Some skin-care products make big claims—especially those that are supposed to detox your face. These things, usually mud or charcoal face masks, often have strong colors and smells that make you feel like they’re really doing something. And it’s true—they might really leave you with smoother, cleaner-feeling skin.
But does that actually count as a detox? What are these things really doing to your skin? And is it even a good thing? Here’s what experts want you to know.
What does “detox” really mean?
In a medical context, detoxing means removing toxins—poisons—from the body. In general, your kidneys and liver do a very good job of this all on their own, Melissa Piliang, M.D., dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF, meaning that you don’t need to go out of your way to detox or cleanse your body.
And it’s true that tiny amounts of toxins have been found in sweat (like urea and uric acid). But getting rid of these things isn’t the primary reason why we sweat, it’s a by-product of a bunch of other processes, Tatyana Petukhova, M.D., a dermatologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, tells SELF. (The main reason we sweat, of course, would be temperature regulation.) So, as SELF explained previously, you couldn’t detox the rest of your body through your skin even if you wanted to.
“For the most part, the skin is not a huge excretory organ the same way that your liver and kidneys are,” Dr. Petukhova says. “When people talk about the idea of ‘detoxing skin,’ it’s more about what you can do to the surface to protect your skin from the outside environment more so than clearing out what’s on the inside.”
So products that claim to detox the skin aren’t really removing toxins from your body. Instead, they’re talking about removing things from the surface of your skin, such as dirt, excess oil, dead skin, oxidative molecules in the environment, and pollution, Dr. Petukhova says.
These are things that form or can land on the skin and “wreak havoc on the local environment,” Dr. Piliang explains. Indeed, left alone on your skin, those things can definitely contribute to the development of acne and an overall dull, dry, or rough quality. They’re not exactly good things to leave on your face, but they aren’t the kind of toxins that are going to poison you. So do you really need a detox product to get rid of them?
Do detox beauty products really work?
Whether or not these products work depends on what you want them to do and the kind of product you’re using.
When it comes to charcoal, the evidence is not particularly convincing. In cases of poisoning or drug overdoses, doctors might have a patient ingest activated charcoal to draw the offending substance out of their body, SELF explained previously. So the thought is that putting it on your face will similarly draw out oil and other impurities, Dr. Piliang says. However, there really aren’t any studies showing that topically applied charcoal is any good at this.
In fact, the evidence we have for any uses for topical charcoal is pretty limited. Some small studies have found that it can reduce the smell associated with chronic wounds and that it may be useful in treating skin-related symptoms of erythropoietic protoporphyria, a rare inherited metabolic disorder.
That said, the simple act of putting something on your face and then washing it off will likely take some oil and dirt with it and may even exfoliate the skin a bit, leaving you with cleaner and smoother skin regardless. With a mask like this, you’ll get a good look at your pores so it might seem like some bad stuff is really being drawn out—but whether or not that’s actually happening is another question. “People really do think that [the mask is] drawing out these toxins and that’s not what it’s doing,” Dr. Piliang says. “A good cleanser would do the same thing.”
Dr. Petukhova agrees: “It gives you a temporary [benefit]; right after you wash it off, your skin does feel cleaner and smoother, but it’s not a miracle,” she says. “It’s not going to unclog all of your pores at the same level to cure acne—it’s not going to make a giant difference.”
On the other hand, some products that contain antioxidants might be labeled as detoxifying because they contain antioxidant compounds like vitamins C and E. These may actually help reduce the effects of environment-related skin issues like sun damage, particularly vitamin C.
For instance, in a small double-blind study published in 2008 in Dermatologic Surgery, 10 people put a gel containing 10 percent ascorbic acid and 7 percent tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (both forms of vitamin C) on one half of their face and a placebo gel on the other half. After 12 weeks, the researchers found that the halves of their faces with the vitamin C gel had a significant reduction in signs of sun damage while the placebo half did not.
Another more recent split-face study (published in 2013 in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology) found that a 23.8 percent concentration of an L-ascorbic acid serum was effective at treating sun damaged skin in 20 women.
Together, these results suggest that vitamin C in this formulation does show promise in reducing the signs of aging related to environmental factors. But whether or not a specific vitamin C product will work for you depends on a ton of different factors, including how the product is stored, the concentration and form of vitamin C in the product, and how dedicated you are to using it consistently. A dermatologist can steer you in the right direction with these, but remember that we simply don’t have independent studies for every commercial product on the market.
So, do you need to detox your face?
The biggest issue with detox beauty products is that even if they do help remove oil, dirt, and other stuff from your face, there are other products that do that—and those should ideally already be a part of your normal skin-care routine.
And reminder: “The sun is the most toxic environmental thing for our skin,” Dr. Piliang says, because sun exposure can lead to cosmetic concerns, like signs of aging, but also skin cancers. “The best thing you can do for your skin is to put sunscreen on every morning.”
So if you’re someone who already cleanses, moisturizes, and uses sunscreen regularly, there’s really no need to do a detox mask on top of that. “A clay mask may dry out a little bit of oil but there are other things you can do,” Dr. Petukhova says. For instance, if you have oily or acne-prone skin, you might find it more helpful to use a gentle chemical exfoliant or products designed to manage acne, like those containing salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or retinoids rather than a detox mask.
People with dry, sensitive skin may find that these types of masks irritate their skin because they can be drying and may contain irritating fragrances or botanical ingredients, Dr. Piliang says. So these products should definitely be used sparingly—once every week or every few weeks is enough—and with caution.
Still, if you like your charcoal or mud masks and feel like they work for you, there’s no reason that you have to give them up entirely. They just shouldn’t be the primary way that you wash this stuff off your face. You’ll get much more out of a regular, gentle skin-care routine than a weekly mask.
If you have any questions about what your regimen should include and how a mask might fit into that, your dermatologist has answers.
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