Child Development and Parenting: Adolescence
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Hair and Cosmetics

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Sometime during their early teen years, many youth begin to experiment with makeup (these days, this may include both girls and boys). Of course, each family will have their own rules about how old their children must be before they can use makeup, and will set limits about when makeup may be used (e.g., some families do not feel it is appropriate for young girls to wear makeup to religious services). Not only will families have rules about makeup, but schools and employers may have rules about whether makeup is permissible, and under what conditions. Parents will need to familiarize themselves with these rules.

Just as parents established boundaries about appropriate clothing, they will also need to establish and communicate clear boundaries with respect to the use of makeup. However, parents will need to keep in mind that experimentation with makeup is consistent with certain developmental agendas of adolescence such as exploring different identities (via trying on different looks), and an emerging interest in their physical appearance and physical attractiveness. In addition to meeting these developmental needs, makeup also affords parents an opportunity to demonstrate an interest in their teens maturing interests, by mutually sharing tips and suggestions. Mothers can demonstrate makeup application techniques, while daughters can advise their mothers of the latest makeup trends. Therefore, as with clothing choices, it's important for parents to remain somewhat flexible, and to choose their battles wisely. In order to strike the right balance between limitations and liberties, it may be helpful to review the discussion on establishing boundaries for clothing for suggestions about how to achieve this balance.

With the exception of tattooed makeup (such as tattooed eyeliner), makeup is not permanent; therefore, youth can freely experiment with makeup without experiencing any long-term, negative consequences. However, the improper, unsanitary use of makeup can lead to some significant health problems such as infections, and allergic reactions. For this reason, parents will need to help their youth learn to use makeup in a safe and sanitary manner. For starters, youth should never share makeup, especially lipstick and eye makeup, as these cosmetic products can easily transfer the bacteria and viruses that cause colds, flus, pink eye, and cold sores (Herpes Simplex I Virus). For the same reason, youth should not to use saliva as a means of thinning cosmetic products such as mascara. Makeup should be replaced frequently so that it does not spoil: if makeup has an unusual odor or changes color, it has probably expired and should not be used. Many cosmetic manufacturers also recommend washing hands before applying any makeup, particularly when applying a lotion or other product that is dispensed by touching the fingertip to the opened bottle. This practice can lead to the introduction of bacteria into the bottle and its contents.

While most cosmetics are considered safe, heavy fragrances and preservatives can irritate sensitive skin, cause allergic reactions, or aggravate health conditions like asthma. Furthermore, the more products that are used together, the greater the likelihood that multiple products may negatively interact with each other. Youth should be taught to read the product label, particularly warnings about allergies or product interactions, and to follow the package instructions about testing for a possible allergic reaction.

In addition to experimentation with cosmetics, many youth want to try out different hair colors using hair coloring dyes. Hair dyes come in two basic forms: permanent and semi-permanent. Semi-permanent hair colors eventually wash out (lasting about 6-12 shampoos) and are intended to subtly darken hair or change its color tone or intensity. Permanent hair color makes a permanent change to the hair by removing pigment and then depositing a new color. Lightening hair color usually requires a permanent coloring product, as does dramatic darkening. These permanent coloring products contain a blend of ammonia and peroxide. However, the word "permanent" is somewhat misleading. First, hair will eventually grow back to its original color. In addition, hair can often be re-colored if a youth decides they don't like the color once the hair is dyed; however, this type of correction can be chemically complex and may require the assistance of a coloring professional. If youth want to dye their own hair, they should be careful to follow the directions on the box, wear disposable gloves to apply the color, leave the dye on the hair for only the recommended amount of time, and rinse their scalp thoroughly after dying to prevent any unnecessary skin dying or skin irritation.

As is evident from the above discussion, adolescence is a time when youth enjoy trying out different skin-care and beauty products. However, in recent times there seems to be an unending supply of these products that are specifically marketed to youth. Marketing strategies capitalize on youths' vulnerabilities and insecurities about their changing bodies, and their concern with their physical appearance. Media and Internet advertisements are extremely persuasive and may cause youth to believe they need all of these products in order to be attractive and to be accepted by their peers. Thus, youth feel a great deal of pressure to use many different types of cosmetics, lotions, fragrances, and hair styling products. However, parents need to be a countering force to help youth to resist this pressure, while still being able to enjoy the benefits of products they need. When parents help their children to become wise consumers of beauty-enhancing products, and to selectively choose only those products they need, parents bolster teens' self-confidence by communicating their children's worth is greater than their physical appearance. There is also a very practical reason for helping youth to set limits on these purchases. All of these products can be extremely expensive, and many families cannot fit this additional expense into their budget.