Do Face Masks Really Work? The “Magic” Behind Face Masks — and How to Get the Most Out of Them

Smiling woman wearing a green beauty mask.

Let’s face it — face masks are not pretty. Whether they’re made of an unrecognizable green goop or a plastic sheet that you adhere to your face, both result in you looking more like an alien than you’d ever imagined. 

However, the claim that face masks can improve the appearance and health of your skin is appealing, and it has many Americans searching for a quick-but-effective skin care fix in mask form. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best way to enhance your skin.

“While they certainly can have benefits, they can also do more harm than good — especially if they’re not used properly or the incorrect mask is used,” says Chérie Ditre, MD, Director of the Skin Enhancement Center and Associate Professor of Dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Medicine at Radnor.

Here’s what you should know about face masks and how to use them to keep your face looking fresh, healthy and more lustrous.

The Magical Mask: How Do Face Masks Even Work?

Wash face, moisturize face, apply makeup. Skin care is simple, right?

There’s nothing wrong with a basic skin care routine, especially if it’s working. But if you’re one of the millions of Americans plagued by skin conditions from acne to redness, you may be looking for a skin care boost. And unfortunately, professional skin care procedures, such as facials, can be pricey.

This is where face masks come in, offering intense skin treatment for a fraction of the cost.

The “magic” behind face masks is simple, explains Dr. Ditre. “The ingredients from a face mask are kept longer in contact with your skin because of the occlusion phenomenon of the mask on your skin.”

The mask traps the moisture or ingredient in the skin and creates film that helps to either hydrate, moisturize, dry or exfoliate the skin depending on the ingredients used and its purpose. Therefore, face masks allow ingredients to penetrate better into your skin in a short amount of time. Whether it’s salicylic acid for acne, vitamin C for fine lines or retinoid for brightening dark spots, a face mask can offer a more concentrated dose and more intense version of its ingredients compared to other forms of applications.

Choosing a Face Mask and Routine

Whether you scour social media or search the aisles of the drug store, trying to find the right face mask can be overwhelming. There are thousands of options out there, and just because your favorite Instagram model uses one mask doesn’t mean it’ll work for you.

Start with what kind of mask you’d like, such as:

  • Overnight masks that are hydrating and may contain hyaluronic acid, which are ideal for mature or extremely dry skin
  • Clay, sulfur or mud masks, which can soak up oil and have a slight exfoliating effect
  • Sheet masks containing antioxidants, which are hydrating and, if you store them in the fridge, anti-inflammatory

You’ll have to wear it for anywhere from 10 minutes to the entire night, so make sure you choose a mask that comforts your skin.

Now, you can move onto the exciting part: the targeted skin benefits. Are you looking for a moisturizing mask during the dry months of winter? Are you hoping to prevent signs of aging? Or maybe you’re trying to tackle that T-zone that is prone to breakouts.

The benefit of a face mask depends on its ingredients. Some common skin issues and the ingredients that may address them include:

  • Acne: salicylic acid and alpha-hydroxy acids
  • Fine lines and wrinkles: antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E and resveratrol; ferrulic acid or retinoids such as retinols and retrinaldehydes; and humectants such as hyaluronic acid
  • Redness (rosacea): niacinamide
  • Dark spots and pigmentation: kojic acid, retinoids, and vitamin C

Once you find a mask that works for you, work it into your skin care routine, says Dr. Ditre. “Masks should be applied after serum but before moisturizer, or for nighttime masks, instead of your nighttime moisturizer.”

Though it may be tempting, don’t overuse face masks. They should only be used about once a week at the most to prevent irritation.

When Your Face Mask Does More Harm Than Good

A face mask may be a great way for an extra skin boost — but what happens if it actually ends up hurting your skin? The first thing to remember is that more ingredients does not equal a better product.

“In fact, the longer the list of ingredients, the higher the chance that something is going to irritate your skin,” explains Dr Ditre.

As with any part of your skin care routine, it’s important to be on the lookout for red flags that a face mask is irritating your skin. Some warning signs include:

  • Breakouts (development of acne)
  • Redness or burning sensation
  • Pain when removing the mask
  • Hives
  • Dry or peeling skin

If you’re not sure about a face mask, try it out on a small area of your skin before covering your entire face with it. And don’t forget your most important resource when it comes to your skin health: your healthcare provider.

Face masks are not magic, explains Dr. Ditre. “Healthy skin depends much more on how you care for it every day, including sticking to a good cleansing routine and staying hydrated.”

While face masks won’t erase all your bad skin care habits after just one use, they can provide an extra boost to your routine. And if used properly, they can be an easy, effective and inexpensive way to give your skin a little extra TLC.

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