Peel-Off Masks: Why They're Bad For Your Skin

Saturday, October 6, 2018

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Recently, I've been seeing a lot of press about peel-off masks, and how awesome they are. I've blogged about somewhat dubious skincare and beauty product trends when I think the hype gets out of hand (I've always been kind of terrible as a shill that way, LOL), but this is probably one of the more egregious ones I've seen lately, so I'll get to the point - I'm really NOT a fan of peel-off masks at all, regardless of brand, and I highly discourage anyone from using them.


Unfortunately, they're really popular, and seem to be receiving a lot of mainstream press as of late. A quick google search turns up the following:


What a cursory search for "peel-off mask" returns

Why are these masks so popular? In a word, it's novelty. Prior to peel-off masks becoming popular, most masks have been clay or gel masks that you leave on and wash off, and can often get messy and drippy. By comparison, peel-off masks seem so much more fun and easier to use - the mask doesn't drip, and instead of washing off the mask, you get the satisfaction of peeling off the mask like this:


Part of the a-peel (see what I did there?) of the mask is that you peel it off (Source)

And, now brands are adding to the fun and entertainment factor of peeling masks by doing things like adding glitter to them, which while fun, doesn't really enhance the skincare value of the product in anyway. But, damn if it doesn't look like the most fun to apply and peel off though!


And yes, this is a My Little Pony mask collection (Source)

But as I've mentioned (right in the title, too), I'm not a huge fan of peel-off masks. I personally find them really bad for skin, and the general formula of these peel-off masks is such that by their nature, they're rather drying and sensitizing to the skin, and it's hard to escape that fact, no matter how much glitter you throw into them. We'll take a look at the general formula of such masks, and see how the masks work, and then check out the ingredients lists of some of the more popular peel-off masks, to see how much they adhere to the general formula. It's lots of ingredients reading. But it's fun! And worth it for better skin!

1. Understanding the Formulation of Peel-Off Masks
1a. What's in the Masks?
As a beauty junkie, I've seen/tried/looked at a lot of peel-off masks and their ingredients lists, and by and large, I realize that they tend to broadly follow the same formula. A typical peel-off mask will usually contain the following:

Key Ingredients
Water
Polyvinyl Alcohol
Polyvinylpyrrolidone (appears sometimes, also listed as PVP in some ingredients lists)

Secondary Ingredients
Alcohol Denat.
Various humectants (e.g. Glycerin, Butylene Glycol, Pentylene Glycol, Sodium Hyaluronate, etc.)
Plant/fruit/other extracts (e.g. various flower extracts, plant extracts, ferments, etc.)
Emollients (e.g. Capric/Caprylic Triglycerides, etc.)
Clays (e.g. Montmorillonite, Kaolin, etc.)
More Polymers (e.g. Acrylates/Palmeth-25 Acrylate Copolymer, Acrylates Copolymer etc.)
Emulsifiers (e.g. Glycereth-26, PEG-75, etc.)
Other functional ingredients (e.g. preservatives such as phenoxyethanol, etc.)

1b. What do the Ingredients Do?
Let's take a look at the ingredients and what they do. The ones that I've found to be common to every single peel-off mask are water (obviously), polyvinyl alcohol, and polyvinylpyrrolidone (I'll just be lazy and call it PVP). That makes sense in a peel-off mask - after polyvinyl alcohol and PVP are both film-formers, i.e. they are polymers that form a film on the skin when applied. So when the peel-off mask is applied to the skin, that "film" you see forming? That's the combination of polyvinyl alcohol and PVP. Incidentally, the polyvinyl alcohol is also known as PVA (although it's never listed as "PVA" in ingredients lists), and if PVA sounds familiar, it's because it's the same ingredient used in white school/craft glue, like Elmer's glue. So if you've ever applied Elmer's glue on a surface and peeled the film off after it's dried, yup - that's the PVA film, alright! The PVA and PVP don't actually have any skincare benefit by themselves, but they are the primary ingredients in the mask that give it that peel-off property.

