Like a good bra, a good face mask can be helpful. Both can offer support, relief, and even a boost of confidence when you need it most. That said, just as an ill-fitted bra can cause chest wrinkles, pain, and shoulder marks, over-masking has its downsides too. Could it be that the dry, irritated feeling post-mask is a result of using too much, too often? Or is it just the ingredients hard at work? Spoiler: It's the former. We sought out answers to our questions from two board-certified dermatologists, Dr. Jessie Cheung and Dr. Hadley King. Below, read on for their expert advice.
Meet the Expert
What Is "Over-Masking"?
Over-masking refers to applying a face mask too frequently. According to Cheung, you'll know you're over-masking if you notice your skin starting to get dry, itchy, or flaky. "Too much masking can result in skin barrier disruption, resulting in inflammation and irritation." The good news? Depending on what end result you're seeking and the function of the product itself, you can afford to mask more with some formulas versus others. "Rather than looking at the type of the mask (hydrogel, sheet, peel-off), it's more about the actual ingredients," says King. "Masks formulated to be hydrating, soothing, or moisturizing can be used more frequently than masks formulated to be exfoliating or drying"—more on that later.
Over-Masking and Your Skin
Let's face it: Masking has become a staple in our self-care routines. We'll be the first to admit it's easy to get carried away on our quest for plump, bouncy, lifted skin. But as with many things (as it relates to skincare), too much of a good thing has its risks. "If a mask has active ingredients designed to exfoliate (like salicylic acid) or has drying ingredients (like clay) and it's used too often, it can result in dry, irritated skin," says King. "If you have particularly oily skin, then you may be able to tolerate these masks more often, but if you have dry or sensitive skin, then it may be best to avoid these types of masks altogether." She adds that for those with extremely sensitive skin, over-masking could lead to flares of eczema or rosacea. Cheung agrees, noting that using face masks too frequently can create irritant contact dermatitis. "Wet skin allows potential irritants and allergens to pass through the skin barrier, which may heed a sensitivity to any ingredient in your mask, such as fragrances or preservatives."
What Is Irritant Contact Dermatitis?
Irritant contact dermatitis refers to inflammation of the skin caused by a chemical (a harsh detergent, a solvent like nail polish remover, or an acid). It appears on the skin as a painful rash.
DIY Masks and Over-Masking
If you're the DIY face mask type, you may find comfort in knowing that both experts agree that DIY masks are generally mild, as they don't contain preservatives and chemicals. However, King notes that if there are any ingredients that are potentially exfoliating (for example, lactic acid found in yogurt), then it's still possible to over-mask." And, according to Cheung, you can develop a sensitivity to natural ingredients at any time, which can also lead to irritation.
Concocting your own face mask? Especially if you have sensitive skin, try a patch test on the inner part of your arm to ensure no irritation occurs.
How to Avoid Over-Masking
To get optimal results, King says to be mindful of the function of the mask. If it's a mask designed for hydrating and moisturizing, then you have more freedom to use it more frequently (a few times a week is usually safe). However, masks with functions other than moisturizing (for instance, ones with active ingredients like AHAs, BHAs, or retinol) should be used starting once per week. And when it comes to multi-masking—aka layering face masks during one session—both experts agree to be cautious. "Multi-masking may work, but I would recommend focusing on one issue and one product at a time, and consider not treating areas that don't need those ingredients," notes King. "For example, if you are using a clay and salicylic acid mask for oily skin in the t-zone, then treat only the t-zone."
What to Look For in a Face Mask
The condition of your skin will require varying masks with different capabilities, but it can be difficult navigating ingredient labels. Below is a quick guide on what to look for based on your needs to ensure you don't overdo it.
- Hyaluronic acid or glycerin: for hydration
- Fruit enzymes: gentle exfoliation for smoothing and brightening
- Salicylic acid: for oily and acne-prone skin
- Clay: for detoxifying
- Antioxidants: for anti-aging, protective benefits
- Anti-inflammatory ingredients: to help soothe skin and decrease redness (aloe vera, chamomile, CBD)
King and Cheung agree that what you put on your skin after masking is just as important as the mask itself.
Cheung notes applying an occlusive moisturizer after removing your mask will prevent any additional loss of moisture and help seal in the beneficial mask ingredients. As its name insinuates, this moisturizer-primer hybrid features water-locking technology that creates a healthy skin barrier.
Using a face mask with chemical exfoliants? Apply a sunscreen post-masking to avoid sunburns. This one is sheer and powerful, offering broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection and natural extracts to strengthen the skin barrier as it protects.
"Oily skin that's just done a clay-based mask should opt for a light gel moisturizer or a hyaluronic acid serum," recommends King. Tatcha's gel moisturizer is specifically designed for oily skin—it'll hydrate, refine, and balance the skin without feeling heavy.