Do Face Masks Actually Work? 4 Dermatologists Weigh In
Face masks are one of the little pleasures in life — like buying sparkly cocktails or unzipping your high waist jeans once you get home. But do face masks even do anything? We know that they feel great and give you some hardcore luxurious feelings. I mean, just think of the usual tradition that involves a face mask. Not many of us slap it on as we're rushing around, trying to get out the door. It's a pampering kind of experience. Usually candles are involved, or a glass of wine. You're usually in your most favorite sweatpants, and plans were probably (excitedly) cancelled, meaning you have nothing to do all evening but sloth around and finish all the frozen food in your freezer.
But with all the different types of masks we use — from the clay and mud varieties, to the sheet and creme options — do any of them actually work? Do they really deliver on their promises? I mean, sure, the mud on your face might be from a volcano in Iceland, but will it really tighten your pores and sweep the dirt away? To investigate, dermatologists sounded off. If you're wondering if face masks really work, read ahead!
1. Our Skin Really Does Absorb Ingredients — But To An Extent
When you read all the fun ingredients your face mask markets — from papayas to goat's milk — you have to wonder if your skin actually absorbs those nutrients, or do you just smear it across your face and then wash it off? Well, it all depends on what kinds of ingredients we're talking about.
"The most important principle is that a mask is just another 'vehicle,' like a lotion, serum, cream, ointment, that delivers 'actives' to the skin to improve the appearance or quality of the skin," Dr. Neal Schultz, NYC dermatologist and creator of BeautyRx, shares in an interview with Bustle. So the ingredients that are capable of being absorbed in lotions and serums can also be absorbed in masks — but with the help of one extra solvent.
"Many masks contain butylene glycol, which acts as a delivery agent and solvent, and allows your skin to absorb more of the other ingredients," Dr. David Lortscher, the CEO and Founder of Curology, shares with Bustle.
But it's also important to note that usually only the active, or "main" ingredients, get absorbed. So if your mask promises to use something like a smoothie blend to target your skin cells, chances are that's more for the fun factor ('ooo, I'm putting on kiwis!') than a dermatological factor. "Your skin absorbs mask ingredients but, in general, only a small portion of active ingredients actually absorb into the skin," board certified dermatologist Dr. Dhaval G. Bhanusali tells Bustle. "The epidermis, the skin’s outer layer, does a great job protecting us from the environment. Unfortunately, this is also why it’s hard to get products to penetrate easily into the deeper layers."
So the bottom line is to be realistic with what you expect. Peek at the main active ingredients on the label, and assume that only the top ones will penetrate into your skin while the rest might just be extra in a novelty kind of way.
2. It's Important To Know What Ingredients Your Skin Actually Needs
When looking for new masks to buy, there are three important ingredients that you should look out for and make apart of your regular skincare routine. "The first one is chemical exfoliants (glycolic, lactic, retinol) to remove excess dulling, clogging, and discoloring dead cells that make the skin look tired and older and prevent your other skincare products from doing what they are supposed to do," Dr. Schultz explains.
The second is topical antioxidant (especially Vitamin C) which help protect the skin from premature aging and dangerous free radical damage, like pollutants. "It's important to also note that Vitamin C is the only antioxidant that also firms the skin by increasing collagen production, and it also evens skin tone by reducing excess brown melanin," he shares.
Lastly, you need to look for peptides, which "help make more collagen and hyaluronic acid and to even skin tone," Dr. Schultz advises.
It might be hard to find all of these ingredients in one mask, so you can also spread them out in your daily skincare regimen. "For cleansers, healing ingredients like glyerin and chamomile are great," Dr. Bhanusali shares. "After you wash your face you can apply a serum with anti-oxidants (think Vitamin C and E,) which are great to help balance the environmental damage from UV rays. Finally, for nighttime, products that include retinol or retinoids (Vitamin A) are great for cell renewal, collagen stimulation, decreasing vascularity, and improving the appearance of pores." If you happen to find a mask with some of these very ingredients, you'll know it's the real deal!
3. Most Likely, Not Everything About Your Mask Is Necessary
Part of the appeal of masks are their interesting list of ingredients — some promise they carry Dead Sea mud, while others carry cucumbers and carbonated bubbles. If you looked at those labels and assumed it was a gimmicky product you wouldn't be wrong, but that's not to say it doesn't carry necessary nutrients your skin needs.
"Although there is no independent evidence that mud masks, clay masks, cream masks, or sheet masks provide any long lasting benefit to the skin, they can be hydrating, soothing and provide some keratolytic/exfoliant effect — if only in the act of removing them," Dr. Lortscher explains.
"There are a lot of masks that try to sell a lot of formulas that don’t necessarily work any better than a simple clay mask or hydrating mask," Dr. Michele Green, New York Dermatologist and RealSelf Contributor, explains in an interview. "For example a popular mask on YouTube is a 'bubble mask' that is essentially a clay mask the produces a lot of foam on the face. This doesn’t provide any additional benefit besides entertainment." While the bubbles don't actually do anything, the mask still delivers the clay that your oily skin might have needed — so it still does its job!
Dr. Lortscher backs up this theory. "The DIY Nutella facial mask — which has been popular on social media — is purported to moisturize skin as well as exfoliate blackheads and whiteheads. I think this is likely to pull out some clogs, although I have not seen evidence that this works better than traditional measures, like exfoliants with salicylic acid," Dr. Lortscher shares.
