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Ingredient 101: A Guide to Sheet Mask Ingredients

Jude Chao

Posted on November 11 2019

Ingredient 101: A Guide to Sheet Mask Ingredients


New to sheet masks, or just overwhelmed from browsing all the many different brands and varieties? Don’t worry—you’re not the only one. The sheer variety of the sheet masks offered by Asian beauty brands is bewildering. So many different masks! So many different claims! How do you know which ones are best for you?

As with skincare in general, the best starting point for choosing your masks is the ingredients. Ingredient awareness will enable you to quickly narrow down your choices to the options most likely to help you achieve your skin goals. Ingredient awareness can also help you avoid ingredients that are incompatible with your skin or your skin goals.

One quick caveat before we begin: Ingredients are a great starting point, but no ingredient list can tell the full story. Factors like formulation, concentration, and extract potency or purity all play roles in determining the effectiveness of any given product. So don’t think of ingredients as promises. Think of them more as possibilities, and enjoy experimenting with different masks to find your holy grail.

This list is organized according to skin concern, but in case you’re curious about any specific ingredients, we’ve provided an index below. Happy masking!

Common Sheet Mask Ingredients Overview

Click the ingredient name to jump to where it's mentioned in this blog.

Hydration Calming/Redness Reduction Oil/Acne Control Skin Brightening Soothing & Firming (Anti-Aging) Intense Moisture
Water Aloe vera Tea tree Cherry blossom / Rose Snail Mucin Shea butter
Glycerin Green tea Witch Hazel Apple / Pineapple Seaweed Olive oil
Hyaluronic acid Artemisia Charcoal Vitamin C Fruits: Blueberry, Lemon, Strawberry Honey Avocado
Sea water Mugwort Lotus Rice Ginseng Squalane
Centella Pearl Collagen
Coix Seed / Job's tears
Niacinamide
Arbutin
Tranexamic acid

Goal: Basic Hydration

Since hydration is the main effect of almost all sheet masks, we’ll start here, with the fundamental hydrating ingredients you’ll find in just about all sheet masks.


My Beauty Diary Hyaluronic Acid Sheet Mask $2.50 (Single) $14.99 (Box)

Water is, of course, the big one, the main ingredient in the vast, vast majority of sheet masks. It may seem ridiculous to include an explanation of water in this guide, but I want to take a minute to discuss it. Most of the volume of a sheet mask’s essence will likely be water, and that’s okay. Water is hydration, after all—ultimately, it’s what dehydrated skin needs. But water isn’t all skin needs. If that were true, we could just soak a blank sheet mask in water, slap it on, and call it a day.

Water on its own will evaporate rather than hydrate skin. In order for it to benefit skin, it needs to be delivered along with ingredients that can bind the water to themselves and to skin. That’s where humectants come in.

Dr. Morita Hyaluronic Acid Essence Sheet Mask $2.25 - $18.00

There are two main humectants you’ll see time and time again in sheet masks. The first is glycerin, and the second is hyaluronic acid. Glycerin and hyaluronic acid molecules are used for their ability to hold many times their own molecular weight in water. They’re also inexpensive and easily sourced. There are several different forms of hyaluronic acid, all with the same basic humectant properties; some of the more typical ones are sodium hyaluronate and hydrolyzed hyaluronic acid.

Annie's Way Hyaluronic Acid + Seaweed Hydrating Sheet Mask $3.25 (Single) $24.00 (Box)

You may sometimes also find sea water listed separately from regular water in a sheet mask’s ingredients list. The actual benefits of sea water when compared to regular water are pretty debatable, but theoretically, sea water may contain additional micronutrients that benefit skin, most likely through antioxidant activity. I’m a sucker for fancy sea water myself, so I never complain when I see it in a mask.

Goal: Calming and redness reduction

Is your face suffering from inflammation? A good calming sheet mask could be just what you need to soothe and reduce redness, leaving your skin calmer, more comfortable, and more even-toned. And plenty of anti-inflammatory ingredients exist to help bring your skin’s temperature down to normal.

My Scheming Aloe Soothing Hydrogel Sheet Mask $4.50 (Single)

Some redness reducers will be familiar even to most sheet mask newbies. Aloe vera is used more or less globally for its purported cooling, soothing, and healing effects on skin, making it an easy choice for a calming mask. Green tea also shows up in many calming masks. Its additional clarifying effects may also help balance oilier skin while reducing redness and swelling. 

