Everyone’s skin needs some help now and then, especially once we reach a certain age. At whatever that age is, we become one of two types of people: those who live with it or do something about it. That second group often turns to skincare products like exfoliating face masks.
An exfoliating face mask provides us with a way to remove dead skin cells from our faces, fortify our skin with nourishment that will make it brighter and smoother, and even helps stave off acne and blemishes.
We’ll look at how they work, what’s in them, how you use them, and some specific examples of exfoliating masks you might want to try.
What Is an Exfoliating Face Mask?
At its most basic, an exfoliating face mask is a clay substance you apply to your face, let set, and then remove. Ideally, when you remove the clay, it will take with it the dead skin cells that have been clouding your skin as well as any irritants lurking under the surface that might become zits, blackheads, or even ingrown hairs.
While the facial mask is often used for comedic effect in farcical films, its benefits are well established and shouldn’t be thought of only as comic relief in a teen caper flick.
The Life and Death of Skin Cells
Every skin cell on your face (and body) lives for about three weeks or so. Due to the number of skin cells in your face, that means about 30,000 of them die every minute of every day of your life.
The graveyard of cells resting on your face as you read this is called the stratum corneum. Facial care products like masks and other exfoliators are specifically manufactured to address this layer. Remove those dead cells, and your skin looks younger, healthier, and more vibrant.
But leave the stratum corneum alone, and your skin must deal with the dead cells on its own, which means slowly. And that means a buildup of dead skin cells that result in a dull appearance and can lead to you developing more wrinkles.
Plus, that’s a whole lot of corpses to let rest on your forehead.
How Does an Exfoliating Face Mask Help?
In addition to jettisoning those dead cells via exfoliation, a mask can also remove any impurities that might be under your outer layer of skin. One of the main ways it accomplishes this is through two kinds of acids: Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid. Both are used in skincare routines and are sometimes even mentioned by name in skincare product commercials.
We’ll address these acids more in-depth in a bit, but for right now, know that AHAs are mainly used to help with exfoliation, while BHAs are intended chiefly for skin repair tasks like fighting acne.
The acids notwithstanding, the way these masks help is to get rid of all that dead skin microscopically clogging your pores as you read this. Remember that since you read that 30,000 of your skin cells die every minute, about 30,000 more of your skin cells will have died by the time you finish reading this section. So you’ve got a lot of cleanup to do.
Hydroxy Acids at Work
Some of these names will be more familiar than others, but all of them are acids involved in keeping your skin looking younger and healthier.
- Glycolic acid is not exactly a household word. It is probably the most prevalent of the AHAs in skincare today, though. It is known to stimulate collagen production, the stuff that helps keep your skin supple and not crepey, it’s not harsh at all, and it easily penetrates the skin since a glycolic acid molecule is very small, even for a molecule.
- Hyaluronic acid moisturizes your skin. Even though it does not exfoliate, hyaluronic acid appears in many exfoliators because you need to rehydrate your skin, not just remove stuff from it. Pull out those oils, and you’ve got to replace them. There’s also this: since we lose naturally occurring hyaluronic acid as we age, we need to replace it to keep our skin healthy and vibrant.
- Lactic acid both exfoliates and moisturizes. While it serves the same purpose as glycolic acid, it is a milder form of it. For this reason, lactic acid gets used on more sensitive skin, as it is sometimes too gentle to do a lot of exfoliation. Lactic acid is also often used as a smoother to give skin, well, a smoother feel.
- Salicylic acid is a BHB that fights acne. This acid works hard at unclogging pores, which is why it’s so effective in the battle against acne-prone skin. It also boasts anti-inflammatory properties, so if you have a pimple when you use it, salicylic acid will help decrease its size.
What, Specifically, Do They Improve About Skin?
As briefly mentioned above, loss of collagen in the skin and the buildup of constantly dying skin cells dulls the skin. Ultraviolet rays, air pollution, even irritants on our own hands can damage skin, and when all this comes together, skin is dull, it may begin to develop dark spots here and there, and we start hearing people use the W-word: wrinkles—no need for non-prescription retinol to fight those if you’re using a mask like this.
With an exfoliator on the job, dead skin cells get disposed of, and what’s left looks healthier. But an exfoliating face mask will also help remove any excess skin oils, which can be a significant contributing factor when it comes to acne.
Some face masks specifically gear themselves toward reducing skin coloration called hyperpigmentation, which can be something like sunspots or so-called “liver spots.” Hyperpigmentation due to a medical condition isn’t something an exfoliating mask is designed to help with, though, so if your hyperpigmentation is due to melanoma, that’s a medical issue.
