Asian Beauty 101: Everything You Need to Know About Sheet Masks
Posted on November 01 2019
All Your Questions about Sheet Masks Answered
- What is a sheet mask?
- What are the differences between the sheet mask materials?
- Why should I use a sheet mask?
- How do I use a sheet mask?
- How often should I use sheet masks?
- When should I not use a sheet mask?
- What’s the best time to apply a sheet mask?
- What are the best sheet masks for my skin type/concerns?
- Can I use sheet masks if I have sensitive skin?
- What are some ingredients to avoid in sheet masks?
- Am I supposed to take the sheet mask backing off before or after I put the mask on?
- Is it true that using a sheet mask for longer than the recommended time is bad?
- What about eye, cheek, and lip masks?
- What about bubbling sheet masks?
- What if I don’t like using sheet masks? Is my skin doomed?
So. I’ve been using sheet masks—and using sheet masks almost nightly—for a very long time. Since 2015, which feels like a lifetime ago.
Over the past four years, I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge about the use of sheet masks. I get a lot of questions about them, so I thought I’d gather some of my answers here, in one easy-to-reference location. Let’s check out some sheet mask FAQs!
Q. What is a sheet mask?A: Sheet masks are single-use face masks that consist of a sheet cut to fit over the face, soaked in a large volume of liquid essence. The mask sheets are typically made from cotton, silk, or pulp, though microfiber, biocellulose, and hydrogel are also options. Most sheet masks use a clear, water-based essence. Some replace the watery essence with a thicker, lotion-textured essence.
Q. What are the differences between the sheet mask materials?A: The differences mainly relate to price and relative comfort and ability to conform to the face, which can affect how effective a mask is. Because sheet masks work primarily by using the sheet as a physical barrier to prevent the essence from evaporating, the more tightly the mask sheet can fit on your skin, the better the essence can absorb.
- Pulp: Usually of medium thickness and can feel papery. This inexpensive material typically translates to very affordable masks. One major pro of these is that they’re easy to strategically tear in order to improve the fit. They also hold essence very well, allowing for a long wear time and lots of hydrating benefit. The My Scheming Honey & Vitamin C Radiance Mask is one of my favorite pulp masks.
- Cotton/Tencel: Also fairly inexpensive and typically medium thickness, cotton and Tencel masks are more durable than pulp masks. You’ll need to cut with scissors to adjust the fit. Personally, I actually prefer pulp masks to cotton or Tencel, since I find these type of cloth masks can be stiffer and less clingy.
- Silk: Much thinner, more pliable, and more clingy than pulp or cotton masks, silk masks allow for a very close fit and often look nearly invisible on the face. They conform beautifully to facial contours and fit extremely comfortably. Annie’s Way makes my current favorite silk masks—they’re weightless yet incredibly effective. These can still be relatively inexpensive, depending on the brand.
Microfiber: Pricier than the first three sheet mask types, microfiber sheet masks are thin, clingy, and gloriously soft and smooth. Masks that use this type of material tend to feel creamy even when they use a watery essence, thanks to the texture of the sheets.
- Biocellulose: Biocellulose mask material (which you may have heard me call “face condoms”) is made from the fermentation of natural substances, typically coconut or soy. Biocellulose masks vary in thickness from quite thin and requiring two backings to hold their shape for application, to a bit thicker. This type of mask material clings and occludes more strongly than any of the fabric type of sheet masks for theoretically better absorption. Biocellulose masks typically carry a thicker essence that can verge on syrupy. Be wary of leaving these on too long. They can feel really strange and uncomfortable to peel off if you do.
- Hydrogel: Developed from the same technology as burn dressings, hydrogel masks are thicker than biocellulose but with similar properties of clinginess and occlusion. Hydrogel masks often feel more hydrating and cooling than biocellulose masks. These usually come in two pieces, a top and bottom section, to make perfect fit easier to achieve.
Q. Why should I use a sheet mask?
A. One word: HYDRATION!
There are lots of types of face masks on the market. The only type I use consistently (well, more like religiously) are sheet masks, and that’s because they truly deliver results that can’t be found elsewhere. Plus, wash-off masks are too much extra labor for too little payoff for me.
Hydration is the key to juicy, glowing skin, as I discussed in my blog post on achieving the Asian Beauty dewy glow. Sheet masks deliver substantially more hydration than any other treatment by virtue of their format. They come soaked in a large volume of hydrating essence, and the physical barrier formed by the sheet prevents the essence from evaporating, allowing your skin to absorb as much of it as possible.