Annie's Way Green Tea Bubble Tea Mask $3.25 (Single) $13.00 (Box)

Traditional herbal remedies have become popular in Asian skincare, so you’ll also find some of these in sheet masks. Similar to tea tree, mugwort (also known as artemisia) contributes antimicrobial action along with soothing and healing effects to supplement an anti-acne regimen. Centella asiatica, meanwhile, purportedly offers strong skin healing abilities along with its anti-inflammatory properties.

Goal: Oil and/or acne control

For the most part, sheet mask ingredients that calm inflammation will also help to reduce the swelling and redness of active acne. There are a few ingredients particularly suited for acne or for generally oily skin, however.

Annie's Way Tea Tree + Burdock Anti-Acne Sheet Mask

Natural acne remedy tea tree appears in masks targeted at acne-prone skin. Tea tree adds potentially strong antimicrobial properties to its anti-inflammatory benefits for a more intensive treatment. The astringent properties of witch hazel can balance oily skin for a more matte, soft appearance. 

My Scheming 3-Step Blackhead Removal Mask Pack $5.00

And sheet masks that include charcoal in their essences or incorporate charcoal into the mask sheets themselves help absorb excess sebum. Lotus extracts are also used for their clarifying and oil-balancing potential.

Goal: Skin brightening

This one is a big one. Skin brightening, whether to fade hyperpigmentation or to even out and lighten up overall skin tone, is a huge deal in the Asian beauty industry. You’ll find all kinds of brightening masks, ranging from ones that focus on natural ingredients to ones that go all in with clinical and synthetic active ingredients.

Before we get into the main brightening ingredients you’ll find, however, I want to take a minute to manage expectations. For more serious and long-term brightening goals, like lightening dark spots, sheet masks probably won’t be your answer, unless you use the same one every day. Consistency and time are key to reducing hyperpigmentation. Where sheet masks can help is with giving a temporary boost of overall brightness to skin. Keep that in mind as you decide where these types of masks fit into your general routine.

My Scheming Beauty Lab Series Apple Brightening and Hydrating Sheet Mask
$2.50 (Single) $11.00 (Box)

Fruit extracts are popular for brightening. The brightening claims of fruit extracts typically rest on the exfoliating potential of the enzymes in fruits like pineapple and the natural AHA content in apples. The very gentle exfoliation that a pineapple or apple sheet mask could provide will surface fresher and brighter skin.

Annie's Way Peptide + Rose Rejuvenating Mask $3.25 (Single) $23.00 (Box)

Meanwhile, since vitamin C is well known for its brightening capabilities, other masks use vitamin C-rich fruits like blueberry, lemon, and strawberry to support brightening claims. The potential vitamin content of some flower extracts also makes them common ingredients in brightening masks. Some you might see are cherry blossom (sakura) and rose extracts.

Also in the natural category, rice is a well known brightening ingredient that’s been used for beauty purposes throughout Asia since ancient times. Pearl has a long history as a cosmetic as well, and I like pearl sheet masks, though I often suspect the radiance these provide comes partly from the physical properties of pearls! And finishing off the “natural brighteners” category, Job’s tears/coix seed extracts show up most often in Taiwanese sheet masks and provide a translucent effect to skin.

Since brightening is such a big deal in Asian cosmetics, you’ll also find a variety of masks that use more research-backed synthetic or lab-derived ingredients as well.

Niacinamide is arguably the most common. You won’t usually see it listed as the “star” ingredient on a sheet mask’s packaging, but you will often find it listed alongside those more fun-sounding natural extracts. In the long term, niacinamide helps to fade dark spots and even out skin tone; in the short term, its anti-inflammatory effects contribute to a brighter and healthier overall skin appearance.

Vitamin C, usually used in its ascorbic acid form, is known for its brightening and anti-aging properties. Arbutin, a close but far gentler chemical cousin of the controversial skin-lightening agent hydroquinone, comes from mulberries and other plants and shows up in many Korean brightening masks. Tranexamic acid, meanwhile, is a pigment-lightening peptide that you’ll find most frequently in Taiwanese and Japanese products.

Vitamin C, arbutin, and tranexamic acid all have research backing their effectiveness at fading and preventing excess skin pigmentation, but I generally don’t seek them out in sheet masks. Actives like these are meant for consistent, long-term use, rather than for the quick-fix, instant results expectations of a mask.

