Some skincare products make big claims—especially those that are supposed to detox your face. These things, usually mud or charcoal face masks, often have solid colours and smells that make you feel like they're doing something. And it's true—they might leave you with smoother, cleaner-feeling skin.
Face masks are 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 does that count as a detox? What are these things doing to your skin? And is it even a good thing? Can they do all of that? Here's what dermatologists want you to know.
What Does "Detox" Really Mean?
In a medical context, you are detoxing means removing toxins—poisons—from the body. In general, your kidneys and liver do an excellent job of this all on their own, meaning that you don't need to go out of your way to detox or cleanse your body.
And tiny amounts of toxins have indeed been found in sweat (like urea and uric acid). But getting rid of these things isn't the primary reason we sweat; it's a by-product of many other processes. (The main reason we sweat, of course, would be temperature regulation.) So you couldn't detox the rest of your body through your skin even if you wanted to.
For the most part, the skin is not an essential excretory organ the same way your liver and kidneys are. When people talk about the idea of 'detoxing skin,' it's more about what you can do to the surface to protect your skin from the outside environment, more so than clearing out what's on the inside.
So products that claim to detox the skin aren't removing toxins from your body. Instead, they're talking about removing things from the surface of your skin, such as dirt, excess oil, dead skin, oxidative molecules in the environment, and pollution.
These are things that form or can land on the skin and "wreak havoc on the local environment. Indeed, left alone on your skin, those things can contribute to the development of acne and an overall dull, dry, or rough quality. They're not exactly good things to leave on your face, but they aren't the kind of toxins that are going to poison you. So do you need a detox product to get rid of them?
Do Detox Beauty Products Work?
Whether or not these products work depends on what you want them to do and the kind of product you're using.
When it comes to charcoal, the evidence is not particularly convincing. In cases of poisoning or drug overdoses, doctors might have a patient ingest activated charcoal to draw the offending substance out of their body. So the thought is that putting it on your face will similarly draw out oil and other impurities. However, there aren't any studies showing that topically applied charcoal is any good at this.
The evidence we have for any uses for topical charcoal is pretty limited. Some small studies have found that it can reduce the smell of chronic wounds and help treat skin-related symptoms of erythropoietic protoporphyria, a rare inherited metabolic disorder.
That said, the simple act of putting something on your face and then washing it off will likely take some oil and dirt with it and may even exfoliate the skin a bit, leaving you with cleaner and smoother skin regardless. With a mask like this, you'll get a good look at your pores so that it might seem like some bad stuff is being drawn out—but whether or not that's happening is another question. People think that [the mask is] drawing out these toxins, and that's not what it's doing. A good cleanser would do the same thing.
It gives you a temporary benefit; right after you wash it off, your skin does feel cleaner and smoother, but it's not a miracle. It's not going to unclog all of your pores at the same level to cure acne—it's not going to make a giant difference.
On the other hand, some products that contain antioxidants might be labelled as detoxifying because they have antioxidant compounds like vitamins C and E. These may help reduce the effects of environment-related skin issues like sun damage, particularly vitamin C.
For instance, in a small double-blind study published in 2008 in Dermatologic Surgery, ten people put a gel containing 10 per cent ascorbic acid and 7 per cent tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (both forms of vitamin C) on one half of their face and a placebo gel on the other half. After 12 weeks, the researchers found that the halves of their faces with the vitamin C gel had a significant reduction in signs of sun damage while the placebo half did not.
Another more recent split-face study, published in 2013 in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, found that a 23.8 per cent concentration of an L-ascorbic acid serum effectively treated sun-damaged skin in 20 women.
Together, these results suggest that vitamin C in this formulation shows promise in reducing aging signs related to environmental factors. But whether or not a specific vitamin C product will work for you depends on a ton of different aspects, including how the product is stored, the concentration and form of vitamin C in the product, and how dedicated you are to use it consistently. A dermatologist can steer you in the right direction with these, but remember that we don't have independent studies for every commercial product on the market.
Benefits of Masking
Just like a serum or moisturizer, a face mask is a skincare vehicle. It delivers highly concentrated actives, vitamins and nutrients to the skin to improve its overall health. The difference: Face masks are occlusive - they create a physical barrier that locks in beneficial ingredients, allowing them to absorb more efficiently.
Face masks are designed to be used intermittently to give your skin an instant boost. Depending on what your skin needs, there is a mask that can do one (or a combination) of the following:
- Hydrate and moisturize dry skin
- Refine large pores
- Improve skin texture
- Absorb excess oil and dirt
- Decongest clogged pores
- Minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
- Enhance elasticity
- Improve the look of breakouts
- Brighten dark spots
Express or Overnight Masks
Like a passionate whirlwind romance, face masks are an intense burst of what your skin desires the most. You can apply a thick juicy layer and leave them to soak in 10 minutes or even up to 10 hours for our overnight masks. This gives masks breathing space to work quickly on specific skin issues, helping give you immediate and visible results. Woo hoo!