Sheet masks are the closest thing I’ve ever found to an instant fix for skin: they can calm redness and irritation, plump up skin to smooth out fine lines, and add a vibrant glow to my skin even when I’m at my most tired and hung over.
Q. How do I use a sheet mask?
A: Tear open the pouch and remove the mask. Unfold it carefully. If the mask comes with an extra backing to make unfolding easier, you can either remove it or leave it on until you’ve applied the mask (for more on this, see below!). Position the mask over your face so that the eye, nose, and mouth holes line up, and make adjustments as necessary so that it fits. If you still have the extra backing on, peel it off. Smooth out the mask and relax while it works its magic.
Keep the mask on for at least 15 minutes, or as long as you want until the mask sheet begins to feel dry (for an explanation of why, keep reading this FAQ). After you remove the mask, don’t rinse your face. Instead, gently pat or massage any remaining essence into your skin. Then seal it all in with your choice of moisturizer.
Q. How often should I use sheet masks?
A: As often as you like! I personally find that the more often I use sheet masks, the better my skin looks and the healthier it feels from day to day, so I use them about 5 or so times a week. If that’s not in your budget or compatible with your lifestyle, however, just use them as often as you can, and don’t overthink it. Anything is better than nothing at all!
Q. When should I not use a sheet mask?
A: I don’t personally think there’s any particular time to not use a sheet mask, but I do have a few cautions. If your skin is generally sensitive or reactive, and you’re not sure what ingredients set it off, don’t try any new sheet masks within one to two weeks of a special event. Additionally, if your skin is currently having a breakout or reaction, don’t use any unfamiliar masks. Stick to ones you’ve used before and know for sure to calm your skin without irritation.
Q. What’s the best time to apply a sheet mask?
A. Most sheet mask instructions say to use sheet masks immediately after cleansing and toning, before any other steps in your routine. After much trial and error, however, I disagree. I find sheet masks most effective when used after all the toner, essence, and serum steps in your routine.
As I wrote in my post on sheet mask hacks, a well formulated sheet mask essence will contain penetration enhancers. When used over other skincare layers, I find these penetration enhancers help your skin more fully absorb what you’ve already applied as well the mask essence itself. Meanwhile, if you use the sheet mask before your other steps, I find that while the sheet mask essence absorbs well, the large quantity of essence absorbed makes subsequent steps less likely to penetrate well.
Q. What are the best sheet masks for my skin type/concerns?A: This is a very hard question to answer, since everyone’s skin is so different. There’s a world of sheet masks out there to try, and you won’t know what your own holy grail is until you’ve sampled at least a few different ones. With that being said, here are some very general suggestions:
- Oily and/or acne-prone skin tends to benefit most from astringent and anti-inflammatory ingredients, like tea, tea tree, and bittermelon. Masks marketed as clarifying also generally work well for these skin types.
- Dry skin loves nourishing and emollient ingredients like honey and seaweed. Boost the moisture by patting on a couple drops of facial oil before applying the mask!
- Dull or uneven skin tones can brighten up and even out with masks that feature pearl, black pearl, or barley. Apple extracts and vitamin C may also help brighten skin.
- Normal skin often responds well to the refreshing hydration of hyaluronic acid or loofah-themed sheet masks.
Of course, the best way to figure out which masks are right for you is to try a few, so sampler sets of masks are often a great way to start!
Glowie Co's Taiwanese Sheet Mask Starter set is a great place to start if you want a curated set of sheet masks!
Q. Can I use sheet masks if I have sensitive skin?A: Yes, but carefully.
If you know what ingredients in particular irritate your skin, of course avoid those even more strenuously in sheet masks than you do in other products. If you aren’t sure what ingredients give you problems, start by avoiding denatured alcohol, fragrance, and fragrant essential oils like lavender, bergamot, and rosemary.
Look for sheet masks with short and simple ingredients lists. Taiwanese brand 23.5N is one I often recommend for sensitive skin, since their products purposely avoid common irritants and focus on mild, gentle formulations. And patch test your sheet masks. Cut a corner off of the mask pouch and squeeze out a little bit of the essence. Apply it to bare skin in an inconspicuous part of your face and wait a few hours to see if your skin reacts. (You can seal the pouch up with a binder clip in the meantime.) If your skin doesn’t react, go ahead and enjoy the mask!
Read the ingredients list and make sure there isn't anything in there that irritates your skin.
Q. What are some ingredients to avoid in sheet masks?A: As always, the true answer to this question is “YMMV” (Your Mileage May Vary). It really all comes down to your skin and what you can and cannot tolerate in skincare. As a rule of thumb, whatever irritates your skin normally will irritate it more in a sheet mask.
