Inside the tween obsession with Drunk Elephant skincare

How did a millennial skincare brand become Gen Alpha's most viral gift?
Drunk Elephant Kids How a Millennial Skincare Brand Went Viral with Gen Alpha
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When Glamour US executive editor Natasha Pearlman received her nine-year-old daughter’s Christmas list, it looked like it was copy and pasted from a beauty influencer’s Amazon storefront. At the top wasn’t a specific product, but an entire skincare brand: Drunk Elephant.

Other gifts included a beauty organiser, a facial roller, a Laneige Lip Sleeping Mask, and Sol de Janeiro Brazilian Bum Bum Cream, but it was Drunk Elephant that reigned supreme. Natasha says it was about four months ago when her daughter Rose, who is in fourth grade, started getting “massively” into skincare and makeup.

“I thought it was kind of funny at the beginning, when she and her friends would experiment doing makeup on each other,” Natasha says. “And then it became about products you have to have. Drunk Elephant was the first brand that she started talking about.”

A few weeks later, Rose started asking for specific products including B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Gel, Protini Polypeptide Cream, and B-Goldi Bright Illuminating Drops, requests that immediately were shot down. What does a nine-year-old need with niacinamide? Maybe Santa would be more amenable? Maybe there's a Sephora at the North Pole?

Natasha's story is hardly unique: Word spread fast that products from Drunk Elephant seemed to be at the top of a staggering amount of young girls' holiday wish lists in 2023. A quick poll around the office informed me that other Glamour US staffers had daughters, nieces and younger cousins who were “obsessed” with the brand. Parents flooded Instagram with questions about the safety of ingredients like peptides, acids, and retinol on youthful skin. On TikTok the hashtag #KidsatSephora has more than 5 million views, featuring videos of Drunk Elephant kids wreaking havoc on tester products in stores.

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Founded in 2013 by stay-at-home mom Tiffany Masterson, Drunk Elephant was created to solve Tiffany's own skin issues. According to Drunk Elephant’s website, she suffered from “combo, oily in the T-zone, ‘sensitive’ (or so I thought), occasionally breakout prone, out of balance” skin with “mild rosacea” and “visible pores.” Masterson eliminated the ingredients she believed were the root of her issues and instead formulated with “a high percentage of active ingredients at skin-friendly pH levels.”

By the late 2010s Drunk Elephant rose to It-brand status right before the pandemic and at the height of maximalist skin care routines and Instagram shelfies. Known for its minimalist packaging with bright pops of colour and cute product names, Drunk Elephant was once described by Glamour US as “millennial clickbait.” According to Forbes, the brand pulled in net sales close to $100 million in 2018, calling it “one of the fastest-growing prestige skin care companies in history.” The following year beauty giant Shiseido acquired Drunk Elephant for $845 million.

Which raises the question: How did Drunk Elephant end up on Christmas lists for kids who believe Santa’s elves are scooping globs of Protini Polypeptide Cream into neon blue jars?

The most obvious answer is social media. They see it; they want it. But according to media psychologist Don Grant, PhD, it's more than that — it's part of a long history of young girls always wanting to play at being older. “Forever in history, from the time girls were little, they were given what? Dolls,” he says. “What is a doll? A doll is to be a mommy. We also know that little girls have always loved to play dress-up, and they love to play with mommy's makeup. This is not new [behaviour] to try to be mature a little faster and test things out.”

In today's digital age this concept applies to influencers and online personalities. According to Dr. Grant, children go through developmental stages. By age 13 they start to experience the parasocial effect, wherein they stop looking to their parents and teachers for guidance and start looking to their peers. “It used to be your peers are your friend group,” he says. “But now I call it the parasocial-media effect. Kids are [also] looking at influencers and their followers as their peers.”

Morgan Wrapp, Glamour US's commercial creative director, says her eight-year-old daughter, Lulu, found out about Drunk Elephant through her older cousin and other kids at school. Lulu was always poking around Wrapp's skincare stash but started talking specifically about the brand a few weeks ago. “Little kids want what other little kids have,” Morgan says. “That's pure and simple. We're all guilty of that, seeing what other people have and being interested in it. But I don't think she necessarily thinks it's going to do anything for her skin.”

