Experts explain why DIY masks might be harmful for your skin and hair

If there’s anything that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has heightened, it’s our obsession with DIY-ing everything. We’re cutting our hair, painting designs on our walls, bleaching and tie-dying our clothing, and applying our morning breakfast directly to our face in hopes of a clearer, brighter complexion. 

After seeing a bazillion Instagram posts about DIY face and hair masks, I was inclined to hop on the trend but found myself holding back when I thought about that one time I washed my face with coconut oil for a month, resulting in the worst breakout of my life. Did I really want to apply food from my fridge onto my acne and eczema-prone, sensitive skin? And what about the seborrheic dermatitis on my scalp? Is apple cider vinegar going to reduce the flakes, or just burn like hell? I decided I needed to ask the pros for their take before making my avocados a new home in my bathroom. 

Is it safe to put natural ingredients, like certain foods, onto your face and hair?

The jury is a mixed bag when it comes to whether DIY face and hair masks are safe (or even effective). Marisa Garschick, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, does not recommend applying kitchen items to your face because “the skin can become very irritated, which can appear as red, flaky, or dry,” she says. “Additionally, it’s possible that a DIY face mask can lead to worsening breakouts, particularly if oil is involved.”

Rather than applying an ingredient like baking soda directly to your dermis, Dr. Garschick recommends seeking out products that already contain baking soda in them. “Although there have been some ingredients that are also incorporated into some skincare products, such as baking soda or certain oils or fruit extracts. If you’re interested in those ingredients, it’s generally best to seek out skincare products containing those ingredients,” she says. 


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On the other hand, Ali Tobia, a licensed esthetician in New York City, believes DIY face masks are relatively safe, especially since humans have been using natural ingredients for cosmetic purposes for centuries. “It’s always important to patch test a small area (under the chin is a good spot) and wait 15 minutes to see if you have any sort of reaction,” she says. “In particular, look for redness, hives, swelling, itchiness, or blisters—if any of those occur, do not continue with the mask.”

Annagjid “Kee” Taylor, a celebrity hairstylist and founder of Deeper Than Hair salon in Philadelphia, is also on-board with DIY hair masks. “Homemade masks can be great for your hair, plus you know exactly what the ingredients are since you’re making it yourself,” she says. “As long as you pick the right ingredients, there are a lot of items in your kitchen that are very nourishing and moisturizing for your hair.” The overall benefit of using kitchen ingredients, according to Taylor, is that you know what’s getting put into your mask.

Customization is another solid benefit to DIY face and hair masks, too. “You can customize certain ingredients depending on what you specifically need more of to better treat your hair, unlike store-bought masks,” explains Taylor. Tobia agrees, stating that most DIY masks are very simple to put together, with sometimes as few as two ingredients, and you really can get great results for your skin. (Editor’s note: We’re fans of using straight-up coconut oil to hydrate our hair.)


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Are DIY masks effective?

According to Tobia, yes, they’re absolutely effective. “They can help brighten, hydrate, and even tighten your skin. It depends on the ingredients you use, of course, but many of the active ingredients in commercial skincare products are naturally occurring and are contained in items that you already have available to you in the kitchen,” she explains. “Things like resveratrol, omega-3 fatty acids, lactic acid, and all sorts of healthy enzymes and vitamins are available in things you may have on hand at home already, they’re just not already in cosmetic form—but the benefits are the same as what you’d find in a mask that you’d buy in the store.”

While Dr. Garschick touts the benefits of multiple ingredients found in your kitchen, including yogurt, baking soda, and avocado, she believes it’s best to find a skincare product that may be formulated with those ingredients rather than just using it out of the box to ensure an appropriate concentration and benefit for the skin. 

DIY hair masks work wonders in adding moisture (like using olive oil or mayonnaise), shine (apple cider vinegar), or the overall health of your hair (think protein-rich ingredients like bananas), according to Taylor. “The drawback of a DIY mask is figuring which ingredients work best for your specific hair type, including dyed hair—I advise on testing masks on a small section of your scalp if you have sensitive skin before going all in.” Additionally, if your hair is fine, you’ll want to stay away from using excess product or heavy ingredients that will weigh your hair down and won’t wash away in the shower.


Are there any natural ingredients we should stay away from using in DIY masks?

It depends on your skin type. “There’s not a list of specific commonly used ingredients that are harmful to everyone’s skin, but there are some types of ingredients that may cause negative reactions for certain people,” says Tobia. “Many ingredients are perfectly safe as long as you use them properly and safeguard against the risks.”

Tobia, Dr. Garschick, and Taylor all warn against using citrus on your face or scalp if you have sensitive skin. “Citrus can cause skin irritation for people that are especially sensitive to the high acidity that citrus fruits contain,” says Tobia. “In addition, lemons contain psoralen, which can increase light sensitivity for your skin and can lead to blisters or discoloration when exposed to sunlight too soon after.” Plus, citrus can also change your hair color (for the worse), so it’s best to steer clear. 

Spices like nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon might also cause redness and irritation. “Cinnamon should not be used on the skin as it can be irritating and some people can have allergic reactions to it,” says Dr. Garschick. Finally, it’s important to be careful when using certain ingredients like blueberries or turmeric, since they contain strong natural pigments that can stain the skin for a long time.