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. Some 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.
Charcoal may be 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 and a dermatologist.
Meet the Expert
- Angela Caglia, is a celebrity facialist, esthetician, and founder of the eponymous clean skincare line Angela Caglia Skincare.
- Heather Wilson, is the director of brand development and lead esthetician at InstaNatural
- Noelani González, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist and former ︎Director of Cosmetic Dermatology at Mount Sinai West in New York.
Keep reading to find out what experts say about the safety of charcoal peel-off masks.
- Type of ingredient: Clarifier
- Potential benefits: Detoxifies the skin by binding and removing excess oil.
- Who should use it: It is especially beneficial for those with oily skin. If you have dry skin, you can use a charcoal mask with hydrating ingredients.
- How often can you use it: Charcoal is safe to use in mask form once a week for oily skin types or bi-weekly if your skin is normal to dry.
- Works well with: Peptides, oils, hyaluronic acid, and any of your preferred hydrators.
- Don’t use with: Products that are irritating or drying.
What are Charcoal Peel-Off Masks?
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.
"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's elasticity."
Are Charcoal Peel-Off Masks Safe?
Wilson says 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."
According to González, while these masks are technically "safe," they aren't ideal for everyone. "For those with very sensitive skin types or those with rosacea, it can be too harsh. I always recommend doing a small test spot when you try new products, to make sure it's safe for your skin."
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."
Depending on your skin type, you'll want to look for certain ingredients in your charcoal mask. For oily skin, look for a mask with clay to help absorb any excess oil. If you have dry skin, try a hydrating sheet mask with glycerin, hyaluronic acid, or honey.
How Do Charcoal Masks Work?
"Charcoal masks (either wash off or peel-off) work by drawing out any bacteria, dirt, and oil from the skin to help keep it clean and clear," says González. 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, antimicrobial substance, which is why many believe it can be effective in skincare.
In pore-clearing products, charcoal is meant to bind to and remove excess oil and dirt from the skin's surface. Because it is so effective at absorbing oil, it may also work to mattify a shiny complexion. For these reasons, González recommends it for those with very oily skin.
Our Favorite Pore-Clearing and Exfoliating Masks
"This mask by Exuviance works without the harshness to refine the pores and clarify the skin leaving it feeling clean and detoxified," says González.
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.
Wilson recommends InstaNatural's Glycolic Peel 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.
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 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.
American Academy of Dermatology Association. 6 rosacea skin care tips dermatologists give their patients.
Fox L, Csongradi C, Aucamp M, du Plessis J, Gerber M. Treatment modalities for acne. Molecules. 2016;21(8):1063. doi:10.3390/molecules21081063
Thamke MV, Beldar A, Thakkar P, Murkute S, Ranmare V, Hudwekar A. Comparison of bacterial contamination and antibacterial efficacy in bristles of charcoal toothbrushes versus noncharcoal toothbrushes: a microbiological study. Contemp Clin Dent. 2018;9(3):463-467. doi:10.4103/ccd.ccd_309_18
Sharad J. Glycolic acid peel therapy—a current review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2013;6:281-288. doi:10.2147/CCID.S34029