Charcoal Peel-Off Masks Are Fun, but Are They Bad for Your Skin?

Updated 10/06/19
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We can't deny the fact that removing a charcoal peel-off mask is incredibly satisfying. There's something about being able to physically see the gunk that's left your pores that makes you feel accomplished—like your skin is instantly cleaner and renewed. But just because these skin treatments are popular on Instagram doesn't mean they're popular with everyone. Many skincare experts have spoken out against peel-off masks, saying they're much too harsh for the gentle skin on your face. Ingredients aside, you have to tug and pull the mask to remove it—sometimes painfully so.

So what's the consensus, then? Are charcoal peel-off masks okay to use, or should we stay far, far away? Here's the deal: charcoal is good for your skin because of its ability to remove excess oil, but peel-off masks can be too harsh for those with sensitive skin or rosacea. To find out more about them, we turned to two top estheticians, Angela Caglia and Heather Wilson. Keep reading to find out what they say about the safety of charcoal peel-off masks.

How Charcoal Peel-Off Masks Work

Although peel-off masks are available in a few different forms, most come in a tube and apply like a gel. Once dry, the mask hardens into a stretchy sheet, which can then be removed by peeling it off the skin. Some contain exfoliating ingredients, but in general, peel-off masks are designed to physically exfoliate the skin by the mechanical force of peeling.

Caglia first heard about these charcoal peel-off masks through her 13-year-old daughter, who had seen them on the internet. "I knew that charcoal is known for its abilities to draw out impurities, but it was the hardening, pulling, and adhesive capabilities that had me nervous," she said.

Meet the Expert

Angela Caglia is a celebrity facialist and esthetician and the founder of the eponymous clean skincare line Angela Caglia Skincare.

"What these masks do differently from other masks is that they give you immediate results on the actual mask itself to see, which for many is very satisfying," Caglia adds. May we interrupt to say, see? It's not just us! According to Caglia, that "visual element" is massive for a product's marketing and popularity. "Many skincare companies these days are actually creating products around the idea that they will be visually stimulating for Instagram. This is a part of the development process as never before," she says. 

If you're going to use them, Caglia says just to be sure to "hold the skin taut before pulling," since that's "essential to not stretch the skin elasticity."

Are Charcoal Peel-Off Masks Safe?

Wilson agrees that these peel-off types of masks are better for the user experience than they are beneficial for the skin. "While most skincare products are designed with safety and efficacy in mind, there are products that are formulated with a goal of instant gratification and thrill instead of true long-term results."

Meet the Expert

Heather Wilson is the director of brand development and lead esthetician at InstaNatural.

Wilson says that continual use of these masks could even harm the skin's natural barrier, resulting in dryness, redness, sensitivity, or breakouts (all thanks to their strong adhesive qualities): "These types of masks rip dead skin cells from the surface of the skin in an aggressive manner, and along with it, they can pull at facial hair and healthy skin cells, causing discomfort or damage." 

As for their efficacy? Wilson says they can remove surface-level blackheads, though "most of what is actually showing on the mask is facial hair." That's why she recommends forgoing charcoal peel-off masks for something more gentle. "Any exfoliation that is achieved with these masks can be obtained through a variety of other products while keeping the skin's health and barrier intact. Intense exfoliation has its place in a healthy skincare routine, but it should be left to a professional. Instead, gentle exfoliation at home leads to a healthier skincare result."

How Do Charcoal Masks Work?

The experts recommend reaching for a traditional charcoal clay mask instead of a peel-off to get similar results without the risk of damage to the skin. Studies show that charcoal is a highly absorbent substance, which is why it's commonly used in skincare. In pore-clearing products, charcoal is used for its ability to bind to and remove excess oil from the skin's surface. Because it is so effective at absorbing oil, it also works to mattify a shiny complexion. For these reasons, charcoal is a popular skincare ingredient for those with very oily skin.

Some of Our Favorite Pore-Clearing and Exfoliating Masks

Origins Clear Improvement® Active Charcoal Mask to Clear Pores
Origins Clear Improvement Active Charcoal Mask to Clear Pores $13
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A Byrdie favorite, this mask fights pesky blackheads and clogged pores by drawing out impurities with a combination of bamboo charcoal and white China clay. No ripping or peeling required, this clay mask gently cleanses deep within the pores. If you're set on using a charcoal mask, this one has 160k loves on Sephora and might be your best bet.

InstaNatural Natural Peel
InstaNatural Glycolic Peel $25
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Wilson recommends InstaNatural's Glycolic Peel ($24) for gentle at-home exfoliation. Instead of exfoliating by the process of ripping off dead skin as a peel mask does, this exfoliator works on a chemical level with glycolic acid (an AHA) to encourage the shedding of dead skin.

Angela Caglia Skincare Dream Exfoliant Mask
Angela Caglia Skincare Dream Exfoliant Mask $105
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Caglia recommends using a more traditional mask in lieu of a charcoal peel-off mask as well. Try her Dream Exfoliant Mask with rose geranium and other naturally derived ingredients to soothe and treat troubled skin and glycolic acid to gently exfoliate.

The Final Takeaway

So there you have it: As a skincare ingredient, charcoal is a safe, effective choice for those with oily skin looking to treat blackheads and clogged pores. On the other hand, peel-off masks, while fun, should be avoided for those with sensitive skin and rosacea as there are better, gentler ways to deep clean your pores.

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