I was terrified and couldn’t believe it — all this over skincare.’
Her mother Claire said a dermatologist warned it would take a long time for Amelia’s skin to heal properly
Amelia, 13, shows signs of improvement in hospital after doctors fought to save her sight
Later that day, and by this point barely able to open her eyes or blink, Amelia was put on an intravenous drip.
Doctors say they are seeing more cases like this, particularly in so-called Generation Alpha — those born since 2010.
They represent a burgeoning market for skincare and beauty products and, growing up in the world of digital media, have become avid followers of young beauty influencers, whose pull is huge. Penelope Disick, 11, and North West, ten — both members of the Kardashian family, who are based in the U.S. — have millions of followers for their beauty and skincare TikTok videos.
And social media twins Haven and Koti, seven, from Oklahoma, have 4.8 million followers on TikTok, where they share ‘get ready with us’ videos alongside images of what they’ve bought in their latest skincare shopping sprees.
But this trend raises concerns among experts such as Dr Derrick Phillips, a consultant dermatologist and spokesman for the British Skin Foundation. ‘Influencers are sharing tips and product recommendations when they may not have all the information, and what works for one person may not work for another,’ he says.
Mixing skincare products such as retinol, peels and acids together — as Amelia did — is especially potentially risky, he adds. ‘Both acids and retinol exfoliate or peel away the top layers of the skin,’ Dr Phillips says. ‘When combined, this can essentially cause a mild chemical burn — and results in dry, red or darkly pigmented, irritated and sensitive skin.
‘Using potent ingredients without understanding their interactions and concentrations may also exacerbate existing skin issues, or create new problems such as perioral dermatitis [red rash around the mouth], which is on the rise and can result from a weakened skin barrier as a result of using inappropriate products.’
In a matter of days, Amelia had developed a bacterial infection in the tissues under the skin — a condition known as cellulitis — and the infection had travelled to her eye
He says youngsters should not use retinol because it’s too powerful for developing skins, and that even adults need to use it with care. They must start with a patch test to see if it causes a reaction and then begin with a low concentration. The only time retinols should be used in teens is to treat acne, under supervision, he says.
Other worrying social media trends he has come across include unevenly applying sunscreen to ‘create a contouring effect’ — where areas without sunscreen become red or tanned, creating the ‘contour’, to make the face appear slimmer. ‘But this puts the skin at risk of the harmful effects of UV rays, including damage that can lead to skin cancer,’ he says.
Dr Glyn Estebanez, an aesthetics doctor and surgeon who runs Dr Glyn Medispa clinics in London and Chester, agrees, adding: ‘I can’t emphasise enough how dangerous it is for people of all ages to follow skincare advice from social media. Firstly, anyone can give advice on these platforms and call themselves an expert.
‘And, even if they are qualified, everyone’s skin is different so the advice that may work for one person’s skin is unique and may not be effective on someone else’s. It could even cause harm.
‘Children in particular have generally thinner and more sensitive skin than adults. It’s also more prone to irritation from chemicals and irritants.
‘I would advise parents and carers to steer their teenagers away from following skincare advice on social media and also to remember that, in general, teenage skin doesn’t need strong, abrasive chemicals, because most teenage skin doesn’t need repair from environmental damage or ageing.’
Amelia was 11 when she started watching skincare videos on TikTok. Beautiful teens and tweens (aged nine to 12) would educate their followers about skincare ‘hacks’ and tips. ‘I just thought it was normal as all her friends followed skincare videos by other teens and young girls — skincare is very fashionable among Amelia and her friends,’ says Claire.
Amelia with her mother Claire, who was horrified to learn that her daughter had easily had easily been able to buy the products she tried in a shop
Soon, Amelia was following more and more influencers, including one who posted about using retinols — the advice that landed her in hospital for four days last March.
Her mother mistakenly thought only over-18s could buy retinol — in fact, no such rules are in place and Amelia had easily bought the products she tried in a shop.
Claire says: ‘We saw a dermatologist a few weeks after leaving hospital who looked under the microscope and said that, although Amelia’s skin had superficially healed, it would take a long time for the deeper layers to heal.
‘She had done irreparable damage and would need factor 50 sunscreen on her face in the summer and winter for the foreseeable future. Her skin is also permanently more sensitive and irritable. We tried so many creams and every single one caused her pain and a flare-up, as a result of the damage.
‘Doctors had to prescribe her high-dose antihistamine tablets as she was reacting to anything that came into contact with her skin. She is still taking the anti-histamines to this day.’
Claire is speaking out now to warn other parents of the dangers. ‘Look out for what your kids are watching online, make sure they only have skincare that is designed for young skin and ensure they’re not pinching anything made for older skin,’ she warns.
‘As her mother, I take full responsibility for what she was viewing. But I do think it’s wrong that a cream containing retinol can be sold to children.
‘She can’t buy a Red Bull at her age but she can buy cream that will cause damage to her skin.
‘The doctors were able to save Amelia’s skin and sight — it could so easily have gone the other way.’
Good Health asked TikTok for a comment but it did not give one.