Cleansing Clay Masks
As you may know, our skin is a multi-layered phenomenon, and our faces have several microscopic layers of cells. The beauty of intense cleansing masks is that they can get to places our daily cleansers don't have the time or resources to get to. Clay masks, in particular, have a special knack for drawing out impurities as they dry. So watch out, mug grub!
Great for Self-Care
We've all got important places to go and people to see. Amid all that go-getting, it's easy to forget how to relax. But we're all starting to realize how vital the quiet times are, the yin to our yang. So a face mask can be a double whammy of bliss, in that you get an excuse to chill and practice self-care while your skin has a chance to rebalance.
Meeting Your Skin's Needs
The answer to 'what do face masks do for your skin' is more about understanding what your skin needs the most. These intense types can be single-minded trouble-shooters or superstar multi-taskers. Does your beautiful mug need a deep clean, a low boost of hydration, some gentle soothing or a little bit of everything? Once you've established that, they pretty much do what they say on the tin/tub/pack.
The thought of applying charcoal to your face may turn some women away. After all, isn't this the same stuff that used to light fires in backyard barbecues? While charcoal is frequently used in flame-lit grills, it's also found in water filters, medicine, and cosmetic beauty products. Why? Charcoal is known for its absorption powers and can absorb oil and toxins 200 times better than any other ingredient.
Deep Cleans Pores
Using a Detox Mask will also deep clean your pores. The average person's face contains roughly 20,000 pores, each of which acts as a 'pocket' for dead skin, oil, dirt, and makeup. These impurities will gradually make their way into the pores throughout the day, promoting the formation of acne blemishes, irritation, and inflammation. The Detox Mask acts like a magnet, drawing out these impurities deep in your skin.
Are you tired of fighting an endless battle with your skin's uneven skin tone? The Clarifying Detox Mask can help. Uneven skin tone is usually the result of irritation. Whether it's excess sebum (oil) trapped inside the pores or exposure to some external compound to which you are allergic, using the Detox Mask regularly ( 2-3 times a week) at night after cleansing will help keep your complexion clear, even, and radiant.
Moisturizes Your Skin
Unlike most face masks, the Detox Mask is excellent for moisturizing skin. The appearance and overall health of skin lie heavily on its moisture content. When leather dries out, it may crack, peel, lose its elasticity, and become more susceptible to breakouts and scars.
Are Those Trendy Face Masks Doing Anything for Your Skin?
For your face, sun protection, a good cleanser and a moisturizer are the non-negotiables
Cleansing, daily sunscreen use and moisturizing are the priority when it comes to daily skincare. Some face masks can offer a complimentary benefit beyond that (depending on the product and your skin type). But they're not essential to good skin health.
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 show 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. It makes it penetrate deeper and be more robust.
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 show on top of the skin with nothing in it, it would naturally moisturize the skin 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 do that. He suggests looking for shows with essential 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.
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 different types of products. That means they may provide a quick fix for complaints like redness, dryness, oiliness and inflammation.
Ingredients we would recommend you 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.
- 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. But because hormones drive oil production, that benefit will be relatively short-lived, she says.
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.
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 components with the word "acid" in them (an exception would be hyaluronic acid, which is a moisturizer the body naturally produces).
And don't assume because something is natural, it is harmless. 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 irritate the skin.
Tip: Apply a layer of petroleum jelly to the skin around the eyes, as that skin tends to be very thin and easily irritated.
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 will irritate your skin. The rule of thumb: less is more.
And be wary of products that promise you the world of skincare benefits. It probably isn't going to give you the world.
Pricey Does Not Mean Effective
Another rule of thumb: 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. If you question 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. 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. Also, 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 it all over your face to make sure your skin can tolerate the ingredients.
So, Do You Need to Detox Your Face?
The biggest issue with detox beauty products is that even if they help remove oil, dirt, and other stuff from your face, other products do that—and those should ideally already be a part of your regular skincare routine.
And a reminder: The sun is the most toxic environmental thing for our skin because sun exposure can lead to cosmetic concerns, like signs of aging, but also skin cancers. The best thing you can do for your skin is to put sunscreen on every morning.
So if you're someone who already cleanses, moisturizes, and uses sunscreen regularly, there's no need to do a detox mask on top of that. A clay mask may dry out a little bit of oil, but there are other things you can do. For instance, if you have oily or acne-prone skin, you might find it more helpful to use a gentle chemical exfoliant or products designed to manage acne, like those containing salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or retinoids rather than a detox mask.
People with dry, sensitive skin may find that these types of masks irritate their skin because they can be drying and may contain irritating fragrances or botanical ingredients. So these products should be used sparingly—once every week or every few weeks is enough—and with caution.
Still, if you like your charcoal or mud masks and feel like they work for you, there's no reason that you have to give them up entirely. They shouldn't be the primary way that you wash this stuff off your face. You'll get much more out of a regular, gentle skincare routine than a weekly mask.
If you have any questions about what your regimen should include and how a mask might fit into that, your dermatologist has answers.