Are Peel-Off Facial Masques Worth It?: What the Scientific Research Says

Skin Care
Peel off Mask

Oh, peel-off facials. An at-home version of the full-fledged chemical peel, peel-off facials involve an alcohol-based solution that is applied to the face, allowed to dry for 10-15 minutes, and then, well, peeled off of the face. These masques were huge in the 80’s and 90’s, fell out of favor in lieu of facial pads and gel sheet masques, and now appear to be making a comeback. Here, I’ll talk about how these masques work, their benefits and detriments, and which one(s), if any, you should try!

What is the Difference between a Chemical Peel and a Peel-Off Masque?

Chemical Peel vs. Peel-Off Masque

A chemical peel involves the application of a chemical solution, typically highly concentrated with alpha or beta hydroxy acids, which are applied to the skin to make it “blister” and come off. The newer layer of skin under the masque is fresher, typically appearing smoother and less lined than the previous layer.

On the other hand, a peel-off masque typically contains far lower concentrations of alpha or beta hydroxy acids. In fact, the two most common ingredients found in peel-off masques, glycolic acid and salicylic acid, are limited to concentrations of 10% and 2% in peel-off masques in the U.S.

With this lower concentration, the peel-off masque typically involves absolutely no blistering. The high alcohol content enables the key ingredients to penetrate the skin better, but the concentration is still low enough where it will not produce irritation in most individuals.

What are the Benefits of a Peel-Off Masque?

Think of a peel-off masque as a middle tier between a cleanser and a leave-on concentrated alpha hydroxy acid, retinoid, antioxidant, hyaluronic acid treatment.

With cleansers, cosmetic chemists are assuming you apply cleanser for a length of time far longer than what you are: “For best results, apply a cleanser for a full minute,” says Dr. David E. Bank, M.D., dermatologist and founder of the Center for Derm in Mt. Kisco, New York (FutureDerm, 2008). “Otherwise, the ingredients cannot bind to the skin properly.”

A peel-off masque will enable high concentrations of beneficial ingredients to be against your skin for longer than a cleanser will, and there’s obviously not the tedium of rubbing in a circular motion for at least a minute, as there is with regular cleansers.

On the other hand, a peel-off masque does not grant you the benefits of high concentrations of effective ingredients overnight like a concentrated skin care treatment can. But, at the same time, peel-off masques are only designed to be used weekly or bi-weekly, rather than daily. This distinction enables formulators to put ingredients together that would be too sensitizing for a serum or moisturizer, granting mixes of anti-inflammatory and anti-aging ingredients along with a big dose of intensive moisture or oil-absorbing ingredients, depending on which type of masque you choose.

How Does a Peel-Off Masque Work?

The high concentration of alcohol(s) in the masque thins the solution so that it better penetrates the skin. Ingredients like PVP and polyvinyl alcohol will react with the air quickly, and typically within 10-15 minutes they will dry completely to form a hard, dry layer that can literally be peeled off of the face. In the meantime, the other ingredients that do not react with the air as readily are in constant contact with your skin until the masque is peeled off.

Are There Detriments or Safety Issues with a Peel-Off Masque?

Despite what you may have heard elsewhere, alcohol in skin care products is safe . It can be somewhat drying for those with dry skin, but alcohol-containing skin care products do not cause the death of skin cells, the destruction of important aspects of skin, or the widespread systemic induction of free radicals (unless you eat them).

What are the Best Peel-Off Masques?

DDF Sulfur Therapeutic Masque

Best for Acne: DDF Sulfur Therapeutic Masque ($43.40,

Unless your skin is super-sensitive, this acne-fighting masque is the best. The secrets? Kaolin and sulfur.

Kaolin has been established as an effective adsorbent for hundreds of years. Found in many acne-fighting products, kaolin has also long been used to treat skin erythema, eczema, and other inflammatory skin disorders.  It has been proven to absorb excess oil on the skin, as shown in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.  In fact, kaolin is so adsorbent makes me hesitant to recommend this to anyone with dry skin!

On the other hand, sulfur is an important mineral component of vitamin B, collagen, keratin, and several amino acids.  According toThe Encyclopedia of Skin and Skin Disorders, sulfur is thought to slow bacterial growth as it dissolves the top layer of the skin and slows oil-gland activity within the skin. And since acne is caused by a bacterium, P. acnes, this is a beautiful thing. Sulfur is included in anti-acne over-the-counter products in concentrations up to 10 percent, as it is in the DDF Sulfur Therapeutic Masque.

Bonus tip: Sulfur and benzoyl peroxide together have been proven in a study from the Journal of the Canadian Medical Society to be more effective than either agent alone, though they also have high irritant potential together (The Encyclopedia of Skin and Skin Disorders). Make best use of this knowledge by using the sulfur masque and benzoyl peroxide after ONLY as an on-the-spot treatment.  

Ingredients: Sulfur, Water, Bentonite, Propylene Glycol, Talc, Kaolin, Gum Arabic, Titanium Dioxide, PVP, Diazolidinyl Urea, Glycerin, Fragrance, Methylparaben, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract, Sodium PCA, Allantoin, Propylparaben, Sweet Almond Oil.

Best for Anti-Aging: NEOVA Serious Gly-Peel Peel-Off Masque

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It’s no secret that I love, love, love most NEOVA products. The real secret here is the high concentration of glycolic acid. The most common of all the alpha hydroxy acids, glycolic acid in concentrations of at least 10% advances exfoliation of the top layer of the skin. As a result, glycolic acid peels smooth the skin, quicken the rate of cell turnover (which is reduced by up to 7% every ten years), decrease small wrinkles and increase the fibroblast proliferation of collagen.

At rates of 15%, it takes at least four peels for for noticeable improvement of photodamage, solar lentigos, and melasma to occur (Baumann). You may also not expect the complete reversal of moderate to severe wrinkling or scarring (Baumann). That said, NEOVA Serious Gly-Peel Peel-Off Masque is an absolutely genius product for those with mild to moderate wrinkling, age spots, and/or issues with skin dullness. Use it once or twice a week for no longer than 10-15 minutes to reveal bright, glowing skin. (That sounds really marketing-rich, but it works.)

Psst, one final note: I know serious FutureDerm users are like, “Why is she recommending a product with glycolic acid and retinoids?” Well, folks, the retinyl palmitate is so weak, it doesn’t matter. Retinyl palmitate is about one-twentieth the strength of retinol (Clinics in Dermatology,2001), so it is really the glycolic acid we are concerned with keeping at the right pH, not activating the retinyl palmitate to retinoic acid.

Ingredients: Water (Aqua), Polyvinyl Alcohol, SD Alcohol 40-B, Glycolic Acid, Glycerin, Butylene Glycol, Triethanolamine, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Sodium Hyaluronate, Tocopheryl Acetate, Retinyl Palmitate, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Phospholipids, Cucumis Sativus (Cucumber) Fruit Extract, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract, Camellia Oleifera Leaf Extract, Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Panthenol, Allantoin, Sodium PCA, Mentha Piperita (Peppermint) Oil, Menthol, PEG-12 Dimethicone, Polysorbate 20, Propylene Glycol, Disodium EDTA, Phenoxyethanol, Ethylhexylglycerin.

Bottom Line

Peel-off masques are great for delivering high concentrations of beneficial ingredients into the skin quickly. You must take caution to rinse off within 10-15 minutes, though, particularly with masques containing alpha or beta hydroxy acids, because the active ingredients can become too concentrated after the allocated time. Still, I absolutely love the DDF Therapeutic Mask for acne sufferers, and the NEOVA Serious Gly-Peel Peel-Off Masque for those concerned with signs of aging.

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