The verdict? The gimmicky masks might work like traditional masks, but their promises that they're revolutionary, game-changing, and better than simpler measures isn't true. They're just fun to play with since they're different.
4. Mud Is Good For Your Skin — In Most Cases
When you smear a muddy texture across your face, what exactly are you doing? According to dermatologists, you're healing your skin.
"Mud is a skin-healing agent and is water-based, so the product in mask form is more hydrating than drying. It is good for most skin types as it is not as drying as a clay mask," Dr. Green explains.
"The minerals in the mud can also act as good exfoliators," Dr. Bhanusali points out. If you have dry skin and want a deep clean, you can choose a mud rather than clay mask to not dehydrate your flake-prone skin, and it's a great deep-cleanser for all skin types.
5. Clay Can Be Great, Too
If you have oily or breakout-prone skin, then you might want to focus on clay masks when out shopping for skincare. "Clay masks are great for acne prone oily skin as the clay draws out the impurities from deep in the pores," Dr. Green shares. "It will speed up the process of healing active breakouts, however don’t expect your pimple to be magically gone or the size of your pores to be non-existent." While it won't fix all of your problems in one pampering session, it will help with your ailments.
"Clay masks also absorb excess oils, as well as reduce surface shine and help reduce clogged pores" chimes in Dr. Schultz. "In terms of important ingredients, look for kaolin and/or bentonite as superior ingredients for these types of masks."
Why those ingredients specifically? "Kaolin is great at exofilating and also absorbing oils," Dr. Bhanusali explains.
"Bentonite and kaolin clay also draw out water and oil from your skin, which may temporarily make pores appear smaller," Dr. Lortscher adds. It should be part of every acne-prone or oil-ailing person's routine.
6. Cream Masks Are For Super Dry Skin In Particular
If you thought cream masks were great to get some much-needed hydration to dry (or winter-battered) skin, then you'd be right. But they also have another benefit: They help plump up your skin!
"Cream masks are wonderful for any skin type but particularly dehydrated skin that needs a hydration boost. It can add moisture and plump up the skin but cream masks that claim to make you look 10 years younger and get rid of your wrinkles are playing into consumer desires," Dr. Green warns. So while it will leave you with prettier skin afterward, it won't turn back the clock.
Meanwhile, Dr. Bhanusali agrees that cream masks are great for hydrating and for winter months, but he cautions that a lot of them are just for fun. "It all depends on the mask. Some papaya and oat masks are great for hydrating, and we sometimes use them after procedures. Others are just gimmicks like many of the 'fruit' masks and peels," he warns. As long as you keep your expectations realistic on what your hydrating mask can do, you'll be happy with the results.
7. Be Realistic About Sheet Masks
With the rise of Korean beauty products, there are more sheet masks out there than you have money in your wallet. But do they really nourish your skin enough to actually bare any results? Or does your skin really absorb all of that product gunked onto your skin?
"It’s just important to be realistic about what they can and cannot do. I would always recommend using a sheet mask at night in order for your skin to absorb excess product. The main function of sheet masks (similar to cream masks) is to hydrate and calm the skin," Dr. Green explains. So if you're looking to soothe and plump up your skin, definitely give those masks a go.
8. Pay Attention To Masks With Activated Charcoal
From Instagram to YouTube, it seems like charcoal masks are having a huge moment right now — and it's for a good reason. "Activated charcoal, a fine, black powder, is used to treat certain poisonings and overdoses by the mechanism of absorption, in which the toxic substance attaches to the surface of the charcoal and is then eliminated by the digestive tract," Dr. Lortscher explains. So the thought process is that the black substance might "clean" the skin and remove your toxins, impurities, and dirt.
While that might sound right, there's no actual proof that it works. "I am not aware of any evidence that this does occur. Charcoal when applied to the surface of the skin does not have any proven 'cleansing, properties, but having said that…I think charcoal masks are fine to use, and have not seen any negative effects," Dr. Lortscher shares.
So you might not actually be doing anything to deep clean your face, but if you want to try it go for it!
9. Find The Best Mask For Your Skin
If you feel overwhelmed by all the different kinds of options and aren't sure which one would be the most beneficial for your skin, there's an easy way to asses the lineup.
"The most important principle is that a mask is just another 'vehicle,' like a lotion, that delivers 'actives' to the skin to improve the appearance or quality of the skin," Dr. Schultz explains. "So when choosing a mask, you need to determine what is the benefit you are looking for (i.e. moisturization) and what is your oil/water skin type."
So for example, if you have dry skin and need moisturization, you wouldn’t choose a clay mask for oily skin. "In other words, it’s not about what kind of texture you use (i.e. mud vs. cream); choose one for the desired benefit that is labeled for your skin type."
To give you an idea what to concentrate on, Dr. Bhanusali gives us an example scenario. "I like clay masks for oily skin and hydrating masks for things like traveling or for those cold, winter months," he suggests.
So there you have it, the consensus is out: Face masks give you the nutrients they promise they will, but not more than what your lotions or face washes give. But they don't hurt, so go ahead an go wild! This is your permission to put one on today.
Images: Unsplash (1); Amazon (8)