Other than film-formers, the peel-off mask typically also has some other secondary ingredients. These are typically other ingredients that the peel-off mask is supposed to deliver, such as the various plant extracts, clays, or other special ingredients, which will likely be advertised rather loudly as part of the product's marketing. There are also usually some humectants and emollients, which are there to add moisture to the mask (because as you can imagine, a peel-off mask without any of these would be preeetty drying and painful to peel off). Then there are also the rest of the functional ingredients that bring the mask together and make it work as a mask: there are emulsifiers to help ensure the oil and water phases of the product are mixed; there are preservatives, which are necessary since the formula of this mask does require water (and you don't want to have a water-containing formulation with no preservatives - it would just go bad in a few days like milk).

So, basically the peel-off mask consists of two main parts - a peel off layer, which is comprised of PVA and PVP, and also the other actives and other ingredients in the mask. In most cases, these actives ingredients are often various plant extracts or other beneficial ingredients.

1c. Why are these Peel-Off Masks Bad?

While both PVA and PVP have been assessed as safe for used in cosmetics by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel (PVP's CIR report is available here, and polyvinyl alcohol's CIR report is here), they can still be rather irritating when used in the form of a peel-off mask. First, both PVA and PVP are used in fairly high amounts - the CIR report estimates that the use of polyvinyl alcohol/PVA ranges from of 0.0035% to 15%, and I would assume that in a peel-off mask, where this is one of the key ingredients, it would probably be on the higher end, rather than the lower end, of the range PVP is also similarly used in high amounts - the CIR reports that cosmetic products use it within a range of 0.0005% to 94%, which is pretty wide (I assume the 94% is probably things like hairspray and the like, or other makeup setting products). Looking at the ingredients list, it's possible the percentage is comparable to that of PVA, or possibly lower, since PVA is the dominant film-former. Those concentrations are obviously necessary in order for the peel-off film to form on the face. As an example, this formula for a peel-off mask patent lists the percentage of PVA as 11%, and PVP as 4% (and alcohol as 12.5%).

The thing, however, about the two film-formers, PVA and PVP, is that they can be irritating to skin, especially when combined with the peel-off format, where they are used in fairly high concentrations (more than 10% and up to 15% for PVA, and probably lower but up to similar amounts for PVP). First there is the mechanical pulling of the film off from the skin - and if you've ever been victim to a too-sticky, painful-to-peel-off mask, you know what I mean. Secondly, the main ingredient, polyvinyl alcohol / PVA, is pretty drying by itself, and honestly, other than forming a film, has no skincare benefit. So in most other leave-on products, these are usually used in much smaller amounts, and often after a bunch of moisturizing ingredients (humectants, emollients, etc.). But in the case of peel-off masks, these are the main ingredient instead of a side ingredient to help the product apply better. The net effect is that you get a rather drying product overall (and if you've used peel-off masks before, it's no surprise). PVP is also similar to PVA - on its own, it can also be sensitizing to skin, and also doesn't have any skincare benefits in and of itself, other than forming the peel-off film.

I've noticed that quite a few peel-off masks also have alcohol, which is presumably there as a solvent or penetration enhancer. Obviously, the presence of alcohol - which again, on its own can be pretty drying and sensitizing to skin - just exacerbates any issues a peel-off mask might have. I'm generally not a fan of alcohol in general inside skincare products (although thick-textured products, and things like sunscreens get a pass as the formula is such that the alcohol is less likely to do damage there), but I am definitely not a fan of alcohol inside an already-dry, already-sensitizing peel-off mask.