Natasha’s daughter Rose runs in what she calls a competitive “cool girl crowd” at her New York City elementary school. When she received the viral Stanley cup as a gift, Natasha, unaware of its cult status, allowed her to bring it to school. “We had a thing with the teacher,” she says. “They're like, ‘Can she not bring it in? Because all the kids get really distracted.’”

Recently one of Rose’s friends went to Sephora with her mom to buy Drunk Elephant moisturiser, which only fuelled the obsession. “This friend has super-sensitive skin and gets rashes on her face,” Natasha says. “She put it on the rash, and it never came back. Her mom's like, ‘It cost me $69 (£54), but it's the first cream that's helped her face.’”

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This content can also be viewed on the site it originates from.

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Both Natasha’s and Morgan’s daughters are not allowed on TikTok or Instagram. However, they both go on YouTube, which has become harder to regulate since the launch of its TikTok competitor, YouTube Shorts.

“I tried to ban adult YouTube, but I am certain she finds it on YouTube Shorts,” Natasha says. “There's all these influencers that do makeup videos, but for children. It's not just normal makeup videos. It's starter makeup and it's how to do makeup for 10-year-olds, basically.” Some of her daughter's favourite kid creators include Your.fav.preppy2023, Prepsduo, and Preppybycalls, who use the hashtag #preppyskincare to share their routines featuring brands like Drunk Elephant, Tower28, and Summer Fridays.

It's also important to acknowledge that despite parents' best efforts, apps like TikTok and Instagram will always be accessible, a challenge Morgan tries to navigate daily. “There's older kids in her school with phones and Apple Watches, but there's also play dates, older siblings, and things like that,” she says. “You may have set restrictions on what your kid can see, but when they're out of your house, it's a little bit out of your control.”

According to a December 2023 report from the Pew Research Center, 58% of teens use TikTok daily, while 17% are on the app “almost constantly.” Some of the most followed beauty influencers on the platform include Alix Earle, Meredith Duxbury, and Emira D'Spain, who have all participated in paid Drunk Elephant campaigns. TikTok's minimum sign-up age is 13 years old, but it's fair to say there's a trickle-down effect from influencers that reaches tweens and kids.

The debate around kids using Drunk Elephant has intensified in recent weeks. In December, Tiffany assured customers on Instagram that most of her products are “designed for all skin, including kids and tweens,” which she reiterated in an email to Glamour US.

“I designed Drunk Elephant for all skin, including that of my own children, and the majority of our skin, hair, and body products are appropriate for and compatible with skin of all ages,” Tiffany writes. “This is backed by clinical data. Based on the number of questions we’ve received on this topic, we created an Instagram post with recommendations of what is safe for prepubescent skin 13 and under.”

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In her email Tiffany takes a stronger stance against kids using Drunk Elephant’s more potent products and addresses critics who think her products are not necessary for children: “We do not recommend children under 13 use acids or retinol (vitamin C is an acid). The detractors are referring to the products that contain acids, and rightly so. Kids and tweens don't need acids. If you have concerns, we recommend consulting a paediatrician or paediatric dermatologist before introducing new products into your child's routine.”

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Tiffany is well aware that, in 2023, the brand has gained its “highest number of followers ever this year across all social platforms,” leading to a “growth in awareness and our sales.”

However, Tiffany is adamant that the brand is not capitalising on its newfound status with kids by purposefully marketing products to children. “From the outside looking in, it does seem like the kids are responsible for the brand's astronomical growth,” she writes. “However, it continues to be a household brand used by people of all ages like it has been for the past 10 years. I've been reading that I chose the colours and packaging to target children. This couldn't be further from the truth and the truth is never quite as interesting, but I chose the colours and packaging because it happened to be my aesthetic. I actually never even considered targeting any demographic and that's what made my brand so different from the start.”

Risa Barash, founder of the tween skincare brand TBH Kids, believes Drunk Elephant is not marketing its products to kids but stresses the importance of quick transparency for all skincare brands. “That doesn't mean when it happens, you don't try to nip it in the bud,” she says. “An eight-year-old should not be putting retinol on their skin, and a child should not be using high-potency vitamin C or alpha hydroxy. They do have a responsibility to speak up a little stronger, and perhaps they should have come out a little sooner.”

