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Ask the Strategist: Can You Help Me Assemble Toiletry Kits for Preteen Boys?

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In our advice column, Ask the Strategist, we take your most burning shopping questions and survey friends, call up experts, and draw on our own personal experience to answer them. As always, please email any online-shopping-related queries to strategist@nymag.com with the subject Ask the Strategist — we’re here to help.

I am looking to put together cool toiletry kits for a couple of preteen boys that help them feel ready to tackle puberty. Suggestions on bags and products?

Ah, puberty. I have, quite literally, been there. Unfortunately, I was never lucky enough to have someone prepare the perfect toiletry kit for me, so my bathroom shelf in those years was a mess of free samples from magazines and cheap aerosol deodorants that would make me (and my parents) gag if I sprayed too forcefully. While I’ve since evolved, judging by our conversations with tween (a.k.a. preteen) boys, it appears they haven’t: Not one of the tween boys we spoke to about the best gifts for boys their age recommended a grooming product (or a bag to put them in). But I suspect your tween boys will be much happier to receive some from a kind person like you instead of learning the virtues of deodorant from someone who points out they should start buying it after whiffing them on a particularly funky day. Below, I’ve gathered a selection of user-friendly basics — from deodorant to face wash to starter razors and skin-care products — from brands that dermatologists and some actual teen boys have endorsed at price points that should allow your recipients to (eventually) restock their kits themselves. And I’ve concluded the list with a handful of Dopp kits from brands your boys won’t be embarrassed to sport throughout their teen years and even beyond.

While the amount of acne and facial hair (both of which we’ll get to shortly) that appears during puberty tends to differ on a boy-by-boy basis, a universal symptom for all boys is their sweat glands becoming far more active. Which means every tween boy needs a reliable scented antiperspirant close by to prevent the B.O. that anyone who’s ever had a gaggle of them — or just one — in their home knows all too well. This Dove option with a subtle, clean scent is great for three reasons. (1) Dermatologists consistently like Dove. (2) A fitness guy told us this particular stick is the best for anyone who moves a lot over the course of the day, as preteen boys tend to do. (3) It’s affordable — and often comes in multipacks that make each stick cost even less than buying one at a time.

While they may well grow up to become discerning Dewy Dudes, there’s no need for preteen boys to worry about any anti-aging or glow-restoring ingredients just yet. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be using a face wash — specifically one designed to combat acne and breakouts. We’ve described this affordable, unscented one from Neutrogena as the “old reliable” of such face washes, and it was the most cited product by dermatologists when we asked them about the best face washes for acne. The brand also makes a version that smells of grapefruit, if you think that’s something your boys would prefer.

Neutrogena Hydro Boost
$17
$17

Moisturizing is something everyone who regularly washes his face should do too. If you need a simple explanation as to why, just tell your boys that face washes can dry out skin as they cleanse, so using a moisturizer afterwards will help combat that drying. Like its aforementioned face wash, Neutrogena’s Hydro Boost moisturizer is cheap and a dermatologist favorite for oily skin (i.e., what you get during puberty). It’s also preferred by the teenage sons of dermatologists, at least according to derm Dr. Kenneth Howe, who told us both he and his 14-year-old boy like its “lightweight gel formulation.”

Facial hair is another hallmark of puberty. While it’s appropriate for boys to want to keep things neat once it starts growing in, we don’t think it’s the best idea to give them a sharp safety razor, even if barbers have told us those are the best way for grown men to shave. Instead, we’d recommend an electric foil razor, which won’t require any shaving cream or replacing of sharp blades in order to deliver a close shave (barbers say foil razors provide the closest shave of any electric styles). Speaking of barbers, this relatively affordable foil razor from Andis is a favorite of some we’ve spoken to, including barber Karac Rulea, who says it is durable, “gives you a super-close shave without any razor burn,” and, crucially for forgetful preteens, “doesn’t require a frequent charge.”

Philips Norelco OneBlade
$33
$33

This even-less-expensive electric razor is another great choice, particularly because it more closely resembles the kind of shaving tool your recipients have surely seen older siblings, dads, and guys on TV using. While it will prove more expensive over time because its blades need to be replaced, it is less of an investment at the start, and by the time your boys need to swap a blade, they might be able to spring for their own replacement. The OneBlade also, according to contributor Kurt Soller, has a “punchy color” that aesthetically minded preteens might prefer and a slim profile that he says “makes it just right for my Dopp kit.”

If used regularly, a scented antiperspirant will probably be enough to keep your preteen boys’ funk at bay. But if you wanted to include something they can use for a quick freshening up, allow me to recommend this eau de toilette that has long been a classic starter scent for teenagers (and worn by many into and through adulthood). It’s great for a younger guy because it’s fresh and citrusy, rather than musky or spicy, two notes that tend to work better as men mature. Given how often Cool Water goes on sale, it’s also one of the more affordable scents out there, especially considering that folks on scent forums like Fragrantica often compare it to luxury brand Creed’s Green Irish Tweed scent that costs more than $200.

And now for some bags to put all this stuff in. Seeing as there’s a high chance these boys are going to stain or lose their first Dopp kit (sorry), I think a durable style that looks nice without costing a crazy amount is the way to go. As I noted above, the three options I pulled all come from teen-approved brands, with this Dopp kit from Herschel Supply Co. having the most classic look of all. It has a wipe-clean inner lining, a zipper that provides a waterproof seal when closed, and Herschel Supply Co. came up a lot when we asked 100 teens about the brands they actually think are cool.

Multiple teen boys have told us Nike makes their favorite clothes, which makes me think this bag’s Nike swoosh will make your boys feel more confident toting it around (and, in turn, using the products inside). While designed to carry around shoes rather than toiletries, this bag is made from the same durable polyester as the Herschel Dopp kit above and also zips shut to prevent anything from slipping out. Because it’s designed to tote around (sometimes dirty) shoes, it should also be sturdy enough to protect grooming products and withstand any accidental leaks. It’s slightly bigger than the other Dopp kits on this list, but still designed to fit inside larger duffel or other bags with plenty of space to spare.