Putting Your Best Face Forward
How to make your own facial masks

By Julie Stafford

Anyone who has ever spent serious time in a spa or salon knows that getting a facial can be the ultimate indulgence. You recline comfortably in a full-length chair while someone gently covers your eyes with cold compresses. A dewy mask is smoothed onto your face to moisturize and soothe your skin. Then a warm steam blows gently on your face while the mask goes to work, and you lie back and daydream about how good your skin will feel—and look—when this luxurious experience is over. Unfortunately, many people have neither the time nor the money for a regular visit to a local skin-care salon. That's what makes it an indulgence. But, the good news is you can create your own spa experience at home. In fact, do-it-yourself facial masks using natural ingredients save both time and money. Janice Cox, author of three beauty books, including her most recent, Natural Skin Care From the Garden (Henry Holt & Company, 1999), says "Chances are, you have everything you need at home to make a mask (see sidebar)."

The beauty of facial masks is more than skin deep. Not only do they help deep-clean the skin by removing dead skin cells, drawing dirt from pores and helping skin become more receptive to moisture, they have emotional benefits as well. Harold Brody, M.D., an Atlanta-based dermatologist says the bottom line is that facial masks make your skin feel better. And that's important, agrees Cox. "But they're also nice for their mental benefits," she says. "You're taking 10­15 minutes out of your day to do something for yourself."

Covering The Basics
Before applying a mask, it's important to pull your hair away from your face and prepare your skin. First make certain your skin is clean, and use warm water when cleansing to help open skin pores. Karen Torres, an aesthetician in Austin, Texas, says she usually applies her masks soon after she steps out of the shower. "I'm a working mom," she says. "I shower and steam my face, and when I get out, I put on a clay mask. Then I get my coffee, leave the mask on for about 10 minutes, cleanse my face, and I'm done."

Steaming your face—be it in the shower or over a bowl of warm water—helps loosen dead skin cells and makes it easier for a mask to penetrate a little deeper, says Torres. For an added treat, try adding a drop or two of rose water to your source of steam.

When applying a mask, it's always important to use gentle strokes. You don't want to pull your skin, as it will stretch it. While the easiest way to apply most masks is with clean fingertips, you may prefer using a soft pastry brush or a soft sponge. And because the skin around the eyes and mouth is so delicate, Cox recommends avoiding these areas when applying your mixture.

If you have never used a facial mask, Torres recommends an application once a week until you see improvement, which takes about a month. Then try a once-a-month schedule. If your skin is oily, beware: Using masks to help dry your skin can actually cause it to produce more oil. Use a facial mask that specifically targets oily skin, such as the Love Apple Mask below.

Before You Begin
Before applying any facial mask, test it on a small patch of skin, especially if you have food allergies. Cox says there's a good chance that if you react to a food when you eat it, you'll react to it if you put it on your face. In addition, if you have eczema you should avoid masks because they can further irritate your skin, says Brody.

While some experts will tell you that most masks are appropriate for all skin types, Cox warns that because tropical fruits such as papaya are acidic, they should be used with caution on those with sensitive skin. While the majority of masks can be left on your face from 10­20 minutes, masks that include papaya or pineapple should be limited to 5 minutes.

When it comes to making your own masks, it's also important to use the freshest ingredients to avoid infecting your face with bacteria. And remember to refrigerate any leftover product. Most masks will keep in the refrigerator one to two weeks, but if your concoction begins to look or smell strange, throw it away. It's best to mix your recipe fresh before each use.

Once you get to know the benefits of various ingredients, you can create your own mixtures to meet your skin's particular needs. Here are several recipes to get you started.

Fresh Strawberry Mask

1/2 cup fresh strawberries
1 tablespoon fresh milk
1 tablespoon rice flour or cornstarch

This is an excellent skin-softening mask. Mix together all ingredients to make smooth paste. Spread over face and neck, and let it remain for 20 minutes. Rinse with warm water, and pat skin dry. Refrigerate any leftover mask, and discard if milk sours.

All-Around Mask

1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 teaspoon fuller's earth (found at health food stores—or you can substitute kaolin, found at ceramic dealers)
1/2 teaspoon honey
2 drops of chamomile oil

A great mask for oily skin, but appropriate for all skin types. Using spoon, blend ingredients together. Apply more generously for dry skin. Leave on for 10 minutes. Rinse with warm water, and pat dry.

Love Apple Mask

2 tablespoons yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon French green clay, or any clay
1 tablespoon fresh tomato juice
1 tablespoon distilled water

A refreshing, cleansing mask that's especially helpful for troubled or oily skin. For sensitive skin, use the less-acidic juice from a yellow tomato. In glass or ceramic container, mix together all ingredients and stir well until paste is smooth. Spread on face, gently massaging with fingertips. This helps exfoliate dead skin cells and other surface impurities. Leave mask on for 10-15 minutes, rinse with warm water, and pat dry. Discard any leftover mask.

Herbal Tea Mask

3 ounces herbal tea, brewed
3 ounces glycerin
1/2 ounce pectin (dry)

This soothing mask can be adjusted for all skin types. For dry, sensitive skin, use chamomile tea; for oily skin, use peppermint tea; for acne skin, use comfrey root, which can be found in tea bags or in the bulk herbs section of your natural foods store. To prepare mask, stir glycerin as you slowly add pectin powder. When pectin is blended into glycerin, slowly add herbal tea, stirring constantly. Mask should thicken in 5-10 minutes. Let stand in refrigerator overnight. Spread on face, and let sit for 10 minutes. Rinse face with warm water, and pat dry.

Beauty Queen Mask

1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon almond oil
1 teaspoon vitamin E oil

You'll truly feel like royalty after this luxurious treatment, the ideal moisturizing mask for dry, flaky skin. To mix, place all ingredients together in bowl, and stir until smooth. Spread and leave on face for 15 minutes. Rinse with warm water, and pat skin dry.

Julie Stafford is a freelance health and fitness writer based in Niwot, Colo.