Perhaps the top selling point for exfoliating face masks is their tendency to clean out one’s pores, and it makes sense– put a kind of paste on your face, and once it dries, anything it glommed onto is going to get pulled up by the roots when the dried clay comes off.
Clean pores mean healthier skin. Clean pores also mean that moisturizers can better penetrate the skin, further benefiting your skincare routine overall.
How Does One Use an Exfoliating Face Mask?
Probably the most important instructions involve any potential skin reactions and frequency of use. Before you slather your face with a brand new product, you need to be sure you’re not going to have any allergic reaction or other irritation to your skin. As with any skincare product, you need to apply it to a small area first to be sure nothing like this will happen.
After that, you need to know that face masks are not part of your nightly ritual but rather should be applied no more than three times a week.
With those things in mind, we can get to the nuts and bolts.
- Wash and dry your face. There should be no make-up or other products on your face before the application of a mask.
- Apply the mask. There may be an applicator, you may have a product that’s powder until you add water and mix it, but nothing will happen until you get this on your face.
- Follow the instructions. This is important. If your face mask packaging says to leave it on for 15 minutes, then that’s how long you should leave it on. Don’t be tempted to think, “If I leave it on for 30 minutes, it will do twice as much good,” because it won’t. You risk damage to your skin this way.
- Rinse the mask off. Be sure to get all of it off your skin. Going to sleep with a spot of the mask stuck to your skin will leave a mark.
- Moisturize your skin. Your exfoliating face mask moisturizes, sure, but once you’ve washed it off, you’ll want to help all that moisture stay in there so your skin keeps that fresh, dewy look.
- Listen to your skin. If your mask burns or irritates you in any way, stop using it. If irritation develops over time, you may be overusing the mask. Cut back one or two applications per week. If irritation persists, find a new mask.
- Wear sunscreen. This isn’t necessarily a part of the exfoliating face mask process, but you should be doing it. It’s skincare 101.
How Long Does It Take Before You Start Seeing Results?
While you may feel like your skin transformed after you use a face mask for the first time, the truth is that it will take a few applications before you start noticing real results. We are not talking months, though. After a couple of weeks, you should notice darker spots on your skin becoming lighter.
You will also begin to notice that your face feels smoother when you touch it. This doesn’t mean your face will feel differently– you won’t walk the world feeling the tingle of exfoliated glory. But it will look better than it did before you started with an exfoliator.
How Compatible Are Exfoliating Face Masks With Other Skin Care Treatments?
Earlier, we mentioned performing something of a spot test on your skin before using the mask. Any reactions that we’re looking for could come from other skin products you use.
While there is little information to suggest exfoliating face masks interact destructively with other products, those products can interfere with the mask. This is why we wash our faces thoroughly before applying the mask.
Occasionally, people will try to layer different masks, one on top of the other. There’s nothing dangerous about this, but it may defeat the purpose of any mask not against your skin.
No matter what skincare products or exfoliating mask you use, be on the lookout for:
- Drier skin than normal
- Increased sensitivity in your skin
Any of these can signal overuse of exfoliating face masks or adverse reactions by your skin to them.
The Best Exfoliating Face Masks
When you’re looking for the right face mask for you, you’re going to consider many things, but most importantly, choose a product specified for your skin type. Price will also be a factor for most of us.
So it’s challenging to rank the best masks because what’s best for oily skin will be something from the clay mask family, but that would be a poor choice for a person with dry skin. As a result, we’ll try to list some great masks for different skin types, and depending on the ones that apply to you, you’ll be able to make some informed decisions.
Golde’s Papaya Bright Face Mask
This one is something of a one-size-fits-all in that it’s best for normal skin but won’t overtly bother already-dry skin, and it won’t make oily skin oilier. This one boasts vitamin C as it contains sea buckthorn berry and the titular papaya. The Golde’s mask comes in powder form and will run you less than $50 per jar.
Kora Organics’ Turmeric Brightening & Exfoliating Mask
For less than $20, you can get a mask with turmeric in it. While turmeric is the spice that makes mustard yellow, you won’t smell like a hot dog. What you will get is the benefit of turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties, as well as its antioxidants. Another product not specified for particular skin types, this is an option for those looking for glowing skin.
Summer Fridays’ Overtime Mask
Summer Fridays has built its brand on vegan-friendly, cruelty-free products with lots of natural ingredients. This mask brings pumpkin and apricot to your skin for a mask that exfoliates gently and leaves behind nourishing vitamins. It also has oat kernel in it, which is another source of anti-inflammatories.
