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The Strange Appeal of Beauty Products That Hurt

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From zombie masks to charcoal peel-offs, masochistic beauty rituals are more popular than ever.

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A woman removing a peel off face mask
This woman is screaming on the inside.
Photo: Shutterstock

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A few months ago, a video of a woman trying a charcoal peel-off mask went viral because it took her a good 10 minutes, plus lots of cursing and screaming, to peel the thing off. Guess what? Google searches spiked after that for charcoal peel-off masks, and people actually started buying more of them.

“Peel-off masks are really big right now, all thanks to that viral video... We launched our Luminizing Charcoal Peel-Off Mask with less of an ‘ouch’ factor,” Allan Lever, the founder of Masque Bar, writes in an email. “Consumers were really drawn to trying peel-off masks to almost confirm that it actually hurt! With ours, you still get all of the detoxifying properties of charcoal that cleans out your pores without the pain.”

That might be the wrong strategy, Allan. Make it hurt more.

Currently, a peel-off mask called Cucnzn Suction Black Mask ($7.99) is trending on the beauty best-sellers list on Amazon and it is the very essence of masochistic masking, at least according to its almost 600 reviews. Sample: “Be very careful with this product. It has taken off half my eyebrow before. But boy does it work. 10 stars. This pulls up stuff I didn't even know I had.” And: “So incredibly painful to get off. Drippy when you apply it. Gooey and gummy if not 150% dry. Don’t expect to get this mask off in one or even 2 pieces.” Welp, I’m convinced. (That last one was a one-star review, by the way, but it’s hard to tell the difference.)

Then there’s the so-called “zombie mask.” This product from Hanacure, a Korean brand, seemingly came out of nowhere and blew up after Drew Barrymore posted a picture of herself wearing it on her Instagram a few months ago. It comes with a vial of fluid that you mix into another package of fluid to create a gel, which you paint on your face with an included brush. Sounds like a luxurious experience, right? No.

The masochism factor is double here. First, you look like you’ve aged 30 years while it’s drying on your face. It’s become a point of pride to post this stage of the process on Instagram. (It’s the anti-Instagram: “Fuck it, I refuse to try to look perfect on this medium anymore.”) But besides scaring young children, it also uncomfortably tugs your face while it’s drying, much worse than the Aztec Secret mask or similar clay masks. The instruction booklet warns you of this: “Expect intense tightening sensation within 10 minutes or less... Don’t be alarmed! This is normal and only temporary while the mask is working.” When a brand uses an exclamation point, it automatically alarms me.

The real terror started after I removed it, though. My face was bright red, with perfectly demarcated lines where the mask had been. And it burned a lot. It finally went away after about three hours and the application of tons of expensive face oil. I was definitely not red carpet-ready. The final pain point? It costs $29 for one treatment. (Disclosure: The company sent me mine for free to try. I will not be purchasing any with my own money.)

This is obviously not a new concept in skincare. Much like in fitness, there’s an assumption of “no pain, no gain” for certain products. Tons of celebrities, beauty editors, and my boss swear by Biologique Recherche P50 1970, a product that even the doctor-owner says is too harsh.

Hell, I like a good burn-y peel, too. The Goop Exfoliating Instant Facial ($125) is one of the most painful things I’ve ever tried and turns my face pink for 30 minutes, yet I love it. Even Gwyneth knows it hurts. Have you seen those GIFs all over Facebook with her grimacing? “Wait up to three minutes and feel the burn.” She’s happy it burns you.

There are a few things at play here, I think. First of all, a thing that used to be privately done in a bathroom has now become performative thanks to social media. Sheet masks are now a big yawn, so what’s going to entertain us? A girl ripping off her facial hair with a sketchy mask of questionable origin? Sounds good!

Second, I think a lot of people are feeling a little numb right now thanks to the state of the world. Does ripping some junk out of your pores make you feel a bit more vibrant and alive? Does laughing at other people who choose to do this provide some much-needed levity? I’m not going to judge you for it.

Racked occasionally accepts products for research and reviewing purposes. For more information, see our ethics policy here.