So, with all that said and done, basically the peel-off layer, which is comprised of PVA and PVP, doesn't do anything skincare-wise, but just acts as a sort of delivery mechanism for the other ingredients to penetrate the skin. And therein lies my concern. If you really want to deliver those ingredients into the skin, why use a peel-off mask that does nothing by itself except dry out and sensitize your skin? Why not just use a more traditional gel mask, or a sheet mask (where there is also water and a higher concentration of actives), or some other format that doesn't require film-formers? After all, there's nothing so special about these actives that they absolutely have to be in a peel-off mask format, and indeed, other products can and do deliver these ingredients. The main reason is that it's really just novelty and marketing. And while it might be fun peeling off that black (or glittery!) layer off your face, I'm not willing to subject my skin to potential drying out just for some entertainment factor. Just give me a boring ol' sheet mask and I'll be on my way.

2. Some Examples and Case Studies (AKA inb4 "But This Cult Brand's Mask is Different!")
To bring my point home, let's look at some of the more popular masks, and see how closely they adhere to the formula I've outlined above; get this from theory to real-life skincare application, so to speak. I know that some of these masks are pretty darn popular on the internets (like there are literal GIFs of people peeling off these masks making the rounds), so I hope noone gets too offended seeing their favourite mask here - the formula is a matter of fact, and it is what it is. I know 5 peel-off masks don't sound like a lot, but I would like to clarify that I did look at many, many more ingredient lists in the research process for this blogpost, but ultimately, I found that 1) the ingredients lists were all so similar that I didn't quite see the point of listing more than 5, because it would get so repetitive, and also 2) I figured since people were blogging/gramming/Youtubing about the same few masks, as long as I covered a couple of the popular ones, that would probably do it.

Well, let's start looking at some peel-off masks!

1. Glamglow GravityMud Firming Treatment

Glamglow GravityMud Firming Treatment (Source)

Oh yeah, we are starting aggressive with one of the more popular masks. Let's check the ingredients list:

Water, Polyvinyl Alcohol, Alcohol Denat., Butylene Glycol, Glycerin, Ethylhexyl Hydroxystearate, Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel) Water, Montmorillonite, Pentylene Glycol, Illite, Polysorbate 20, Canadian Colloidal Clay, Caprylyl Glycol, Althaea Officinalis Leaf Extract, Tapioca Starch, Chondrus Crispus (Carrageenan), Colloidal Platinum, Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate, Alcohol, Ascophyllum Nodosum Powder, Polysorbate 80, Polymethylsilsesquioxane, Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose, Citric Acid, Lecithin, Pullulan, Porphyridium Cruentum Extract, Soy Isoflavones, Sodium Hyaluronate, Xanthan Gum, Fragrance, Coumarin, Disodium Edta, Phenoxyethanol, Sorbic Acid, Potassium Sorbate, Bismuth Oxychloride (Ci 77163)

As you can see, this has all the hallmarks of a standard peel-off mask: water and PVA, although it has no PVP. But, it does have alcohol (as the 3rd ingredient, and again as the 18th ingredient, which is a little weird since it's repeated twice), in fairly high amounts, and also Witch Hazel Water, which functions as an astringent. It is quite likely that the astringent effect of the witch hazel is waht gives the mask the "firming" effect, but of course this is temporary. GlamGlow tried to offset the drying nature of the mask with a bunch of humectants (Butylene Glycol, Glycerin, Caprylyl Glycol). There are also a variety of plant extracts (Althaea Officinalis Leaf Extract, Porphyridium Cruentum Extract), which the brand calls "VIZITIGHT", "LUNARLIFT", "COSMIPLEXION", and "TEAOXI® COMPLEX", which are various combinations of the plant and algae extracts in the product. And of course there are clays (Montmorillonite, Canadian Colloidal Clay), because this is a clay mask after all. Interestingly, this mask also has some shimmer in it (Bismuth Oxychloride), so I assume there is some sheen or shimmer to the mask when applied. As a side note, this is also available in a glitter version, just for kicks.

