Are those trendy face masks actually doing anything for your skin?

They can be great for moisturizing your face, but some can be a surefire way to irritate sensitive skin.
Image: Face mask
Face masks deliver ingredients deeper and more potently to the skin than other types of applications, so whatever they’re going to do to your skin, they’ll do it more quickly than other types of products. monzenmachi / Getty Images
Get the Better newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Sarah DiGiulio

Check the internet. Face masks are sort of having a moment right now. They’re made with fun ingredients, like cucumber, honey, black sugar, green tea, rose, watermelon, Australian pink clay, and hundreds of other things that might make you think, “hmm, maybe that’d be good for my face” (and some that might leave you wondering, “why would I ever put that on my face?”).

They claim they have the power to fix nearly any skin complaint you might have — age spots, wrinkles, fine lines, clogged pores, dryness, a lack of “glow” — the list goes on and on.

But can they do all of that? Here’s what dermatologists want you to know.

1. For your face, sun protection, a good cleanser and a moisturizer are the non-negotiables

“Cleansing, daily sunscreen use and moisturizing are definitely the priority when it comes to daily skincare,” says Shilpi Khetarpal, MD, a dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic. Some face masks can offer a complementary benefit beyond that (depending on the product and your skin type). But they’re not essential to good skin health, she says.

One challenge to weighing in on how much benefit face masks can deliver is that they’re not rigorously tested in the same way drugs are, explains Tyler Hollmig, MD, director of Aesthetic and Laser Dermatology at Stanford Health Care.

If a product is going to change the function or structure of the skin, that’s considered a drug and needs to be thoroughly tested in clinical trials to prove it works to get approval from the FDA before a company can sell it, he says. Cosmetic products (by definition) are ones that just alter the appearance of the skin, and do not need FDA approval before they can be sold. But the FDA can pull off the market any that are found to be unsafe. At no point in that process do companies selling cosmetic products ever need to prove they actually work.

So, when it comes to answering, do they really work in terms of the myriad benefits they boast, Hollmig says: “It gets a little dicey.”

2. By design, face masks are good at delivering ingredients to your skin

Face masks occlude the skin, meaning you’re creating a barrier between the air around you and the product in the mask that’s meant to be delivered to the skin. So, rather than some of that product evaporating into the air around you (as happens with moisturizers and other creams you rub onto your face), that product has nowhere to go but into the skin, Hollmig explains. “It makes it penetrate deeper and be stronger.”

And it means they tend to work fast, too, adds Khetarpal.

Get the better newsletter.

3. Face masks are probably most effective at moisturizing your skin

Because of their occlusive design, face masks are good at moisturizing the skin. “Even if you were to just put a mask on top of the skin with nothing in it, it would naturally moisturize the skin,” Hollmig says — because it reduces the amount of water your skin is losing to the air around you thanks to evaporation.

For that reason, it’s more likely that face masks claiming they moisturize the skin will actually do that, Hollmig says. He suggests looking for masks with basic ingredients, being wary of fragrances, which tend to make a product smell good, but otherwise don’t have a benefit to your skin and can be irritating (more on that below).

4. Some can deliver a quick fix (for problems like oiliness and redness), but the benefit may not last

Face masks deliver ingredients deeper and more potently to the skin than other types of applications, so whatever they’re going to do to your skin, they’ll do it more quickly than other types of products. That means they may provide a quick fix for complaints like redness, dryness, oiliness and inflammation, Khetarpal says.

Ingredients Khetarpal says she would recommend looking for in a face mask (that do have an established benefit) include: salicylic acid and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) for acne; antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E, resveratrol and ferulic acid for fine lines; niacinamide for rosacea; and soy, kojic acid, tranexamic acid and licorice root extract for brightening dark spots and unwanted pigmentation.

But remember, how long you’ll see the benefit of a face mask depends on the source of the problem. A clay mask can temporarily help reduce oiliness, Khetarpal explains. But because oil production is driven by hormones, that benefit will be relatively short-lived, she says.

5. Apply with caution if you have sensitive skin or another skin condition

Because you’re getting more penetration and a relatively higher concentration of a product when it’s delivered via face mask (versus another kind of topical cream or scrub), anything that could potentially irritate the skin, will likely irritate the skin to a higher degree in a face mask, Hollmig says. Anyone with an allergy, psoriasis, or sensitive or rosacea-prone skin should be careful, he says. Some common ingredients that tend to be more irritating than others to sensitive skin include: retinol (especially in the rosacea-prone) and ingredients with the word “acid” in them (an exception would be hyaluronic acid, Hollmig says, which is actually a moisturizer the body naturally produces).

And don’t assume because something is natural it is harmless, Hollmig adds. Many fruit-based products contain alpha hydroxy acids (because it’s naturally in apples, pears, citrus and other fruits); salicylic acid comes from sugar cane. “Those are still acids and they can really irritate the skin,” he says.

Khetarpal suggests applying a layer of petroleum jelly to the skin around the eyes, as that skin tends to be very thin and easily irritated.

6. Be wary of long ingredient lists and products that promise the world

The longer the ingredient list, the more likely there’s something in there that’s going to irritate your skin, Hollmig says. His rule of thumb: less is more.

And be wary of products that promise you the world of skincare benefits, Hollmig says. “It probably isn’t going to give you the world.”

7. Pricey does not mean effective

Another rule of thumb from Khetarpal: “Just because a product is expensive, doesn’t mean it’s better.” (Remember, a lot of cosmetic products haven’t been tested in clinical trials, she says. If you have a question about a specific ingredient or product, check with your dermatologist before trying it.)

Depending on the ingredients you use, some at-home do-it-yourself masks can deliver results, too, she says. Milk and yogurt, for example, contain lactic acid, which exfoliates the skin and can make it appear brighter. Aloe vera contains antioxidants that can brighten, too. And coffee, because of the caffeine, can minimize the appearance of pores by drying out the skin. (Be careful of highly acidic ingredients, like lemon and lime juice and apple cider vinegar, she adds.) She also recommends mixing a mask you’re making yourself on the day you’re going to use it and trying it out on a small area of skin before slathering all over your face to make sure your skin can tolerate the ingredients.

MORE TIPS FROM DERMATOLOGISTS

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.