Self-care is like the penicillin of our generation. It is the powerful, albeit vague remedy we've all been advised to practice when navigating through life with its plethora of external stressors and aggravators. When perusing #selfcare on Instagram, you’ll be met with close to 28 million images and iterations of what self-care is, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the self-care industry is worth more than $450 billion dollars, according to a recent report from IRI. With beauty and wellness now so inherently intertwined, self-care and face masks have emerged as the clear symbol of the movement. Wanting to take care of our mental and physical wellbeing isn’t a new phenomenon — but how did a concept that originated as a medical term metamorphose into the application of a beauty product?
Unsurprising for those that keep abreast with the latest skincare launches, face masks are the largest growing category in cosmetics, according to a 2019 study from Euromonitor. Spikes in recent years can be attributed to the influence of Korean skincare on the Western market coupled with the mildly performative element of sharing a mask selfie on social media — but face mask usage traces back to ancient civilizations. Egyptian beauty enthusiast Cleopatra is believed to have used clay-based masks alongside ingredients such as Dead Sea mud, milk and honey which we still see today. Likewise, the traditional Indian Ayurvedic practices made seasonal masks called Ubtan that utilized herbs, roots and plants and are still used during wedding preparations. Most significantly, these beauty rituals in their respective geographical locations weren’t solely used for aesthetics purposes and were to tied to spirituality, health and happiness - known as Punya and Aayush in Sanskrit.
Even in the midst of a global health pandemic, mask sales have risen with Brooklyn, NY’s coolest beauty retailer, SHEN seeing exponential online growth. “Face masks sales have been absolutely insane, and even a bit challenging to keep in stock," founder Jessica Richards says. "I’ve seen a 52% increase in sales versus profits in April 2019. Not to mention the amount of people reaching out with questions about what mask is right for their skin, and it's absolutely lovely to engage with my amazing and loyal SHEN community." This growth can be attributed to several factors according to Arnaud Goullin, GlamGlow General Manager, as the additional time at home gives us opportunities to try our favorite skincare masks in between Zoom calls or during the time normally spent on commuting. “We all live such busy lives — working, taking care of children, trying to maintain friendships and relationships, eating well, and exercising," he says. "We often feel there’s not enough time to take a few minutes for ourselves. Applying a mask is a quick 20-minute escape and an experience that touches all the senses and delivers an instant glow that makes you want to do it again." The sales increase is intrinsically linked to the self-care facet of masks which is particularly prevalent right now, too. “Masks are a great wellbeing tool that can provide nutrition to the skin and meditative comfort to the mind with many practical and therapeutic factors behind this,” adds Sarah Brown, founder of British skincare brand, Pai.
Perhaps the phrase “skincare is self-care” isn’t just a marketing ploy after all, as several studies show that skin care and healthcare practices lead to a better mood and more positive mental health. While donning a face mask could never replace the emotional support of a professional mental health therapist, creating structure, patterns, and boundaries are key to a calmer state of being during lockdown. “Taking time for rituals or routines reinforce moments of rest and can help increase the release of all the great neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin, that make us happy and relaxed,” explains New York-based clinical psychologist, Dr. Sara Sadek, PsyD., who says that the more we partake in these practices, the more the brain hears repeated messages that self-care and wellbeing are important factors. For Brown, building a ritual around the mask is as important as the mask itself. “I'll often have a bath or read a book whilst the mask is working its magic," she says. "It provides a perfect excuse to pause and just be.”
With mask selfies acting as digital social proof that we are actively engaging in self-care, Dr. Sadek warns that this public exploitation can void us of the results our brains crave. “If doing something you love is then exploited for attention, you will quickly lose any psychological benefits from that activity, as the dopamine release one gets from the public presentation will dilute the significance of that activity," she explains. "It’s really dangerous to look at every activity though the lens of how others will react to it, and how it can be manipulated and presented.” As global social media engagement has sky-rocketed during quarantine, Dr. Sadek suggests being mindful of how that affects our self-care practices. “If you’re putting on a face mask and using it as an opportunity to post a picture of yourself to present a very curated image of someone who loves skin care and health, then be honest with yourself and understand that managing what others may think of you is probably more important to you than your actual health."
Even Joanna Vargas, celebrity-loved esthetician and founder of her eponymous salon and skincare lines, admits that social media causes everyone to focus on how something looks on the face instead of what’s good for the skin. “I’m not a person who photographs every moment of her life," she says. "I think self-care moments are fine to share sometimes, but remember it’s your time to shut off and focus on yourself instead of what people are seeing about you."
Avid selfie taker or not, with our moods collectively ebbing and flowing like never before, it’s crucial not to use face masks as psychological band-aids as overusing can cause breakouts, increased sensitivity or dehydration. For optimum benefits, Vargas advises not to overly stimulate the skin by limiting masking use to twice a week. From a dermatological perspective, it’s important to remember the function of masking. “The aim of a face mask is to deliver a greater concentration of active ingredients which are applied for a longer period of time and your skin may not tolerate that well,” explains Boston-based dermatologist, Dr. Ranella Hirsch, M.D., FAAD, citing that people are undoubtedly masking too often during quarantine. This doesn’t only affect the skin, either. “There is an environmental component to be acknowledged with a single-use product such as sheet masks,” she adds, encouraging consumers to look for masks that use recycled ingredients to increase sustainability efforts.
Astoundingly, there are over 3 billion Google search results for the term “self-care” so is it any surprise that a face mask has become the token? The seemingly innocuous 20 minute task is rooted in history, scientifically proven to release positive hormones and fundamentally, is financially accessible in a world where elitist self-care and wellness trends are often scrutinized for being a privilege. As Dr. Sadek says, “Not everything we do needs to help present our personal brand on instagram — just put the face mask on, enjoy it, be grateful you have some time for it, and move on.”
Dr. Sara Sadek, PsyD in New York
Dr. Ranella Hirsch, MD, FAAD, of Skincare Doctors in Boston