With that being said, there are a few ingredients I generally prefer not to see in sheet masks. Denatured alcohol (aka alcohol or alcohol denat.) is at the top of that list. Often used as a cheap solvent and/or penetration enhancer, drying alcohol can irritate and dry out some skin, especially when used in too high a concentration or left on skin for too long. My skin doesn’t actually mind alcohol in skincare, but I don’t like masks that contain it, because I’d rather not expose my skin to it for so long.
I also prefer not to use masks that are heavily fragranced. Fragrance ingredients—including natural fragrant essential oils—create an extra risk of irritation to skin without serving any particular purpose in most cases except some sensory appeal. Sometimes a bit of fragrance can help mask the less pleasant smells of other ingredients, and sometimes a bit of fragrance can make a mask more enjoyable (the My Scheming Honey and Vitamin C masks smell delightful), but in general, less fragrance is better.
Apart from that, it’s all down to your personal taste and your skin’s sensitivities. Pay attention to how your skin responds to different masks, and before long, you’ll know which ingredients you personally should avoid!
Q. Am I supposed to take the sheet mask backing off before or after I put the mask on?A: It’s up to you, as long as you remember to actually take the backing off at some point!
Some sheet masks come with no backing at all, just the mask sheet folded up in the packet. Others, like most Taiwanese masks, come with a single plastic “pearl paper” backing folded with the mask. The pearl paper helps make unfolding a thin and clingy mask easier. Meanwhile, many ultra-thin masks, like Lovemore silk masks, come with two backings: a pearl paper on one side of the mask, and a gauzy second backing on the other side.
The plastic pearl paper is easy enough to remember to remove, but the blue gauze backing has fooled even me. It’s there to help the thin mask hold its shape while you apply it. Once you have it on your face, however, you do have to take it off so that you can adjust the mask to fit your face perfectly!
Q. Is it true that using a sheet mask for longer than the recommended time is bad?A: If it is, then my face would have withered up and fallen off a long time ago.
Most sheet mask instructions say to use them for 15-20 minutes. I prefer to use them for much longer. 45 minutes is my ideal, and I almost always dislike masks that don’t stay moist for that long. I have consistently found that I get better hydrating, brightening, and calming results from any mask by using it for longer than the recommended time.
It makes sense. The longer you leave the sheet on your face, provided it’s still moist, the longer your face gets to absorb the essence and the more essence it can absorb. Take the mask off too soon, and you’re left with a wet face and lots of unabsorbed essence that tends to either evaporate or get wiped away.
Some people claim, however, that leaving a sheet mask on past the recommended time will allow the sheet to begin sucking moisture back out of your skin. Sounds scary, right? Yeah. But it makes no sense, because that’s not how that works at all. If it did work that way, then leaving the mask on for too long would result in the mask rehydrating itself using the juices from your skin. Our bath towels would dessicate us. Our clothes would dry out our bodies. That doesn’t happen.
The worst that will happen if you leave a sheet mask on for too long is that as it dries, the material may stick to your skin and not feel very nice to peel off. But it isn’t taking the moisture of your skin with it.
Q. What about eye, cheek, and lip masks?
A: I love eye masks! When done right, the way Annie’s Way does with their Gingko + Seaweed Anti-Wrinkle Eye Mask, eye masks are a great morning pick-me-up for the eye area. Their plumping, firming, and brightening properties can wake up and smooth out tired eyes.
Personally, I’m very unimpressed by the “patch mask” concept—those small masks meant to be used on specific dry zones on the face, like cheeks or forehead. As far as I’m concerned, if you’ve got the time and need to do a mask on those areas, you might as well just put a regular sheet mask on your whole face.
As for lip masks, I find them even more pointless than patch masks. This might be because I feel the need to sip a beverage every 5 minutes, but I haven’t met a single lip mask I’ve ever wanted to use more than once. The best thing for lips is a quick scrub (a wet washcloth will do the trick), a dab of hyaluronic acid toner or serum, and a nice occlusive balm to seal it in. No particular need for masks.
Q. What about bubbling sheet masks?
A: Treat these with caution, especially if you have dry, dehydrated, or sensitive skin. Bubbling sheet masks—the type that foam up alarmingly when exposed to air—can be fun and result in an exciting Instagram mask selfie. Unfortunately, they can also be quite drying and irritating. Normal and oily skin can generally tolerate these, but even so, they don’t generally bring much benefit. Most bubbling masks are marketed as pore-clarifying, but regular use of a good beta hydroxy acid chemical exfoliant and regular and effective cleansing work better.