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Expert Answers to Your Questions About Peels and Masks

Our experts unmask the facts about at-home facial treatments and offer product picks.

In each issue of WebMD the Magazine, our experts answer your questions about skin care, beauty, makeup, hair care, and more. In our September 2011 issue, Lisa Basalla Mwaikambo, 30, an international public health professional in Durham, N.C., asked whether over-the-counter peels and masks actually work. We passed the question on to Rachel Herschenfield, MD, with Dermatology Partners, Inc in Wellesley, Mass., as well as Macrene Alexiades-Armenakas, MD, PhD, an assistant clinical professor at Yale University. Here's what they had to say: 

Q. Are at-home masks and peels really effective? What can they do for my skin? 

Dr. Herschenfeld's top picks: 

These at-home treatments can be a great addition to any skin care regimen. 

Peels, which contain the same ingredients as dermatologists' peels but in lower concentrations, gently remove the outermost layer of your skin, producing a smoother texture and sometimes helping even out pigmentation, fade fine lines, or clean out pores. Masks can provide intensive moisture, absorb excess oil, or deliver antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, or acne-fighting treatments to the skin. 

Acne-prone skin can benefit from peels containing salicylic acid; sensitive skin may do better with less irritating lactic acid peels or mild physical peels. Many products contain combinations of these active ingredients. 

A good, at-home peel for sensitive skin is Olay Regenerist Microdermabrasion & Peel System ($24.99), made with lactic acid. Another winner: philosophy the microdelivery peel ($65) provides a gentle physical exfoliation combined with lactic acid and is great for sensitive or dry skin. 

A good hydrating mask is the Peter Thomas Roth Cucumber Gel Masque ($45), which is infused with cucumber, papaya, and pineapple enzymes to calm and soften skin. For acne-prone skin, Murad Acne Clarifying Mask ($37) contains sulfur to treat acne and clay to absorb excess oil. 

Alexiades-Armenakas' top picks:  

The biggest difference between masks and peels and products such as cleansers is the duration of application. Cleansers are quick-on/quick-off, while masks and peels are left on for a specific length of time, increasing the amount of active ingredients that penetrates the skin. 

With peels, the degree to which the bonds between dead skin cells break apart and disappear is determined in part by how long you allow the acids to work. Due to the way peels work, it's best to use them sparingly. I find the biggest mistake women make is applying peels daily, which makes the skin become over-stressed. Peels can contribute to sun sensitivity, too. 

The FDA has standards for the percentages of active ingredients in peels and masks allowed in over-the-counter products. For example, glycolic acid and salicylic acid (often found in peels) are limited to 10% and 2%, respectively. Be wary of masks or peels with higher percentages, as these should not be dispensed without a doctor's supervision. 

The Neutrogena Clear Pore Cleanser/Mask ($6.49), containing acne-clearing benzoyl peroxide and clay to decrease oiliness, can be used as a face wash or a mask. For acne-prone skin, I recommend DDF Sulfur Therapeutic Mask ($38), which is infused with sulfur and purified clay to absorb oil and clear pores. 

As for at-home peels, Avon Anew Clinical Advanced Retexturizing Peel ($25) blends glycolic acid with soothing plant extracts such as algae, pineapple, and cucumber to gently exfoliate dull surface skin. Boots No7 Advanced Renewal Anti-Aging Glycolic Peel Kit ($24.99), a glycolic acid-based treatment, smoothes, tones, and brightens skin after a few uses.

Meet Your Perfect Mask

With so many different kinds of masks hitting store shelves, Alexiades-Armenakas reveals the most effective ingredients.

  • Emollient ingredients, such as hyaluronic acids, ammonium lactate, squalane, ceramides, glycerin, and dimethicone, help build barriers that keep moisture in the skin.
  • Salicylic acid decreases oil production and helps prevent acne.
  • Clay is infused with silicates that leave a slick residue on the skin's surface, making it temporarily feel smooth.

The opinions expressed in this section are of the experts and are not the opinions of WebMD. WebMD does not endorse any specific product, service, or treatment.

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