Hot Dog Legs was five years ago. Oh, you remember. The sun lounger selfie, thighs held at a flattering angle, cocktail in one corner of the frame, slice of swimming pool in the other. Five years is ancient history, in social media terms, and every summer since has had its signature selfie. Last year was a score-draw between the faux-candid back-to-camera shot and that thing where you pretend to balance the setting sun on the palm of your hand. But this year’s look is the strangest yet. The hottest look on Instagram right now is a selfie taken while sporting a piece of serum-soaked cellulose stuck to your face, with holes cut out for your eyes, mouth and nostrils. The more you resemble Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, the more likes you will get. Sheet mask selfies are where it is at, my friend. Go figure.
Bella Hadid signed off the most recent month of fashion shows with a snap taken lounging on the cream leather seat of a private jet, wearing a sheet mask teamed with a Dior beret. Bella’s sister Gigi, describing her beauty regime recently, said: “Today I used a SK II Facial Treatment Mask – I looked like a murderer. It was so cute. I took a selfie and sent it to my friend.” Chinese actor Fan Bingbing has been known to wear a sheet mask while signing autographs and posing for photos with fans.
The sheet mask selfie has become out-and-out aspirational. Lady Gaga wears giant white sunglasses over her mask; Selma Blair poses in an artfully nude tangle of limbs in front of the mirror, wearing nothing but teardrop-shaped gold under-eye mask patches; Diane Kruger teams her Chanel-logo-stamped sheet mask with a super-fluffy white robe and a tall-stemmed glass of wine.
Sheet masks, almost unheard of outside of South Korea until a few years ago, are now big business. They are as key an element of a night out’s pre-game as hot rollers were a few decades ago. In 2016, sales of Estée Lauder’s Powerfoil mask rose 123% at John Lewis. In the first half of last year, sales of sheet masks were up 34% across the UK, according to research by the NPD group. The Mask Bar in New York recently opened a Soho branch in addition to its original Koreatown location, and has become a cult destination for those wanting to up their skincare-and-selfie game with a mask soaked in snake venom or placenta.
After decades of baby boomers being wooed with exquisitely presented pots of “miracle cream” promising to combat wrinkles, the sheet mask cult represents the rise of the millennial as the beauty industry’s new target market. A youthful mindset is targeted by the language of instant gratification – a “plumping” effect perfect for looking good for your big night out – rather than by claims of long-lasting impact. Most sheet masks cost about £4 each: expensive, but the sort of one-hit, contactless payment that hurts less than shelling out £70 for a pot of cream, even if the cream works out cheaper per application. Urban Outfitters sells an avocado sheet mask for the avo-toast generation, and one with panda-face markings on it, for wellness with a Snapchat-filter baby-animal aesthetic. New for this year are glitter sheet masks, bringing the glitter-smeared Glastonbury look to a bathroom near you.
Sheet masks supercharge your skin with moisture, giving an instant glow – even if, like Cinderella, your new look will vanish around midnight. Applying twice daily for two weeks and peering hopefully in the mirror is so 20th century. But the appeal is as much how the masks look while you are wearing them as how you look afterwards. (If a white-wrapped face isn’t striking enough for you, the Face Inc Sparkle Like a Unicorn mask features a pastel-striped horn and painted-on eyelashes to up your selfie game.) After the performative holiday, we now have performative me-time. A contributor to The Cut recently wrote of her sheet-mask habit that “actually feeling relaxed comes second to knowing that I look relaxed”. Of course, downtime as dictated by fashion is nothing new. Wearing a sheet mask and posting a selfie is no more self-consciously vogueish than it was to lie in a tub of bubbles and eat a chocolate bar, in the early 1990s era of those Flake adverts. Or to put your cashmere-socked feet up and light a Hygge-approved cinnamon-scented candle in 2016.
Yet there is something new and unsettling in the aesthetic of the sheet mask. The mask is a horror staple, from 1974’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre via Hannibal Lecter to the Scream masks that have become the go-to Halloween uniform of the menacing teen. The rebranding of the look as a badge of restorative, wholesome me-time is a startling about-turn – which, of course, is precisely why it flies on social media. But more insidiously, a face strapped in white bandages alludes to more than just Hollywood-does-Halloween. Seoul, the epicentre of the sheet mask industry, is also the global capital of plastic surgery, having overtaken Rio de Janeiro. In some neighbourhoods, a bandaged face has become a commonplace sight.
Many of the new generation of cult beauty brands nod to the visuals of the doctor’s surgery on their packaging. The Mediheal Collagen Impact mask sachet shows an illustration of a bag suspended from an IV drip stand. TonyMoly mask packaging features a pipette. It is a long way from the soft-focus, powder-puff aesthetic of traditional beauty. Snake venom, an ingredient in some cult masks, is a peptide that gives the appearance of “lift” because, it is said, it “freezes” facial muscles in a similar way to Botox.
In the interest of research, I tried the Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair Powerfoil mask. It took me a while to figure it out – the loops that fix around the ears baffled me for a while – and, being not-a-millennial, I hid from the postman. But even to my untrained eye, it did something. My skin looked … better. Practically camera-ready. Next time, I’ll take a selfie.