2. Boscia Luminizing Black Mask

Boscia Luminizing Black Mask (Source)

Another OG peel-off masks that was one of the first few to really become popular, this one was black, which added to the sense of novelty when it was first launched. Here is the ingredients list:

Water, Polyvinyl Alcohol, Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel) Water, Glycereth-26, Butylene Glycol, Glycerin, Acrylates/Palmeth-25 Acrylate Copolymer, Iron Oxides (CI77499), Pentylene Glycol, Montmorillonite, Polysorbate 20, Charcoal Powder, Lonicera Caprifolium (Honeysuckle) Flower Extract, Lonicera Japonica (Honeysuckle) Flower Extract, Epilobium Angustifolium Flower/Leaf/Stem Extract, Eucalyptus Globulus Leaf Oil, Pinus Pinaster Bark Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Oil, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Leaf Extract, Citrus Grandis (Grapefruit) Seed Extract, Diglycerin, Xanthan Gum, Acrylates Copolymer, Ceteth-25, Oleth-10, Ascorbyl Glucoside, Sodium Hydroxide.

We also see the water and PVA here. There is no PVP, and no alcohol, but there are other film-forming polymers (Acrylates/Palmeth-25 Acrylate Copolymer). For a mask that is supposed to be black, it's interesting to note that the bulk of that lovely jet-black colour is actually derived from iron pigments (Iron Oxides, 8th ingredient) moreso than actual charcoal powder (12th ingredient). So looks (or in this case colour) can be deceiving! There is also an astringent in the form of Witch Hazel Water, as well as a bunch of various flower extracts and plant oils. Of minor benefit is a form of Vitamin C (Ascorbyl Glucoside), which can indeed brighten skin and is an ingredient I do like very much, but it is the second-last ingredient on the list.

3. Origins Ginzing Peel-Off Mask


Origins Ginzing Peel-Off Mask (Source)

Just so you know, Origins has sent me products to review before. But you know, I'm not the kind of blogger who never says anything bad about any product from a brand ever just because I've been sent PR samples in the past before. So here we go!

Water\Aqua\Eau , Alcohol Denat. , Polyvinyl Alcohol , Zea Mays (Corn) Starch , Silica , Hexylene Glycol , Citrus Limon (Lemon) Peel Oil*, Citrus Grandis (Grapefruit) Peel Oil*, Mentha Viridis (Spearmint) Leaf Oil*, Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Peel Oil*, Limonene, Linalool, Citral , Panax Ginseng (Ginseng) Root Extract , Pyrus Malus (Apple) Fruit Extract , Algae Extract , Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea) Leaf Extract , Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Fruit Extract , Citrus Limon (Lemon) Peel Extract , Saccharum Officinarum (Sugar Cane) Extract\Extrait De Canne À Sucre , Isoceteth-20 , Caffeine , Xanthan Gum , Aminomethyl Propanol , Carbomer , Phenoxyethanol , Mica , Iron Oxides (Ci 77491) , Titanium Dioxide (Ci 77891) * Essential Oil

Wow, alcohol as the second ingredient - this is going to be so drying. As usual there is water, PVA, and a bunch of thickeners/absorbers (Corn Starch, Silica). There is also a slew of essential oils (lemon peel, grapefruit peel, spearmint leaf, orange peel, etc.) which honestly can be pretty sensitizing for skin - none of these are perfectly skin-friendly. But there are also some interesting ingredients that may benefit skin (Green Tea Leaf Extract, Algae Extract). But given the high concentration of alcohol, and the lack of other humectants or emollients to alleviate the potentially drying formula, this is going to be a tough one to remove - my skin is cringing at the pain trying to peel this off will cause. Origins does have other masks that are way better than this (I've used their Rose Clay Mask with no issue), so this really is a peel-off mask thing.

