You May Have Been Using Your Face Mask Wrong All Along

Illustrated By: Elliot Salazar.
As beauty editors, we’re among the first to experience every new skin/hair/makeup potion that comes into existence on our watch. (Hey, it’s a living.) And, sure, when the latest internet-breaking celebrity creation crosses our desks, or we uncap a game-changing serum that’s been years in the making, we get a certain charge. But nothing ignites the pleasure centers of our brains quite like an influx of face masks.

Those goodness-saturated sheets, all drippy and sci-fi cool; translucent gels redolent of freshly plucked herbs; tubes and pots full of skin-drenching balms. Muddy pore-purifiers that render skin born-again. Pure dopamine, we tell you. Masks deliver this rare combination of sybaritic appeal and instant payoff while requiring almost zero effort on our parts.

But can you imagine if they were even better than they already are? If we could take masking to the next level? Whoa. Well, after chatting up some top derms and brainstorming with the sheet-obsessed purveyors of Korean beauty imports, we’ve learned that this can be a reality. Ahead, 11 easy mask-enhancing hacks prepare to double your pleasure.
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Illustrated By: Elliot Salazar.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever smeared a mask on unwashed skin. Yep, that’s everyone. Turns out: not so good — especially if you’re aiming to remedy redness or acne. “You’re trapping in impurities, prolonging your exposure to them, and potentially forcing them deeper into the skin,” explains NYC-based dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD.

To stave off irritation and make every mask more effective, start with a mild cleanser, like Cetaphil. Or if you’re acne-prone, Dr. Engelman suggests double-cleansing by preceding that water-based wash with a cleansing oil to more thoroughly dissolve makeup and sebum.
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Illustrated By: Elliot Salazar.
Unless your skin is supremely hydrated (sans cream), with the swift cell turnover rate of a 7-year-old, all of the precious peptides, oils, and antioxidants in your mask essentially hit a brick wall upon application.

But you can help them gain entry into your skin by lightly exfoliating with a gentle scrub (use a soft washcloth if sensitive) before masking. This will cast off dead-cell buildup, thereby allowing all the goodies to absorb faster and work better, says Ava Shamban, MD, a dermatologist in Santa Monica, CA. (Skip this step if you’re using an exfoliating/detoxifying/pore-purging mask — they generally aim to subtract impurities, not add actives.)

Following this up with a skin-softening prep-type product, like Origins’ Maskimizer Skin-Optimizing Mask Primer or StriVectinLABS High Performance Booster Oil, can also help prepare your skin for delivery, says cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson. These formulas boast “moisturizers and penetration-enhancing ingredients to make skin more receptive,” she says. Paired with clay or mud masks, they can also curb residual dryness.
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Illustrated By: Elliot Salazar.
A genuine K-Beauty phenomenon, sheet masks are all kinds of awesome. Not only do they come drenched in powerful hydrators, brighteners, and soothers, they can also bolster any serum you smooth on underneath by keeping it from evaporating. But as you’ve probably heard, not all sheets are created equal.

Those made of plant-based bio cellulose, fermented coconut juice, and hydrogel are the most occlusive, notes Wilson. Meaning they cling like crazy, forming a tight seal, and thus do the best job of driving in both the active ingredients imbued within the sheets themselves and whatever you combine with them.

Capitalizing on this power, Alicia Yoon, founder of Asian importers Peach & Lily, advocates what she calls sheet mask sandwiching: “Peel off the sheet about halfway through your treatment, when skin is nicely hydrated, and apply whatever serum you need that day; then place the mask back on top to further boost absorption,” she says, adding that Korean women have all kinds of creative ways of milking their mask materials.

It’s worth noting, however, that some dermatologists are wary of the practice, since intensifying certain actives — think: acids, retinol, benzoyl peroxide, hydroquinone — can lead to irritation, as can unwittingly creating scary-strong combos when mixing and matching products. If you’re not totally sure of how the ingredients in your sheet mask will interact with those in your serum, play it safe by either a) choosing a mask that comes with an essence made to be applied underneath, like Sally’s Box Secret Garden Camellia Oil Ampoule Mask, or b) smothering a non-irksome serum (one with peptides or hyaluronic acid, say) with a hydrogel mask:

“Hydrogels make great toppers, because they’re primarily for hydration and don’t typically contain the same anti-aging ingredients as bio cellulose or coconut sheets,” says Wilson. (Check out CremorLab Hydro Plus Aqua Tank Water Full Mask and Manefit Bling Bling Hydro Gel Mask.)
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Illustrated By: Elliot Salazar.
This dictum applies to all but non-setting moisturizing cream masks, which, for the most part, “can be left on for hours, even overnight, for heightened benefits,” says Jeannette Graf, MD, a dermatologist in Great Neck, NY. Exceeding the directed two-to-five-minute face time on most clay and mud masks — both of which pull dirt and oil from pores as they dry and tighten — can parch the skin, causing it to overcompensate by pumping out even more pore-clogging oil, says NYC-based derm Whitney Bowe, MD.

Licensed aesthetician and cofounder of Charlotte Cho surprised us with a similar heads-up concerning sheet masks: “If you leave them on longer than 20 to 30 minutes, they can start to dry out, taking moisture from your skin in the process.” Who knew?

We also spied this warning on (a company that makes amazing and affordable coconut sheet masks) — and confirmed it with derms: “Leaving on the mask for longer than the recommended time may increase the temperature of the skin, and can lead to [a] rise in bacteria count, causing acne and other malicious problems.” What’s that they say about too much of a good thing?
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Illustrated By: Elliot Salazar.
At least three of our experts — including makeup legend Bobbi Brown, who just launched her own impressive mask trio — used this term to describe the act of applying multiple masks simultaneously or back-to-back to boost their mojo while tailoring the treatment to skin’s various needs.