This mask is a bit pricier than some of the others already listed, but it still comes in under $50, which shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive, since a tube should last at least a few months.
Burt’s Bees’ Exfoliating Clay Mask
Specifically for oily skin, clay masks have a drying effect, and this one from Burt’s Bees is no exception. This is also good for skin with larger pores. Sunflower seed oil and citric acid are some of the active ingredients, the latter an AHA, which can also help in the fight against acne. This one costs only a little more than a venti mocha.
Dr. Sebagh’s Deep Exfoliating Mask Sensitive Skin
The AHA in this one is lactic acid, which you’ll recall is helpful with sensitive skin. It also contains azelaic acid, which is neither an AHA nor a BHA but does have exfoliating properties. This is almost $100 for a two-ounce jar, but it does provide for deep cleansing of pores in addition to exfoliation. If you do not have sensitive skin, the extra monetary investment might not be worth it, but those with sensitive skin know the importance of caring for it.
NIP+FAB’s Glycolic Fix Exfoliating Mask
At about the same price point as the Burt’s Bees clay mask, Nip + Fab’s mask supplies glycolic acid to your skin, aiding in collagen production and moisturizing. A ritual involving this sheet mask will yield skin with a glow and will help minimize wrinkles. The company also makes a salicylic clay mask for oilier skin.
What Are Some Recommended Qualities of the Best Exfoliating Face Masks?
The main thing you want is a mask for your skin type. You may also be concerned with organic ingredients, vegan-friendly products, and the like, so you’ll want to pay attention to labels for those specialized needs.
But the main thing you’re searching for is a mask made for you. That means if you have oily skin, you need something from the clay mask family, or at least not a mask that will overly moisturize your skin.
Similarly, dry skin will not take kindly to a clay mask but will need the moisturizing qualities of a glycolic or hyaluronic acid product.
YOu will also want to know what you’re hoping to get out of your exfoliating mask. If you don’t have acne problems, you may not need a mask with BHAs, but rather can stick with the AHAs that moisturize and exfoliate but don’t specifically help with acne-prone skin.
What Are the Typical Ingredients Used in Exfoliating Face Masks?
As mentioned several times, AHAs and BHAs are the main factors in the effectiveness of any exfoliating face mask. At the very least, a glycolic mask will work across various skin types and is a good starting place if you’re feeling overwhelmed by choices.
Many masks include superfoods like papaya and various berries, which provide vitamin C, A, and even K. These vitamins will give tangible results in improving your skin’s suppleness and overall health.
What Other Masks are Out There?
Homemade, DIY masks are relatively popular these days. They’re less expensive, and there are those out there who swear they accomplish the same things as brand-name products. Rather than just rubbing avocado on your face and hoping for the best, do some research.
Honey acts as an antibacterial, baking soda exfoliates, yogurt contains gentle lactic acid, grapes have an exfoliant called tartaric acid, and green tea’s antioxidants help repair damaged skin.
Your choices are limited only by the size of your grocery store, but do some research first. Like putting a clay mask on dry skin, you’ll want to avoid any DIY concoction incompatible with your skin type.
The world of exfoliating face masks can be overwhelming, but there’s a mask for everyone and every conceivable skin type. Take the time to explore your options, know your skin type, and have in mind what you hope your exfoliator to do for you. We’ve listed some great masks here, but there are choices for every wallet size and skin type. Happy exfoliating!
- Babe + Beauty: The Difference Between Exfoliation and a Mask
- Harper’s Bazaar: The 27 Best Face Masks 2021 – Best Face Masks for Dry Skin, Acne, Wrinkles
- Healthline.com: AHA vs. BHA: Choosing an Exfoliant, Acid Types, Products
- Healthline.com: Hyperpigmentation: What Causes Skin to Darken?
- National Institute for Biotechnology Information: Exfoliative Skin-peeling, Benefits from This Procedure and Our Experience
- Shear Elegance: Key Differences Between Exfoliant and a Mask
- Sio Beauty: 9 Exfoliating Masks You Can Make At Home
- Society for Applied Microbiology: Probiotics, lactic acid bacteria and bacilli: interesting supplementation for aquaculture
- Teen Vogue: How to Apply Face Masks Properly: 8 Tips To Smooth Skin
- The Cut: The Best Acids for Your Skin-Care Routine
- Victoria Health: Azelaic Acid: Why You Should Be Using It
- WebMD: Alpha Hydroxy Acids
- WebMD: Skin Information: Layers of Skin, Keeping Skin Healthy, and More