That doesn’t mean that masks that contain these ingredients don’t work, though. It just means that while there may be some benefits to getting more of these in your skin, the immediate improvements you see after using a mask will most likely be due to other ingredients in the formula. Remember, it’s the overall formulation rather than any one ingredient that will do the heavy lifting for you!

Goal: Smoothing and firming (aka anti-aging)

As a skincare addict who’s just a few months short of turning forty, I am very into smoothing and firming masks, and I’ve developed a list of my favorite ingredients to achieve my texture goals. This section primarily contains emollient ingredients. Emollients are moisturizing ingredients that fill in the microscopic cracks and crevices between the cells at the surface of your skin, allowing it to look and feel smoother and firmer.

My Scheming Gold Snail Essence Hydrating Black Sheet Mask $2.00 (Single) $14.00 (Box)

I’ll start with snail mucin, because snail mucin continues to be my favorite skincare ingredient of all time. With both humectant and emollient properties as well as strong potential to repair both wounds and sun damage, it’s a skincare superstar.

Annie's Way Ginkgo + Seaweed Anti-Wrinkle Eye Mask $3.25 (Single) $24.00 (Box)

Coming in at a close second to snail in this category is seaweed. I first noticed seaweed extracts’ effects years ago—when I use a good seaweed mask or product, my skin looks instantly firmer and more resilient, with a healthy glow. Seaweed extracts (and algae and sea kelp too) are strongly emollient but lightweight, making them ideal for providing extra smoothness without a heavy residue.

Honey and ginseng are also favorites of mine for creating an instantly refreshed and youthful look. Honey nourishes and moisturizes deeply, while ginseng firms while increasing circulation for a lively glow.

Collagen remains popular in firming products, but let’s be clear here: putting collagen on your face will not cause the collagen to enter into your skin, join with your own age-depleted collagen stores, and take years off your face that way. In the first place, that’s not how collagen synthesis works. In the second place, collagen molecules are too big to enter skin anyway. Instead, collagen works as a temporary firming ingredient by forming a light film that can help skin look a bit tighter. It’s also a decent moisturizing ingredient.

Goal: Intense Moisture

Last on the list is intense moisture. We’re talking rich, rich moisture for the driest of skin or the driest of weather. When your skin is ultra-parched, you’ll want to reach for either a very rich sheet mask, or a dab of oil under your sheet mask.

If you want to get it all in one shot, look for sheet masks that contain oils or butters near the top of the ingredients lists. Some popular ones are shea butter, olive oil, and avocado oil, all of which will help replenish any lipids that are lacking in the upper layers of skin, helping it feel more comfortable and allowing your skin to hold on to its own natural hydration for longer. Squalane is another excellent choice for barrier support and repair.

The most moisturizing sheet masks often come with a creamy, rather than watery, essence. If the mask doesn’t specifically state that it’s creamy on the packaging, your best bet is to check the ingredients. Creamy masks typically have their richer ingredients, like oils and butters, high on the ingredients list and often include additional moisturizers like caprylic/capric triglyceride as well as fatty alcohols like cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, and stearyl alcohol. These types of masks typically hydrate less than watery masks but moisturize far more. In fact, sometimes you can skip the cream after one of these.

And that’s it for this long list of sheet mask ingredients and what they do! It’s a lot to take in, but once you’ve figured out your own skin goals and starting point, experimenting and exploring can be a lot of fun. Take note of which ingredients sound right for you and start browsing—better skin could be just one mask away!

Appendix

Sheet Mask Ingredients mentioned in this article in alphabetical order. Click below to jump to the section where they are mentioned.

  • Aloe vera
  • Arbutin
  • Artemisia
  • Avocado
  • Apple
  • Blueberry
  • Centella
  • Charcoal
  • Cherry blossom
  • Coix seed/job's tears
  • Collagen
  • Ginseng
  • Glycerin
  • Green tea
  • Honey
  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Lemon
  • Lotus
  • Mugwort
  • Niacinamide
  • Olive oil
  • Pearl
  • Pineapple
  • Rice
  • Rose
  • Sea water
  • Seaweed
  • Shea butter
  • Snail
  • Squalane
  • Strawberry
  • Tea tree
  • Tranexamic acid
  • Vitamin C
  • Water
  • Witch Hazel
  • More Posts

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