It seems that cleansers, toners and moisturisers have taken over in the skin care field over the last few years. But what about the humble face mask? Yes, you may look more ‘horror movie’ than ‘Hollywood glamour’ while it’s on, but 10 minutes later and you might not even need those other products! The bright sparks behind the Japanese brand SK-II have come up with their SK-II Facial Treatment Mask which has been exciting the beauty world. It comes as a cotton-cloth mask saturated with vitamins and minerals that are meant to leave your face positively glowing. Unfortunately, a hefty price tag comes included too, so The Geeks are here to suss out the science and see if it’s worth investing!

The Claims
Some bold claims are made of this somewhat-scary looking mask. SK-II propose that it can immediately replenish dehydrated skin leaving it refreshed and cool, while also working to revitalise and comfort the skin for that fresh-face feeling. It’s meant to be Cate Blanchett’s secret to a flawless complexion, but can the science back up the claims?

The Science behind the Bottle
Back in the 1970s a chance observation at a sake brewery led to the main ingredient in most of the SK-II products. It was noticed that the elderly workers of the brewery had wrinkled faces that showed their age, but smooth young-looking hands (all the best science is done by accident, right?). Science can seem so magical sometimes but there is quite a simple explanation behind their age-defying hands. The workers had been submerging their hands in the fermented yeast while making the sake (Japanese alcohol made from fermented rice). The by-product of the fermentation process is a clear, nutrient-rich liquid thought to work wonders on the skin!

This led to the production of ‘Saccharomycopsis Ferment Filtrate’, sometimes referred to as ‘Galatomyces Ferment Filtrate’, or ‘Pitera’ to SK-II employees (we can see why they went for the name change). This isn’t just one molecule but a whole host of vitamins, amino acids and minerals which work together on the skin.

Pitera and the Skin Barrier
The outermost layer of the skin (the epidermis) is what we depend on to protect ourselves against environmental stresses from the big bad world around us. This includes UV-induced photodamage of the skin, as well as other damaging external stresses and even water loss. This physical barrier owes its effectiveness to the differentiation (specialisation) of cells called keratinocytes in the skin. The differentiation of the cells results in the expression of structural proteins, helping support the structure of the skin itself.

The complex Pitera mixture has been found to control the differentiation of these keratinocyte cells, but researchers aren’t quite sure exactly which of the biological components in the mixture cause this effect. The yeast extracts contained in Pitera also cause the keratinocytes to stick to nearby cells and make organised structures which are able to enhance the renewal of the epidermis (the upper layer of the skin). Rejuvenated skin here we come!

Pitera has also been shown to increase the levels of protein called caspase-14 in skin cells grown in the lab. Caspase-14 is used as a marker of good skin barrier function in the uppermost layers of the skin, indicating that Pitera has properties beneficial for maintaining this important function of the skin. Other studies assessing the skin barrier functional effects, using different markers, also support this beneficial property. These studies also showed that treatment of cells with Pitera decreased the damage in epidermal cells induced by agents like hydrogen peroxide which are known to disrupt barrier function. So even more science-savvy power to protect the skin against outside stresses or dryness keeping it hydrated and fresh looking.

The treatment mask (and all SK-II products for that matter) focuses on Pitera as its star ingredient, but what else is used to make this mask worthy of our consideration as a beauty must have? The rest of the ingredients are mainly lightweight and moisturising, designed to absorb quickly into our skin, so let’s place a few of those under our microscope.

Butylene glycerol is used in a whole host of cosmetic products and we have a pretty good idea as to why. This molecule acts as a humectant which means it has the ability to take moisture from the air and retain it to keep your skin from drying out. Humectants are some of the most common skin care ingredients around, so they’re not what we’re splashing the cash for, but it’s nice to know we’ve got the moisture side of things covered too.

Although not directly claiming to be an anti-ageing product, the advertisement of the products of elderly people with young hands suggests that it helps. (Check out their adorable advert if you haven’t already!).

The formula list includes sodium salicylate, a salt which has been found to increase fibrillin and collagen-I which make up a key network of molecules that keep your skin cells firm and protected. These molecules are used as ‘anti-ageing biomarkers’ in research to indicate anti-ageing skin benefits. Research has also shown that sodium salicylate can decrease wrinkle depth leading to reduced visibility of any fine lines, as well as improving any skin roughness – all good stuff for a simple salt! The mechanism of exactly how sodium salicylate works isn’t completely understood, but it is thought to be due to the exfoliating effects this salt has on the upper skin cell layers.

Sodium salicylate is actually being explored as an alternative to salicylic acid, a commonly used cosmetic ingredient which we’ve come across in products before. Salicylic acid use on the skin is sometimes associated with side effects like skin irritation, and it’s hoped that sodium salicylate confers similar anti-ageing benefits with reduced risk of these side effects.

The Verdict
Having based a whole cosmetic line on the use of the natural ingredient Pitera, we really were expecting great things from this facial treatment mask. One thing is for sure – it certainly has an interesting back story. We were happy to find that there is scientific evidence to support this interesting ingredient.

What we couldn’t find were big studies looking at its use on ageing human skin – what we really want to see is it being tested against a dummy-ingredient to see if it really packs a visible skin care punch! Without this data, we’re just left with the lab studies and anecdotal evidence. The other ingredients present offer some promising benefits of moisturised fresh looking skin and the reduction of fine lines or wrinkles, but with these ingredients present in so many other facial cosmetics, we’re not convinced it’s really worth the £86 investment for a pack.

While scouring the internet we read that the mask can be used twice if you keep the liquid in the bottom of the package after use and keep the mask upright in a sealed bag. Telling ourselves that we could maybe use them twice may ease the pain of our sad bank cards.

So as promising as this product may sound we’d like to see just a bit more evidence before we go running out to buy this pricey SK-II Facial Treatment Mask. It’s worth bearing in mind you get 10 masks in a pack (at possible 2 tries per mask, that’s up to 20 treatments – less than a fiver each), so maybe our money will go further than we think. If you have already tried it why not get in touch and let us know what you thought, but for now we remain a little more sceptical!

To get your hands on you Treatment Mask, click  

“Up-Regulation of Tight Junction-Related Proteins And Increase of Human Epidermal Keratinocytes Barrier Function by Saccharomycosis Ferment Filtrate”
“Effects of galactomyces ferment filtrate on epidermal barrier marker caspase-14 in human skin cells”
“Humectants (Moisturizing Agents)”
“Three clinical studies showing the anti-aging benefits of sodium salicylate in human skin.”
Caspase-14 is required for filaggrin degradation to natural moisturizing factors in the skin.
Image (thank you!):