Do Face Masks Actually Do Anything for Your Skin?

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The weird and wonderful world of face masks has blossomed in recent years.

Where once people stuck to creams and clays, they’re now venturing into enzyme, charcoal, and sheet masks.

But do these Instagram-friendly concoctions actually benefit your skin? Or are their claims too good to be true?

Read on for all the answers.

What’s the short answer?

In a nutshell, it all depends on which face mask you use and what you’re trying to achieve.

“Face masks can be an effective way to deliver an intensive burst of nourishing and therapeutic skin care ingredients in a highly concentrated form,” explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Nikhil Dhingra of Spring Street Dermatology in New York.

They work by covering the face with your chosen formula for a set period of time, usually 10-20 minutes. This gives the ingredients more time to penetrate the surface of the skin and take effect.

While they can be a quick fix for inflammation and dry patches, their benefits are temporary, meaning you should use them alongside other effective skin care products.

And Dr. Dhingra adds, “Doing a mask for the sake of doing something for your skin can be risky and lead to a surprising number of issues, including dryness, irritation, redness, and breakouts.”

Your skin concern determines your key ingredients

With hundreds of face-mask formulas out there, which one should you pick?

The answer is pretty simple: Know your skin and then head straight to the ingredients list.

Dr. Dhingra explains, “The ingredients should suit your skin type and ideally address a specific concern.”

Here’s exactly what to look for.

Acne or inflammation

While face masks aren’t a long-term remedy for acne, they can help calm inflamed skin and prevent breakouts.

Look for salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and natural ingredients like yogurt and papaya to remove dead skin and pore-clogging substances.

Oatmeal and aloe vera will soothe, according to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Jessie Cheung, while clay and charcoal can soak up excess oil.

Dark spots and pigmentation

Struggling with dark marks? With its ability to prevent hyperpigmentationTrusted Source, vitamin C is your new hero ingredient.

Dr. Cheung notes that Kojic acid, azelaic acid, and licorice root work to lighten and brighten pigmentation too.

And exfoliating ingredients such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), lactic acid, and pineapple can help remove dead, discolored skin from the surface.

Dry skin

Dry skin needs serious hydration, meaning you’ll want to use a face mask filled with water-retaining hyaluronic acid.

Moisturizers such as avocado or shea butter can also soften and smooth skin.

Fine lines

Although deeper wrinkles will likely require a trip to your dermatologist’s office, certain face masks can help minimize the appearance of fine lines.

Vitamin C is, again, an ingredient to watch for. As an antioxidant, it boosts collagen productionTrusted Source to help firm skin.

Vitamin E is also an effective anti-aging option, along with resveratrol Trusted Source and ferulic acid. They work to protect the skin from the things that cause fine lines, such as pollution and sun damage.

Oily skin

Anything that removes excess oil and helps reduce pore-clogging is ideal for oily skin.

Look for face masks containing ingredients like:

  • salicylic acid
  • glycolic acid
  • sulfur
  • charcoal

On the natural side, opt for the likes of yogurt and pineapple, which can be used to exfoliate skin.

Your key ingredients often determine the type

Now that you know which ingredients to pinpoint, you’ll want to narrow down the kind of face mask that’s best for you and your skin.

The list may be lengthy, but it’s easy to navigate. Why? Because certain ingredients and face-mask types go hand-in-hand.

Mud

Ideal for all skin types, mud masks are designed to give a deep cleanse.

Although these masks look similar to the clay variety, they’re water-based, which makes them more hydrating.

Different mud formulas contain different ingredients, but you’re likely to spot various acids and fruit extracts in the list.

Clay

Aesthetician René Serbon says clay masks, which are rich in minerals, are great for revitalizing the skin.

The two main types of clay masks —kaolin and bentonite — absorb excess oil and are suitable for both oily and acne-prone skin.

Serbon notes that they can be a little drying, so dry skin types may want to look elsewhere.

Charcoal

There’s little evidence to support the use of charcoal face masks.

However, as activated charcoal can absorb toxins Trusted Source inside the body, it’s thought that it can also remove dirt and other impurities from the surface of the skin.

Cream or gel

With added hyaluronic acid, thicker cream masks can be great for particularly dry skin that needs a healthy dose of hydration.

Gel formulas typically include cucumber and aloe vera to soothe and calm the skin, making them ideal for sensitive types.

Exfoliating

Chemical exfoliants, like glycolic acid and lactic acid, feature heavily in exfoliating face masks.

These mild acids work to remove dead cells built up on the surface of the face, leaving skin looking brighter and feeling smoother.

Enzyme

Fruit enzymes, such as those derived from pineapples and papayas, are another way to exfoliate.

Typically non-irritating, they also break down dead skin cells to tone and brighten skin.