Despite the resources available, there’s no telling whether parents will actually do their research on products and ingredients — and no guarantee children will listen. Joshua Zeichner, MD, board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, says his 10-year-old daughter is more likely to follow what social media says.

“Just because I'm a dermatologist doesn't mean that my daughter is any less influenced by what she sees,” he says. “The only difference is that I can try and be the voice of reason. But I have to tell you, that when it comes down to me versus TikTok, TikTok wins.”

It's a truth Kelly Atterton discovered when creating her skincare brand Rile, a line specifically created for young teens. The former Allure beauty editor found a profound connection between social media, self-care, and self-ownership in adolescence. “The confessional ‘get ready with me’ trend that took hold over the last year and a half — it’s a sign of teenagedom, it's a sign of taking control of your life,” she says. “It's one of the reasons why I launched a brand in this space. At a certain stage kids start to feel like they're becoming who they are. They want to take control over their life in the little measures that they're allowed to.”

This is why skincare resonates so deeply with children, who lack real autonomy in their daily life. “They don't get to drive or pick where they're going,” Atterton adds. “They don't get to choose their schedule, or much of anything. Being picky about what they're wearing is a way that they put their foot down; that's where they exercise their control.”

As for which Drunk Elephant skincare products children and teens can use, Dr. Zeichner supports most of what is stated in Tiffany’s Instagram post, advising against products like the T.L.C Sukari Baby Facial, C-Firma Fresh Day Serum, and A-Passioni Retinol Cream, which include acids, retinol, and vitamin C.

“A lot of the kids are using those three ingredients when they don't need it,” he says, adding that it's not out of the realm for a board-certified dermatologist to prescribe retinols to preteens with acne, but it needs to be monitored and done with intention. To just walk into Sephora and buy a retinol cream as a 12-year-old is not utilising the powerful ingredient properly.

Hydrating products like the Bora Barrier Rich Repair Cream are fine, though Dr. Zeichner cautions not to overdo it. “My daughter has been very enthusiastic about her skincare, and it actually caused a little bit of perioral dermatitis,” he says. “It's thought to be related to rosacea and in some cases may be caused by overuse of occlusive products on the face. I had to have a strict talking to her about holding off on her products, because it might be causing a bit of a rash.”

But what happens if your child does get their hands on a product containing retinol, vitamin C, or acids? Are they actively ruining their beautiful baby skin?

“The answer is probably no, with the exception of the temporary issues that may arise with improper use of the products or the products just being harsh on the skin,” says Dr. Zeichner. “If you speak to paediatric dermatologists or paediatricians, there is an argument to be made that perhaps younger skin is more sensitive than older skin. I don't know if that's proven. Again, there are short-term issues associated with irritation from these ingredients. But I don't think you're going to impact the trajectory of how well your skin is going to age or not.”

However, Dr. Zeichner says extreme use could create long-term, chronic low-grade inflammation. “That inhibits wound healing responses, and that can contribute to premature ageing,” he says. “But that would have to be such an extreme, that I couldn't see that practically being an issue.”

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Ultimately, it’s up to parents to decide what their children can use. If your preteen wants to experiment with skincare, Dr. Grant recommends having an open conversation to ask where their interest is coming from. “You don't want to make kids shut down, you don't want to make them defensive,” he says. “Invite them to tell you. Why is this suddenly important to you? Where did you see this? And explore with them together. Affirming the idea that they're interested in taking care of their skin, or any of their health, I think that that is cool.”

Once you’ve had this conversation, Dr. Grant says it’s okay to just say no. “Like all things, when my children want something outside our budget, or something I didn't think was appropriate for them, you can talk to them and say, ‘Okay, well let's talk about this, and is there something else we can try? Or let's look at the ingredients,’” he says. “However, it’s important for kids to be realistic. As adults, we understand our own budgets. I don't think kids understand money doesn't grow on trees.”

Considering most Drunk Elephant products clock in at over $50 (£39), budget is a more than reasonable excuse. While skincare for children is a valid concept, it’s the cost that’s actually up for debate.

“I'm not spending $70 (£55) on something for my daughter to use — she doesn’t need it,” says Morgan, a thought Natasha echoes: “Excuse my language, but I'm not going out and spending $200 (£157) on fucking Drunk Elephant.”

An original version of this article appeared on Glamour US.