4. Innisfree Super Volcanic Peel Off Mask 2X

Innisfree Super Volcanic Peel Off Mask 2X (Source)

Ah, a kbeauty brand. I know some people are of the view that kbeauty everything is better than its Western equivalent, but let's reserve judgement until we see the ingredients list:

WATER / AQUA / EAU, POLYVINYL ALCOHOL, ALCOHOL, BUTYLENE GLYCOL, GLYCERIN, VOLCANIC ASH, PVP, TITANIUM DIOXIDE (CI 77891), PEG-75, HYDROXYPROPYL STARCH PHOSPHATE, SILICA, AMMONIUM ACRYLOYLDIMETHYLTAURATE/VP COPOLYMER, PEG-60 HYDROGENATED CASTOR OIL, BENTONITE, IRON OXIDES (CI 77499), XANTHAN GUM, POLYSORBATE 20, GLYCERYL CAPRYLATE, LACTIC ACID/GLYCOLIC ACID COPOLYMER, DISODIUM EDTA, MENTHOXYPROPANEDIOL, ALUMINUM HYDROXIDE, TRIETHOXYCAPRYLYLSILANE

Meh, no discernible difference whatsoever. This also has water, PVA, PVP, alcohol (as the third ingredient), so it's no better than the other Western brands. I guess there's only so many ways to formulate a peel-off mask. There are some humectants (Butylene Glycol, Glycerin), and to the brand's credit Volcanic Ash (an advertised ingredient) is there as the 6th ingredient. In much smaller amounts are also other clays (Bentonite) and also an interesting use of a Lactic Acid/Glycolic Acid Copolymer, which I'm guessing is intended to offer some small amount of exfoliation, maybe.

4. I Dew Care Disco Kitten Illuminating Diamond Peel Off Mask

I Dew Care Disco Kitten Illuminating Diamond Peel Off Mask (Source)

Another kbeauty (or kbeauty-inspired? I'm not exactly sure) brand, this I Dew Care (cute name btw) Disco Kitten mask is so named because it has shimmer! It also apparently keeps getting sold out at Ulta, so you know this is absolutely a cult product. Is it formulated any differently?

Water, Polyvinyl Alcohol, Alcohol, Glycerin, Synthetic Fluorphlogopite, Titanium Dioxide (CI77891), Bentonite, 1,2-Hexanediol, C12-14 Pareth-12, Salvia Hispanica Seed Extract, Centella Asiatica Extract, Houttuynia Cordata Extract, Xanthan Gum, Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose, Propanediol, Ethylhexylglycerin, Tin Oxide, Disodium EDTA, Allantoin, Pearl Extract, Butylene Glycol, Avena Sativa (Oat) Kernel Extract, Palmitoyl Tripeptide-5, Sambucus Nigra Flower Extract, Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Flower Extract, Magnolia Liliflora Flower Extract, Plumeria Rubra Flower Extract, Lilium Tigrinum Extract, Amethyst Powder, Tourmaline, Diamond Powder, Topaz, Ruby Powder, Fragrance

Nope, not really. The main ingredients here are water, PVA, alcohol (third ingredient), one humectant (glycerin), and a bunch of glitter/shimmer/pigments (Synthetic Fluorphlogopite, Titanium Dioxide). And then we have a clay (Bentonite), and then we have the preservative (1,2-Hexanediol). And only after the preservative, do we have a bunch of plant extracts (Salvia Hispanica Seed Extract, Centella Asiatica Extract, Houttuynia Cordata Extract, etc.). I don't know about you, but if a mask has more colourants and shimmer than actual skincare ingredients, I wouldn't be too impressed. There is supposed to be literal diamond powder in this product, and it's advertised as such, but the diamond powder is the 4th last ingredient.

5. Cle De Peau Transluscency Mask

Cle De Peau Transluscency Mask (Source)

I just wanted to end off the case studies with something expensive and very luxe, because people often think that if a product is more expensive, it automatically means that it's better, and really, with peel-off masks, it's not always the case. Take a look:

