To Peel or Not to Peel?

I know we’ve all seen the videos floating around. You know, the ones where folks have applied a thick layer of some black goop to their face and are now bravely facing the camera for the removal process. Here’s just the most recent video making the rounds on Facebook, but if you search “peel off mask removal” on YouTube you’ll get thousands of hits.

And we’ve all watched a few of these videos. We watch their winces and screams, laugh at the situation they’ve put themselves in, and then secretly wonder if they’re just being a big baby and if maybe we should buy or make a mask too, just to try it. But should you really? Is it safe to peel these monstrosities off of your face? Let’s take a look at the science behind these masks and see if they’re worth the pain!

What are they?

The peel off masks I’m talking about are black, about the consistency of tar, and are primarily marketed as a blackhead removal solution. Their main ingredient is usually polyvinyl acetate or PVA. For context, this is what’s found in Elmer’s glue that makes it rubbery and fun to smear on your hands and peel off. These also usually have charcoal listed as the active ingredient. Charcoal is a common skincare ingredient that’s often used to soak up excess oil. Unfortunately, if you already have dry skin, this just makes your skin even drier. The rest of the ingredient list usually has some humectants like glycerin, and in many cases a ton of fragrance. As we’ve talked about before, fragrance is not the best for your skin as it can cause irritation.

The marketing behind this mask is that you can smear it on, and when you peel it off it will also take all your “blackheads” with it. I put blackheads in quotes because this is more misleading marketing and miseducation of the general public. Like I’ve talked about before on this blog, what people consider blackheads on their nose are actually just sebaceous filaments. They’re not acne related, they’re just a protective oil plug your skin has to prevent bacteria from getting into your pores. You can minimize them by using products that contain BHAs, but there’s no reason to rip them out. In fact, ripping them out, just like with a Biore Pore Strip, will actually enlarge your pores and possibly cause ruptured capillaries.

Are they safe?

Well, they’re not going to kill you. But personally, I would never use one of these aggressive charcoal masks that are so common today. As I said above, it’s essentially like putting a pore strip all over your face. I don’t want to risk broken capillaries, causing permanent redness and damage to my skin. I also don’t want to damage my skin barrier, which can cause even more problems. I talked about the skin barrier in this post if you want to learn more!

I know some would argue that the removal of dead skin by peel off mask is just another form of exfoliation, but I can’t help but feel that there are better ways to remove dead skin. You can wash your face using a konjac sponge for gentle physical exfoliation that won’t damage your skin’s moisture barrier. You can also use chemical exfoliation methods instead. This mask takes off a lot more than just dead skin and can cause serious irritation and damage. While they may work for some, if you have sensitive skin I would strongly recommend staying away from products like this.

I still want to try it. Can I DIY it?

There are loads of videos out there showing you how to take Elmer’s glue and charcoal powder to make your own DIY mask. While this may seem cheap and easy, it may not be the best for your skin. Remember when I said earlier that PVA was the main ingredient in both these masks and Elmer’s glue? That’s true, but there’s a huge caveat. The masks use cosmetic-grade PVA, which has been specifically purified and formulated to cause minimal irritation to skin. It can be found in most mascaras as well. Elmer’s glue is not made with cosmetic grade PVA. While it may say non-toxic and you can peel it off of your hands without incident, there could be ingredients in the glue that can get into your face skin and cause damage. Elmer’s doesn’t legally have to release their ingredient list, as it’s a proprietary formula, so you don’t know what you’re putting on your face. If you really want to make this mask at home, you’d have to shell out for cosmetic grade PVA, at which point you might as well just buy the mask from somewhere as it will probably be cheaper and easier.

The bottom line is this: the mask is doing something that either doesn’t need to be done (pulling out sebaceous filaments) or it’s doing something that can be done with fewer risks another way (removing dead skin). All in all, I would say that the risk isn’t worth the possible reward with this mask. It might feel good to peel it off, but before you slather it on your face, consider the long-term effects you may have to deal with. It can take weeks for the skin’s moisture barrier to restore, and those weeks are going to be painful and dry and flaky. Is that really worth it? It’s up to you to decide.


Thanks so much for reading this blog! It means the world to me that so many of you regularly pay attention to what I have to say! If you’d like to, you can like me on Facebook to stay up to date, or follow me right here on WordPress!

While you’re here, don’t forget to check out some of my past posts!

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