Despite the fact that I know full well that you can absorb tons of stuff through your pores, I’ve put an awful lot of weird stuff on my face. The list includes but is not limited to: retinol, mud, a variety of plastics, hyaluronic acid, parabens, phthalates, and most recently, a face full of actual snail mucus, which actually totally did its job well, but is also kind of inherently gross ($10.99 for 10; amazon.com).
Most of these ingredients aren’t necessarily bad for you, although there’s some evidence to suggest we should be wary of parabens and phthalates. But the plastic packaging and containers that surround the beauty products we buy are just getting poured into landfills and can enter our waterways and seafood. Broken-down bits of plastic and fiber are now found in 25 percent of all individual fish we catch for food in the U.S. So, whatever, if you were looking for further signs of the impending apocalypse, just go ahead and stack this on the list.
This is all to say that face masks are supposed to be, you know, relaxing, in addition to making your skin look and feel good, but it can be really difficult to feel really relaxed if you’re worried about all the nonsense in your mask leaching out into your body and water supply. So there’s something comforting about DIY face masks made from the stuff you trust enough to cook with (not to mention how inexpensive they are).
I’m a big fan of food-based face masks and tend to do them about once a week. I’ll change up the ingredients based on what I have around the kitchen and what skin concern I’m trying to address, but I’ve used all three of the following masks to good effect. I also checked in with a couple of people who actually know what they’re talking about (or as my delightful grandmother always said, "It doesn’t hurt if he’s a doctor,") to ensure that these masks are doing really good work for your skin. Pick the one that best fits your needs, kick back, and enjoy the fact that you know you’re not shoving a bunch of stuff you’d never eat into your body through your pores.
Avocado + Coffee Grounds + Full-Fat, Organic Milk
This mask is super-duper hydrating. Avocado also contains pantothenic acid, which can help reduce the effects of sun damage, as well as vitamin E, an antioxidant that may help prevent early signs of aging. "Avocado contains natural oils that calm inflamed skin, improve skin hydration, and help repair the skin barrier," says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
Throw in some coffee grounds and you’ll get an added boost: "Coffee is rich in antioxidants that reduce inflammation; like fire extinguishers, antioxidants put out the damage caused by free radicals," Zeichner says. "This helps explain their reported usefulness in minimizing the effects of harmful sun rays on the skin."
This stuff isn’t an exact science, so don’t worry about precise proportions of ingredients. I’ll typically mush half an avocado with the grounds leftover from my morning’s coffee until it’s a pretty smooth paste, then add a little bit of whole milk at a time until it’s a consistency I want to spread on my face. And the milk doesn’t just make the consistency thinner, either. As Deepa Verma, M.D., notes, "Milk is a wholesome moisturizer full of enzymes, protein, fat, calcium—it can help repair skin and brighten it. Even Cleopatra used it." Which is really all the convincing I need.
Oatmeal + Full-Fat Yogurt + Honey
If your skin breaks out a lot or is easily irritated by products, this anti-inflammatory mask is a good fit for you. "Oatmeal is a terrific ingredient in face masks. It’s hypoallergenic, moisturizing, and exfoliates," Verma says. "It contains amino acids, which nourish skin growth and repair, while stimulating collagen production. It also contains avenanthramides, compounds that soothe and heal dry, irritated skin."
Basically, oatmeal is a great base for lots of face masks. I usually like to grind a handful of rolled oats pretty finely in a coffee grinder, then mush it into about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of full-fat, organic yogurt, and incorporate a good drizzle of honey with a fork. I’ll let that sit for a few minutes for the oats to absorb the yogurt, then spread it all over my face (and hair, too, sometimes).
"Honey has skin-calming and antimicrobial properties, making it a popular natural ingredient in masks designed for acne-prone skin," Zeichner says. And yogurt is excellent in masks too. "It contains alpha hydroxy acid and can reduce acne," Verma says. "Yogurt also contains zinc, B vitamins, lactic acid, and calcium. These all help with hydration and rejuvenation."
Aloe Vera + Turmeric + Lemon
The consistency of this one isn’t like a thick mask, but the benefits are remarkable, especially if you’ve got some acne scarring. "Aloe vera has amino acids and two compounds called auxin and gibberellins, which promote wound healing. Aloe reduces inflammation and is great for treating sunburns, redness, and scars," Verma says. Combine it with lemon juice to help brighten up your skin (and to help with those scars too).
"Lemon is rich in alpha hydroxy acid, citric acid, and salicylic acid, which play a role in brightening the skin, reducing hyperpigmentation and acne scars, and giving an overall glow," Verma says. "The acidic nature of lemon helps tone the skin and improve its elasticity. It’s also a great way to brighten skin.
I keep an aloe vera plant in my kitchen (they’re basically impossible to kill) and will just cut off a stalk, squeeze it out into a bowl, and throw in the juice of about half a lemon and a big tablespoon of turmeric. Mix and throw it on your face. But be careful of the turmeric, which will stain the hell out of your counters if you’re not careful—but it’s worth it as an ingredient.
"Turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties, making it useful in treating a variety of skin conditions ranging from acne to aging skin," Zeichner says. "It may help prevent pores from becoming blocked, and may help skin cells rev up collagen production for strong skin foundation and to minimize the appearance of wrinkles."
Jess Novak is the Greatist lifestyle and beauty editor. Follow her on Instagram @jtothenovak.