WATER (AQUA)・POLYVINYL ALCOHOL・BUTYLENE GLYCOL・GLYCERIN・PPG-15-BUTETH-20・XYLITOL・PEG-75・PEG-60 HYDROGENATED CASTOR OIL・PHENOXYETHANOL・CELLULOSE GUM・METHYLPARABEN・SODIUM CITRATE・PANTHENYL ETHYL ETHER・CITRIC ACID・MICA・FRAGRANCE (PARFUM)・TITANIUM DIOXIDE (CI 77891)・MAGNESIUM ASCORBYL PHOSPHATE・LYSOLECITHIN・SODIUM ACETYLATED HYALURONATE・ROSA CANINA FRUIT EXTRACT・FAGUS SYLVATICA BUD EXTRACT・SOPHORA ANGUSTIFOLIA ROOT EXTRACT・YELLOW 6 (CI 15985)・ROSA ROXBURGHII FRUIT EXTRACT・RED 33 (CI 17200)・TOCOPHEROL

Much of the formula is the same - water, PVA, similar humectants (Butylene Glycol, Glycerin). The main difference is that there are more emollients (Hydrogenated Castor Oil), and some interesting use of Xylitol as a humectant. But otherwise...the basic formula isn't all that much different. I'm not against luxury brands at all (I do have some luxe brand items myself, including a few CdP items), but like I mentioned earlier, there really are only so many ways to formulate a peel-off mask. It's really a case of potayto-potahto, tomayto-tomahto with these masks.

3. So Should I Use A Peel Off Mask? It's So Grammable
3a. So You Really Don't Recommend Peel-Off Masks?
You already know where this is going, but no, I would not recommend any peel-off mask of this variety (especially if the first few ingredients read water, PVA, Alcohol Denat., PVP, and so on), for the following reasons:

1. It's drying and sensitizing for no particular reason other than that it's "fun" to peel off the mask (painfully in some cases too), and I honestly prefer function over form, and efficacy over entertainment. Not to mention, there are better ways to get "fun" out of skincare (like seeing the product actually work). If I wanted "fun" from a mask I would go with something else - maybe a sheet mask with cute print on it, or a bubble mask (which I've also blogged about before and found superfluous, but nowhere near as detrimental to the skin).

2. I also can't think of any active that would specifically require the format of a peel-off mask to deliver. I mean, it's not like peel-off masks themselves are delivering anything particularly special - plant extracts already exist in a thousand skincare products.

3. By their nature, peel-off masks are hard to formulate "well" - and by "well" I mean "in a manner that is not detrimental to skin". I mean, if you think about it - if the primary purpose of a product is to form a quick-drying film on the skin that is then pulled off, and if you are using drying film-formers and (in some cases) alcohol to achieve that, then the nature of the product is that it's going to be drying and sensitizing. It's hard to try to work around this format and try to formulate something otherwise (although you can see some brands do try).

So I find these just unnecessarily harmful for skin. I just don't see the point, in short. I guess I could give them to someone I really disliked, in hopes that they'll use it and dry out their skin? I don't know, really.

3b. But I Really Want to Try One Anyway. What Do You Recommend Then?
Of course, when it comes to skincare, different people's skins will react differently, so for me (with my sensitive skin) this is a definite no-no, but I imagine others with much thicker, oilier skins may actually like the product (indeed, one of the consistent things about peel-off masks is that they seem to be good at oil control - temporarily, I might add, thanks to the alcohol that is typically found in such masks). But if you're one of those people who really like such masks, perhaps my tips would be:

1. Look for a mask with no alcohol. It's drying enough already, you don't need to dry out your skin even more with this product.

2. Look for a mask with some emollients and humectants. Most masks will have some humectants (Butylene Glycol, Glycerin seem to be the popular ones), but not all of them have significant amounts of emollients (Hydrogenated Castor Oil, etc.). If you find a peel-off mask with a few emollient ingredients near the top, chances are it might be less drying.

3. Apply something hydrating and moisturizing after you use the mask. I guess after you've dried out your skin, it's a good idea to apply some lotion/serum and moisturizer to minimize the damage done. And please don't use a lotion/serum with alcohol, that's just... *slaps face with palm*.

So that's your peel-off mask choosing tips. But for me, I just wouldn't with these. Maybe I'd do it once. For the Gram. And then never again, because my skin would probably be so sensitive and red that I would learn my lesson.

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