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Retinol Rated PG-13: California Considers Restricting Youth Access to Anti-Aging Skincare Products

Published May 19, 2024
Published May 19, 2024
Troy Ayala

Lawmakers are hoping to protect the “Sephora kids” from their own curiosity with a new bill coming out of California that aims to ban the sale of over-the-counter skincare products or cosmetic products to children under the age of 13 that target skin aging concerns. California AB 2491 would effectively ban the sale of products that contain vitamin A or its derivatives, including retinol and retinoids, or an alpha hydroxy acid, including glycolic acid, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), or citric acid.

Assemblymember Alex Lee authored the bill, which passed the Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee on April 23, 2024, and is now headed to the Appropriations Committee.

“Anti-aging products with powerful active ingredients like retinol have become much more accessible in recent years,” said Assemblymember Lee in a press release. “They’re readily available at retail stores, and we’re seeing videos on social media of children as young as seven using anti-aging serums. The industry itself has made statements that kids do not need to use these strong products. But the multi-billion dollar beauty industry in the U.S. is failing to take meaningful action to address the issue, and companies are profiting off of kids who are unknowingly buying and using products that aren’t meant for them. Kids don’t need anti-aging products, and AB 2491 will protect children and preteens from the potential harms of using products that may lead to short- or long-term skin challenges they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

In his statement, Assemblymember Lee shared the story of Scarlett Goddard-Strahan, a 10-year-old who spoke at the April 23 hearing. Goddard-Strahan said she experienced skin reactions like burns and bumps after using products that were advertised as anti-wrinkling and brightening after seeing influencers on TikTok and YouTube post about them.

“I stopped using these products a while ago and use Nivea and sunscreen now, but I still have bumps on my cheeks and they get itchy and red when I sweat and when I am out in the sun,” she said. “I feel embarrassed that I have bumps on my face and people at my school ask me why my cheeks are so red. It makes me really self-conscious. I’m worried my skin is always going to look like this and feel like this.”

Goddard-Strahan believes that if she had known how these products would have affected her, she never would have used them. “I didn’t know I could buy something that sounded good, but would actually hurt my skin,” she said. “I wanted glowy skin and instead I have red itchy skin.”

Gen Alpha’s obsession with skincare products has taken the beauty industry by storm in 2024, becoming one of the biggest trends of the year. This generation has quickly become a driving force in the skincare category. According to market research firm Nielsen IQ, households with tweens or teens accounted for 46% of the growth in the facial skincare category in 2023.

"Kids don’t need anti-aging products, and AB 2491 will protect children and preteens from the potential harms of using products that may lead to short- or long-term skin challenges they wouldn’t otherwise have.”
By Alex Lee, Assemblymember, State of California

The Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), a trade association comprised of 600 member companies representing the global cosmetics and personal care products industry, released a statement on California Assembly Bill 2491, expressing concern about its potential effect on consumer freedom of choice. “While we support the intent of Assembly Bill 2491, introduced by Assemblyman Alex Lee, we believe it is crucial that the bill balances protecting preteens, education and consumer choice,” the statement read. “We look forward to working with California legislators and other stakeholders as AB 2491 makes its way through the legislative process to develop practical and effective regulations. We will continue to advocate for policies that protect young people while preserving choice and industry innovation.”

Kelly Bonner, a trial attorney for Duane Morris focused on consumer products in the health care, pharmaceutical, and consumer products industries, understands and supports the sentiment behind the bill, but also sees it as a band-aid solution to a much bigger problem. 

“While I think the bill is well-intentioned, I think it’s overbroad, unlikely to accomplish its stated aims, and doesn’t do anything to address the root cause of the concern, which is a combination of social media misinformation and the ruthlessly image-conscious standards to which we hold young girls,” says Bonner.

The proposed bill would be “effectively impossible to enforce,” argues Bonner. “In addition to reviewing product ingredients with each sale, the bill would require cashiers to know whether a product has been advertised as ‘anti-aging’ specifically, and would require age verification at checkout,” she says. “It’s not clear how effective the bill’s safeguards would be, and the bill doesn’t do anything to address the wealth of misinformation about skincare available on social media.”

The Federal Trade Commission already has laws in place that are designed to protect children. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) Rule imposes certain requirements on operators of websites or online services directed to children under 13 years of age and on operators of other websites or online services that have actual knowledge that they are collecting personal information online from a child under 13 years of age. AB 2491 would be the first to ban the sale of products containing specific ingredients to children. Internationally, there is precedent for a bill like this. For example, a pharmacy chain in Sweden, Apotek Hjärtat, has set an age limit for the sale of advanced skincare products, including retinol and alpha hydroxy acids, to customers under 15.

“While I think the bill is well-intentioned, I think it’s overbroad, unlikely to accomplish its stated aims, and doesn’t do anything to address the root cause of the concern.”
By Kelly Bonner, trial attorney, Duane Morris

Elise Tabin, founder of the teenage skincare brand TWiiSH, supports the bill due to its proposed ban of retinol for children under the age of 13, but she also acknowledges that there’s only so much that can be done to stop young kids from using anti-aging products that could damage their skin. “If someone wants something bad enough, they will find a way to get it,” says Tabin. “If a tween or teen is desperate to get their hands on a viral product with ingredients that may not suit their skin type, there's always a parent or grandparent who can buy it for them.”

AB 2491 would require businesses to take a “reasonable step” to ensure that anti-aging products are not sold to children under the age of 13. The bill states that a reasonable step could include: 

  • Placing a prominent notice next to the physical product or in the product’s online description that states that the product is not meant for anyone under 13 years of age.
  • Requiring the purchaser to provide a date of birth or otherwise confirm their age before purchasing.
  • Requiring the purchaser to use a non-prepaid credit card for an online purchase.
  • Requiring the purchaser to verify their age by means of a valid form of identification that includes a photograph of the purchaser and their date of birth. 

Whether or not the bill passes, it's already influencing the beauty industry. The bill's proposal has spurred an industry-wide debate about the responsibility of the beauty industry in safeguarding children.

“While Assemblymember Lee’s bill is well-intentioned, I believe that the responsibility should be placed on brands to be thoughtful in how they market and clearly label their products, knowing that their reach can often stretch far beyond their intended audience,” said Tara Tersigni, founder of Yawn, a makeup and skincare brand designed for kids.

Dermatologists agree that it’s dangerous for kids to use anti-aging skincare products, and may even leave them with irreversible skin problems. These products don’t provide any benefits to children’s skin, only the potential for harm. But whose job is it to ensure these products don’t fall into the wrong set of small hands?

“Everyone has a responsibility to protect children, full stop,” Tersigni adds. “Every part of this industry plays a role, from consumer to retailer to brand owner [and] operators. I thank Assembly Member Lee for opening this topic up, bringing attention to it, and trying to enact meaningful change for the children. Hopefully, this will spark changes within the beauty industry that focus on keeping consumers of all ages safe.”


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