At this point, sheet masks are about as ubiquitous as moisturizers. Many of us use them, and we're constantly on the lookout for new iterations. But how much do we really know about them? Specifically, how are they made? If you are easily grossed out and want to keep sheet-masking in ignorant bliss, stop reading now. A new report by Racked is raising serious questions about the sheet-mask manufacturing industry and whether its practices are sterile enough for a product designed to marinate on your face. After spotting a post on the Asian Beauty subreddit, in which self-identified Seoul-based poster dvaonline22 shared images of dirty manufacturing practices and sheet masks being assembled at private homes, Racked launched an investigation into the claims. After reviewing Korean articles and social media on the topic, the site found that “several brands have been identified as using at-home labor for folding and stuffing sheet masks into their envelopes,” even though making market-ready beauty products at home is illegal in the country. “Because there are so many small cosmetic brands, it is fairly common,” the article points out, noting that “the practice has been widely reported in Korea since 2008.”
The ramifications of using at-home labor versus factory machinery to create facial products are pretty unsettling. Images of masks being folded on cardboard in people’s homes by gloveless workers and placed into packaging to be sealed when back at the factory are just the start. The article cites a report in which a Korean consumer found an insect in a just-opened sheet mask. “The bug incident went viral, leading the manufacturer to issue an apology, and promise to do microbial testing on all sheet masks before shipping,” Racked reports. The article also mentions reports of black spots and hair found on sheet masks. These dismal findings aren’t reserved for the smaller and less reputable brands. The report mentions unsanitary conditions in a major K-beauty brand's factory, according to a 2011 post by a Korean blogger who claims to have worked at a factory making products for the brand. As if the ick factor weren't enough, the discovery further sheds light on a critical humanitarian issue in manufacturing industries: Take-home work significantly underpays employees. The article mentions wages as low as 3 South Korean won (a small fraction of a cent) paid for each single mask folded at home, with slightly more paid for masks with peel-away backing. “For folding a delivery of 1,200 masks, the pay could be as low as the equivalent of $3.21 total,” the article states.
The practice of using at-home workers, instead of machines, to fold masks is not contained to a handful of brands: According to the report, “an unnamed source told Weekly DongA that the use of manual folders is widespread in the industry, and most of the top 15 best-selling sheet masks are folded by hand.” So where does this leave those of us who love using sheet masks, but want to support ethical and hygienic manufacturing practices? Like the Reddit user who brought this issue to the attention of English-speaking audiences, we hope this type of exposure will help improve industry practices and working conditions for employees. In the meantime, being an educated consumer is key. Buying U.S.-made masks is one option. “[The] FDA can and does inspect cosmetic manufacturing facilities to assure cosmetic product safety and determine whether cosmetics are adulterated or misbranded under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA),” the administration’s website states. Sourcing foreign-made products from trusted importers could also help dodge dicey buying. We’ve reached out to K-beauty experts and retailers for tips on buying the most responsibly made Korean sheet masks, and will update this report when we hear more.