The maskification of American skin care has happened during an unprecedented boom for the face-goop industry as a whole, both in the United States and beyond. In 2018, Americans spent more than $5 billion on high-end skin care, according to one estimate—13 percent more than the year before. The global skin-care market is projected to expand by more than 4 percent through 2025, and face-mask sales are expected to grow at almost two and a half times that rate.
In the United States, that growth wouldn’t be possible without the influence of Korean skin-care companies. For a long time, “good” skin-care products in America were expensive and old-fashioned, and more accessible options weren’t very good. Meanwhile, as the journalist Alex Abad-Santos has written, those made by Korean brands generally boasted more advanced ingredients. Early adopters in the U.S. sought out Korean products through online recommendations and skin-care forums, and demand grew as more people were captivated by the (sometimes exoticizing and orientalist) lore of the country’s skin care. By the mid-2010s, both prestige beauty retailers such as Sephora and big-box stores such as Target were picking up Korean products.
Through that proliferation, Americans were introduced to the product that has influenced the mask boom more than any other: sheet masks, the tissue-thin, face-shaped fabric sheets drenched in liquids, intended to moisturize, plump, brighten, or otherwise improve the look of your skin. “Sheet masks are a great gateway to beauty products” because they cost only a few dollars each, says Charlotte Cho, a co-founder of Soko Glam, a U.S.-based retailer of Korean beauty products. And they’re frequently sold in single-use packets, which makes the stakes of buying one feel pretty low.
Even with novelty and accessibility on their side, sheet masks’ meteoric popularity probably wouldn’t have been possible without Instagram Stories. The tool, launched in late 2016, lets users create daily strings of photos that disappear after 24 hours. That expiration date freed people from the pressure of creating a perfectly composed piece of digital art that will live on their account forever, and it loosened the platform up considerably for its mostly young, mostly female user base.
In 2017, photos of regular people and celebrities alike sporting creepy, damp-looking sheets stuck to their heads had become one of the dominant tropes of the Stories format. The journalist Anna Silman wrote in The Cut at the time that there’s “something weirdly performative about our current sheet-mask epidemic, in which posting a photo of yourself looking like a Goop-ified Freddy Krueger somehow comes to signify ‘I look after myself’—an elaborate put-on, in which the appearance of self-care becomes more valuable than the act of self-care itself.”