Do Sheet Masks Work Better Than Traditional Masks — Or Are They Just More Fun?

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Sheet masks are fun. They make for a killer Sunday-night Instagram shot. Plus, they're a hell of a lot easier to throw in a suitcase than a heavy jar of clay. But we’ve occasionally found ourselves wondering: Do they really freaking do anything? Sure, our skin feels soft and moisturized after we peel one off, but we get that from our creams, too. We asked Annie Chiu, MD, a California-based dermatologist and founder of The Derm Institute, to find out — once and for all — if these things get sheet done.

First things first: Do we actually need sheet masks?
No. You don’t need them. Your skin can live a happy life without ever slapping one on. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a place in your routine. “Masks are not an absolute necessity, like a sunscreen or a moisturizer, but they can definitely add benefits to your skin, especially when they are formulated to be problem-specific,” says Dr. Chiu. “The best use for sheet masks is to address a need your skin might have randomly, like textural issues, puffiness, or lack of a glow. They are more of a ‘booster’ for your complexion and a good way to give your skin some extra pampering." Basically, they're sort of like the 10-minute massage your manicurist always asks if you want to add on to your service: You don't always need to spring for one, but you walk out feeling better when you do.
But what are the real, discernible benefits of sheet masks?
Masks provide a fast, temporary benefit, so they’re great pinch hitters to bring in when your skin is dealing with a situation that needs a quick fix — like when you’re traveling on an arid, moisture-sucking airplane and need hydration, stat. “Sheet masks can provide an instant gratification, because they are often made with high concentrations of moisturizing ingredients,” says Dr. Chiu, who recommends looking for hydrating masks with hyaluronic acid. (We like Karuna Hydrating+ Face Mask.) And as anyone who has ever slapped on a mask an hour before a party can attest, the right ones can brighten, too. Your makeup will look that much better, because “masks can give you a temporary, glowy look,” adds Dr. Chiu. “Vitamin C can brighten skin and pearl powder or extracts can give you amazing, albeit temporary, radiance.” Try Dr. Jart+ Brightening Infusion Hydrogel Mask, which contains both ingredients. Finally, sheet masks can also soothe redness. If you have a blotchy, itchy face, Dr. Chiu recommends masks with aloe vera or green tea to help reduce inflammation. We like Yes to Cucumbers Calming Sheet Mask, which comes loaded with both. Pro tip: “If you keep sheet masks cool in the refrigerator, they can be refreshing and help decrease puffiness and swelling, too,” Chiu says.

So you're saying that, in some cases, sheet masks can actually be better than regular face masks?
Yep, turns out, they're not just gimmicky props made for Snapchat: There's a real purpose behind paper or cloth delivery systems. “Sheet masks build on the idea of occlusion,” says Dr. Chiu. “This means you get better penetration as ingredients are essentially ‘pushed’ into the skin by having a sheet on top of them.” What’s more, the sheet actually serves as a barrier, stopping some of the hydrating ingredients from evaporating, Dr. Chiu notes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make room in your medicine cabinet for jar masks, too. “Sheet masks and traditional masks are used for different reasons and complement — rather than replace — each other,” says Dr. Chiu.

When should you reach for a traditional mask versus a sheet?
For starters, sheets are not ideal if you have breakouts. “For oily or acne-prone skin, I would recommend a non-sheet mask,” says Dr. Chiu. “Clay- or charcoal-based masks draw out excess oils and reduce inflammation. But sheet masks can, at times, create excess warmth that can induce more inflammation and breakouts.” We like L’Oreal Detox & Brighten Pure-Clay Mask, which comes in a jar. Sheets are also not-so-great if you’re looking to get in a major exfoliation session. “Sheet masks generally don’t exfoliate or deep clean your face,” says Dr. Chiu. “Jar masks can have stronger exfoliants.” Try Ole Henriksen Power Bright, a three-step treatment which includes a big dose of brightening vitamin C and exfoliating sugar and pomegranate.

Can sheet masks replace my serum?
We know, we know: Sheet masks are loaded with active ingredients, so they sound a lot like serums, right? Not so fast. “While sheet masks boast a high concentration of active ingredients, like a facial serum, they would be a cost-prohibitive way to address your skin needs daily,” says the derm.
Not only that, the ingredients themselves might not work as well in mask form. “Highly potent actives, like growth factors, may not stay effective or stable in the more damp environment of a sheet mask,” says Dr. Chiu, who recommends sticking with a daily antioxidant serum and supplementing that with a mask on days when your skin really needs the extra TLC. So what have we learned? Sheet masks are easy, they’re loaded with active ingredients, they’re portable AF, and they actually do work. Consider us converted.

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