The most basic example is something aestheticians do on the regular: Start with a clay or mud mask to unblock pores. (Bobbi Brown Instant Detox combines sea water and white clay for all skin types; Sonia Kashuk Detox Purifying Black Mask kicks up kaolin with five exfoliating acids.) After rinsing, apply a moisture-rich cream mask or hydration-focused sheet mask to force in fluids. (If you’re time-strapped, target just your T-zone with the detox mask and, at the same time, moisture mask everywhere else.)

Riffing on this idea of the one-two punch, Bowe encourages anyone battling blemishes to follow a purifying mask with a leave-on antioxidant or “anti-pollution” mask, like The Organic Pharmacy Collagen Boost Mask or Kiehl’s Cilantro & Orange Extract Pollutant Defending Masque. “Acne-prone skin has lower levels of inherent antioxidant enzymes and less of a natural ability to neutralize free radicals,” she explains. “Flooding it with antioxidants just as pores have been cleansed of debris can really help shore up skin’s defenses.”
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Illustrated By: Elliot Salazar.
Filed under tiny changes that make a major difference is this secret move from facialist Joanna Vargas: “If skin is inflamed or breaking out, spreading masks on in a downward-outward motion will encourage lymphatic drainage and reduce redness immediately,” she says. For dull, dry skin, you want to move in an upward direction to encourage blood flow. We tried it, and have since been struggling to get our jaws off the floor.
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Illustrated By: Elliot Salazar.
You know those crescent-shaped gel patches made for the undereye area? Held vertically, they’re an exact match for the parentheses around our mouth. A happy coincidence, for sure, considering “what’s good for one wrinkle is good for another,” says Engelman.

“Whether they plump with hyaluronic acid or build collagen with a low dose of retinol, those patches will do the same for smile lines as they do for crow’s feet.” (Two to try: Tatcha Luminous Deep Hydration Revitalizing Eye Mask and Shiseido Benefiance Pure Retinol Express Smoothing Eye Mask.)

Don’t be too quick to toss the pouches housing your gel pads and sheet masks. Lining them, you’ve probably noticed, is an abundance of leftover serum. “I never waste a drop,” says Cho, who applies a second dose to her face after removing the sheet, then divvies up what remains between her neck, chest, hands, and feet.
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Illustrated By: Elliot Salazar.
Water-packed gel masks, like the new Derm Institute Antioxidant Hydration Gel Masque, cool skin on contact, constricting blood vessels to quell flushing and irritation. “They can even help soothe chronic inflammatory skin conditions, like rosacea and dermatitis,” says Shamban.

For anyone who gets irritation-induced dark marks (PIH), “chilling the skin post-injury may actually stop pigment from forming,” she adds. Hasten and enhance the benefits by storing gels in the fridge or holding a bag of frozen peas atop a gel-based sheet, such as Dior DiorSnow White Reveal Extreme Cooling Gel Mask.
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Illustrated By: Elliot Salazar.
Inspired by the dozens of in-shower body moisturizers lining beauty aisles this winter — and neurotically determined to multitask at every turn — we started sporting moisture masks in the shower.

It’s a genius move, confirms Wilson, since these creamy formulas are rich in humectants, like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, which grab water from the surrounding environment and bind it to skin. The waterworld that is your shower (or steam room or sauna) essentially fuels these skin-plumping molecules. All that glorious warmth and steam helps too, “loosening the glue that binds cells together and allowing ingredients to dive deeper into the skin,” says Bowe.

Be sure to lock in hydration post-rinse by smoothing on a hydrating serum or moisturizer after patting dry. (In our current rotation: Clark’s Botanicals Deep Moisture Mask, Juara Avocado Banana Moisture Mask, Aesop Blue Chamomile Facial Hydrating Masque, Alchimie Forever Kantic Brightening Moisture Mask.)
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Illustrated By: Elliot Salazar.
Charcoal, mud, and clay masks do the dirty job of absorbing or extracting piled-up gunk — dirt, oil, soot — from pores. Once the task is complete, said gunk is left sitting in the mask that is stuck all over your face. So how do you maximize these purifying formulas? By getting them the eff off! (Ick factor aside, “residue left behind after rinsing can overdry the skin,” says Wilson.)

Since a splash of water — or, hell, a full-force waterfall — is rarely enough to remove every trace, pros recommend first thinning out the mask as much as possible with wet fingertips, then buffing it off completely with a cleansing cloth, a gentle scrub, or a cotton round soaked in micellar water, cleansing oil, or alcohol-free toner.

The added elbow grease will also improve the exfoliating action of any acids or enzymes in the formula by casting off the dead skin cells they’ve broken down. (Save a step by using a mask with built-in buffers, like Re:p Bio Fresh Mask, which suspends skin-polishing herbs in a clay base.)
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Illustrated By: Elliot Salazar.
Sleeping masks, or “packs,” as they’re called in their homeland of —you guessed it — South Korea, offer an effortless way to amp things up. Made to be worn overnight to counter water loss and buoy cellular repair, these super-concentrated balms form a breathable barrier on the skin, providing a slow and steady stream of moisturizing and barrier-strengthening ingredients throughout the night.

To sweeten the deal, choose one that’s rife with antioxidants, such as Fresh Black Tea Firming Overnight Mask or Shiseido Ibuki Beauty Sleeping Mask. During sleep, Bowe says, “antioxidants can penetrate deeper and work more effectively, preventing any free radicals acquired that day from damaging your collagen, elastin, DNA, and lipids.”
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