Illustrated by Lindsay Hattrick.


How Badly Is Your Sheet Mask Habit Hurting The Environment?

A little beauty PSA

Winter is what some consider sheet mask season. It's the time of year when clay masks are swapped out for those serum-infused creations that cling to your face and attempt to replace whatever moisture the cold air tried to suck out of your skin that day. It's self-care at its most basic; you can't even really move around while wearing one. After all, sheet masks can easily fall off your face if you so much as sit upright too suddenly, so you're forced out of beauty obligation to be still for at least 15 minutes. They're relaxing and generally effective. They're even so popular that people engage in things like sheet mask challenges, and wear one every night over the course of a week.

But perhaps most important of all is that a sheet mask asks relatively little from its wearer. Unlike other masks, it doesn't require you to wash it off once it's done its job. Nor did you even have to get your hands that dirty to begin with, like you would when applying a sticky clay mask. With a sheet mask, you simply rip the packaging open, put it on, and pop the remnants in the trash when you're done. And, they're pretty cheap, with many cult-favorites costing only a dollar or two. It's like a fast-food facial. But the best parts about the product—its convenience and affordability—is also potentially the worst.

"The main problem with sheet masks is the packaging," Alicia White, founder and executive director of Project Petals, tells us. "And because people are usually buying so many—maybe someone's buying five to 10 at a time—and all of them are coming in plastic, essentially, that is maybe lined or brushed with some type of metallic [substance] or another plastic on top of it… those things aren't biodegradable in any way. And, as we know, plastic takes thousands of years to break down. They end up in our oceans, and they end up polluting a lot." The argument could be made that a majority of beauty products have wasteful packaging, but the major difference is that sheet masks are typically a single-use product that people are buying multiples of. "If you're buying a moisturizer, we're at least getting two or three months out of that moisturizer, so we're not going and buying multiple moisturizers," White explains. "So even though we do have this plastic, at least we're using this product for a long period of time or it's something that we may refill and use for something else." As we mentioned, a big appeal of sheet masks is the low cost, but David Barbour, co-founder of Vivio Life Sciences, adds: "Some of the cheaper masks will make less of an effort to cut down on waste, so the masks that are easier to buy and [that people] rapidly use and throw away are the worst in terms of environmental damage."

The sheet masks themselves can also wind up being a problem if the material a brand uses isn't biodegradable. Thankfully, most are typically comprised of cotton or, like with beauty brand Innisfree, environmentally friendly ingredients like eucalyptus fibers and natural concentrates. Even in these cases though, when the mask portion of your sheet mask is eligible for composting, it can often be tricky finding a facility where you live. One solution is reaching out to local composting organizations to see if they accept them and White mentions that there are several compost on-the-go spots in New York City, so you can inquire in person. She also suggests, if you have a backyard or even a pot with any kind of soil in it, depending on how many chemicals your sheet mask has in it, composting it on your own.

The sheet mask issue isn't at microbead levels of concerns just yet, White says. And some brands have shifted to using recyclable material or things like bamboo packaging, but not the majority by any means. So, if you don't want to give up your sheet masking habit altogether, one thing White suggests is buying them in bulk. "That way, you're buying your sheet masks maybe 10 to 20 in one plastic container, instead of buying 10 or 20 sheet masks in single plastic containers," she explains. You can also try giving reusable sheet masks a go.

Barbour points out that the face mask market is expected to grow to 37 billion dollars by 2020 which means "more waste, more manufacturers, more environmental damage." Not to mention the fact that sheet masks aren't restricted to the face anymore. Things like hand, foot, and even butt masks are becoming more and more popular. So, we know it's annoying, but at the rate society's going, we really should be thinking about each and every step we can take to reduce our carbon footprint and, in turn, the damage we do to the environment. Yes, even if that means sacrificing a step in your self-care Sundays.