‘Sephora tweens’ are raiding Drunk Elephant – and we only have ourselves to blame

<span>‘The Sephora Tween War itself may be the most not-for-sale fun some of these kids have had in years.’</span><span>Photograph: miljko/Getty Images</span>
‘The Sephora Tween War itself may be the most not-for-sale fun some of these kids have had in years.’Photograph: miljko/Getty Images

It seems a plague of “Sephora Tweens” have been raiding available stocks of Drunk Elephant skin treatments at the makeup shop before mature consumers can get them. Deprived, older women have declared intergenerational war.

Yes. Another one.

A TikTok video battle is now in place, with Generation Alpha firing salvoes that are met punch-for-punch by every online generation that isn’t dead. A child shakes a vial of Protini Polypeptide Cream above their head, bellowing: “From my cold, dead hands!” An elder responds: “You can come for me, but you’ll never get my Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow Niacinamide Dew Drops™!”

Related: Why are our children obsessed with anti-ageing treatments? Take a look in the mirror | Barbara Ellen

OK, I made those last bits up, but the online fight is real and – I cannot stress this enough – I really hate this timeline.

The immediate question raised by the Sephora Tween War is, of course, “were pocket television studios a good idea?” which one single minute of TikTok convinces me to answer “no” and very loudly.

Beyond this are thornier questions about adults, and influence, and the spaces that adult greed and paranoia end up shovelling children into.

The sudden generational rivalry for product acquisition is a symptom of a staggering recent expansion of the beauty market. According to McKinsey, between the years 2020 and 2022, global sales of beauty products increased by nearly $100bn. I have no doubt that this is because we were all trapped inside and relentlessly observing our ashiness and pallor as we tried Zoom meetings in lieu of work, friends and family. Was it the lack of seeing anyone we didn’t already live with that encouraged us to try on new versions of ourselves? Yes. I changed hair colour four times, lost 20kg, refreshed all my skincare to suit my new “home confinement” lifestyle and turned over an entire pallet of makeup colours. A hundred billion dollars says that I wasn’t alone.

Let’s sit with the sad possibility, for a moment, that TikTok has become far more interesting than the rest of their lives

Kids, we may forget, were also trapped inside, with us and with TikTok – and neither pandemically addled entity were in any sound psychological state for consistently responsible child-minding at the time.

It is not news that kids copy the adults around them; they do it to learn, and to build social bonds of recognition and familiarity. They eagerly copy the adults they admire, especially those whose example offers them a channel of ambition or aspiration. As a child, I made myself a “utility belt” hung with kitchen utensils and a cape from a tablecloth because I wanted to be Batman. Who am I to criticise the girls as young as eight improvising ways to smear themselves in retinols because the hero available to them is a TikTok Skinfluencer? At that age, I would have given anything for a Batmobile, even if I was going to crash it immediately into a wall.

There is criticism due, but not for the kids. It’s for the adults who are profiteering from the sale of retinol and other skincare ingredients that are harmful to children. It’s for an adult culture pushing omnipresent messages to children that the worst thing that could ever, ever happen to you is to age. The point has been made that children viewing makeup and skincare videos are being fed the same advertising as adult consumers; if adults struggle to resist it, how, possibly, could a kid? And why would an advertiser wish to desist, when revenue from a skincare market for children and babies – actual babies – is expected to grow at rate of 5.74% each year, as per business intelligence platform Statista.

Related: Children as young as 10 demanding anti-ageing products, say UK dermatologists

What could make one desist except a strong regulatory environment, which can and should hold TikTok, YouTube and all the rest responsible for platforming content that poses risks to health and safety, even if they don’t film the videos themselves. Without appropriate safety warnings, no, it’s not fit for view or sale. Maybe we could also try enforcing some industry codes of practice on the suppliers and retailers of this stuff. There’s even a crazy logic that suggests, hey, maybe if older consumers are on TikTok complaining they can’t get products at the stores, brands don’t have to give a child an inflammatory disorder to avoid hurting themselves in the capitalism.

There’s an uncomfortable broader cultural responsibility, too. It’s to give kids more to do than “buy things at the mall” and offer more figures to aspire to than “an impressive applier of moisturiser”. It’s to consider that maybe bulldozing and then commodifying every public space accessible to kids has also limited the adventures and realms of experience available to them. Let’s sit with the sad possibility for a moment that TikTok has become far more interesting than the rest of their lives.

In fact, the Sephora Tween War itself may be the most not-for-sale fun some of these kids have had in years. Because if kids copy us and their offline childhood obsessions are anti-ageing niacinamide treatments and Sephora mall outings, maybe – just maybe – we, as their elders, have become a bit dull ourselves.

  • Van Badham is a Guardian Australia columnist