Peel-off

With a rubber-like texture that’s super easy to remove, these masks are best for those who don’t like mess.

They can also be used for any skin concern. Some contain acids, such as glycolic and salicylic, that exfoliate and combat acne.

Others are full of hydrating hyaluronic acid or antioxidants like vitamins C and E.

Sheet

First popularized in Korea, most sheet masks contain moisturizing hyaluronic acid, ceramides, which help restore the skin’s barrier, and antioxidants, which defend against free radicals.

Serbon says they tend to be deeply hydrating and are great for:

  • dry skin
  • inflamed skin
  • fine lines

Overnight

Overnight formulas, also known as sleep masks, pack an even more powerful hydrating punch.

Allowing ingredients like AHAs, turmeric, and shea butter to soak in for hours provides more time for them to produce benefits for the skin.

Natural

Household ingredients such as oats, honey, and turmeric can all feature in natural masks.

If you hadn’t guessed by now, these masks are ones you can conjure up at home using the wonders of the natural world.

Added ingredients to be aware of

While face masks contain a lot of beneficial ingredients, some additions can cause irritation.

To avoid a red or dry look, check the ingredients list for anything that could react badly with your skin.

These include:

  • fragrances
  • alcohol
  • parabens
  • dyes
  • essential oils

People with sensitive skin or easily irritated conditions like psoriasis need to be extra careful when using face masks.

If you fit that bill, Dr. Cheung advises against overuse of drying ingredients and strong exfoliants, such as salicylic acid or retinoids.

Any face-mask user should also look into any over-the-counter or prescription medications they’re taking to see whether the side effects include skin alterations.

For example, long-term corticosteroid use can result in thin skin. Certain antibiotics and antihistamines can increase skin’s sensitivity to sunlight Trusted Source.

These effects, coupled with a powerful face mask, may damage the skin, rather than help it.

If you’re DIYing at home, you have a few other things to consider

You may have been scared away from using DIY skin care techniques, but it is possible to make a safe and effective face mask at home.

Just don’t forget to apply a small amount of the ingredients behind your ear first to test for unwanted reactions.

Ingredients to use

For exfoliation and brightening effects, look to lactic acid found in milk and yogurt.

Aloe vera, along with fruit like papaya, can also help brighten the skin.

If you’re looking to calm an inflamed complexion, try turmeric. And dryness can be remedied with natural ingredients like honey and avocado.

Ingredients to avoid

While it’s a good idea to do your homework before slathering your face in anything from the cupboard, some ingredients are always best to avoid.

Steer clear of anything acidic —things like apple cider vinegar, lemon, and lime juice can lead to irritation and even burns.

Putting egg whites on your face is also a bad idea that could lead to a nasty infection, especially if you have an open wound.

The high alkaline level of baking soda can also be harsh on the skin.

Your mask type determines the frequency of use

How often you apply your face mask depends on the mask’s formula and on your skin type.

For example, those with sensitive skin, for example, may want to stick to weekly use to avoid overdoing things.

But the best way to approach mask application is to read the instructions.

Some face masks, such asclay and those made containing hydrating formulas, can be safely applied two or three times a week.

Others, such as exfoliating or anti-aging types, should only be used once a week to avoid irritation.

To help maximize your results

So you’ve found your dream formula and know how often to apply it.

To achieve your skin care goals, you’ll need to make the most of those ingredients.

Here’s a few simple tips and tricks.

Always cleanse before and moisturize after

Thoroughly cleanse skin before applying any face mask.

Use a hydrating cleanser with a neutral pH and gently rinse with warm water so your pores open up, ready for the mask.

Dr. Dhingra advises that after you’ve taken off the face mask, use a thick, oil-free moisturizer and hyaluronic acid serum to minimize any potential irritation and seal in the active ingredients.

Use consistently and layer as needed

Using a face mask once, and once only, won’t do you much good. But regular use can help you achieve your goals.

Use the same mask for at least 6 to 8 weeks before making your mind up.

And if you have multiple skin concerns, you can save time by multi-masking.

For example, you may find your chin and cheeks need an exfoliating type, while your T-zone requires some oil control.

Don’t leave it on for too long

It’s easy to think that the longer a face mask is left on, the more effective it becomes.

But resist the temptation to leave any mask on for longer than instructed.

A formula designed to stay on for 10 minutes that isn’t removed for an hour could end up feeling and looking irritated.

Remember that price doesn’t indicate quality

The most expensive face mask isn’t necessarily the best.

Some masks won’t work for your skin, and that likely has little to do with their price and a lot to do with their formulation.

Find the best formula within your budget by looking for well-researched ingredients and reading reviews from others with your skin type.

The bottom line

No face mask will work miracles. But together with a good skin care regime, they can improve your skin’s texture and appearance.

However, using a cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen daily is far more important.

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