I spent my adolescent years surrounded by hundreds of acres of undeveloped woodlands. My grandfather taught me the names of Georgia’s native trees and plants, and the uses and healing properties of different barks, roots, leaves, and flowers. At a young age, I already considered myself an herbalist, and those wild woods were my workshop, where I explored everything nature had to offer.
I always loved the gurgling brooks best; they meandered quietly through the woods, displaying bountiful, visible veins of whitish-gray clay. Being crafty, I’d dig the cool, malleable clay out of the banks and find a wide variety of uses for it.
Clay is an incredible multipurpose natural resource, and though it’s primarily quarry mined today, my primitive methods of harvesting clay from those brooks — by hand, or with simple excavation tools — weren’t so different from the methods used for thousands of years. Clay has been molded into countless items throughout history, including writing tablets, pottery, bricks, tiles, homes, irrigation systems, and decorative jewelry. Aside from material objects, it’s also been used in various methods of body care, such as deodorants, mineral baths, insect repellents, sunscreen, tooth powders, and medicines. Nearly every civilization since prehistoric times has made use of clay, and as times have changed, its benefits have remained the same.
What Is Clay?
Clay is a natural, earthy, fine-grained material composed predominantly of aluminum silicates. Substantial quantities of iron, alkalis, and alkaline earths may also be present; the variety and percentage of each mineral depends on the type and source of the particular clay. These minerals also determine the color of each clay, which can range from deep red to pale green to near-white.
Clay forms over time from the erosion and chemical breakdown of various rocks and minerals, such as shale, granite, feldspar, and lava. You can also find small bits of decomposed organic matter in certain clays. These miniscule rock and organic matter particles are deposited by rivers and streams in large masses, usually in the banks and beds of lakes and rivers, near underground water channels, or in seabeds.
Promising remarkable results for all skin types, clay is one of the most inexpensive, therapeutic, healing, and beautifying substances employed by humans to heal and nurture skin. What makes each type of healing clay unique is its mineral composition, and its ability to either topically absorb or adsorb in beneficial ways.
When applied to the skin, an absorbent clay will pull or draw moisture, oils, and toxins from the skin into itself. It’s used to clarify oily skin, dry acne blemishes, and tone and tighten slack skin tissue. If used as a mud pack — which is applied as a thick layer to the body — an absorbent clay can soothe skin that’s irritated or inflamed from scrapes, bug bites or stings, poison plant rashes, weeping eczema, and psoriasis.
A clay with adsorbent action will pull or draw things onto its surface, and will be less drying on skin. Face powders, deodorant powders, face masks, cleansers, and exfoliants for sensitive, dry, or fragile skin contain this type of clay.
Care About Your Clay
Clay is an excellent resource with a long list of topical health benefits, so how you purchase and store your clay is as important as choosing the right type. As a dry powder, clay has an indefinite shelf life if stored in an airtight, dry place. If you decide to purchase pre-mixed or wet clay, which is typically sold in a squeeze tube or plastic tub, it’ll last for a year or two before the moisture begins to evaporate and the clay dries out. The less often the container is opened, the longer your wet clay will last.
When purchasing clays, you should always take the initiative to research options before making your final purchase. Make sure your clay comes from a reputable company and is guaranteed unadulterated and 100 percent pure. When in doubt, contact the company directly to investigate the product; this type of extra research could prevent you from paying an inflated price for a lesser-quality product.
The following four clays are some of the most popular and commercially available options that are effective for a wide variety of skin types, conditions, and needs.
Named after its largest known deposit, Fort Benton, Montana, but also referred to as “montmorillonite,” bentonite is an off-white clay composed of naturally occurring volcanic ash sediments. There are two types of bentonite clay: sodium and calcium (otherwise known as “fuller’s earth”). Use the sodium type for topical application — it’s rich in aluminum silicate and hydrated magnesium, as well as many other beneficial trace minerals.
It’s considered a “swelling clay,” as it dramatically swells when mixed with water, aloe vera gel, witch hazel, or hydrosols. Bentonite forms a soothing, slippery, gel-like consistency that will absorb toxins within the skin as it dries. It can be lumpier and grainier than other clays, so be sure to mix it thoroughly. I use it primarily as a mud pack to reduce the inflammation and irritation of poison plant rashes, weeping or dry eczema and psoriasis, and as an aid in purging small splinters. When used as a facial mask, it draws out impurities from oily, combination, and normal skin.
Also known as “ghassoul” or “Moroccan red clay,” rhassoul clay is mined in the fertile Atlas Mountains in the northeastern region of Morocco. This light brownish-pink clay is exquisitely smooth and silky in powder form, and spreads well with a creamy consistency when mixed with a liquid. Today, it’s considered to be one of the most luxurious of the healing and beautifying clays, as it’s particularly high in silica and magnesium, giving it powerful skin-nourishing and anti-aging effects.
Top spas include rhassoul clay in many skin and body treatments because it’s extremely absorbent, making it perfect for clearing clogged pores, stimulating stagnant circulation, and toning and tightening slack skin tissue. It’s especially beneficial for oily, combination, and normal skin, but it can be beneficial for environmentally damaged, sensitive, dry, prematurely aged, and mature skin as well. Because of its impressive drying action, limit use to once a week, or add a bit of oil to the blending liquid to ameliorate the drying effects.
French Green Clay
Sometimes called “illite clay” or “sea clay,” French green clay is mined primarily in France, hence its name. Its pale-green hue is a product of naturally occurring iron oxide and decomposed plant matter, mainly kelp and other algae. It contains a wide variety of healing minerals, including magnesium, calcium, potassium, silica, manganese, phosphorous, copper, and selenium.
As a classic, nourishing skin care ingredient, it’s often used by spas in stimulating and exfoliating facial and body treatments because it drains toxins from skin as it dries. It’s universally prized for its strong absorptive and toning actions. Though it’s quite effective in boosting the general health of your skin, I personally think French green clay has the most powerful drawing action on swollen skin tissue, so I recommend using it in a mud pack to help soothe bruises. Blended with cornstarch, baking soda, and powdered herbs such as sage, rosemary, lavender, or thyme, it makes medicinal body and foot powders with potent deodorizing and astringent properties.
Generally known as “white cosmetic” clay, kaolin is considered the purest and most common of the clays. Its composition is practically pure aluminum silicate, with traces of other minerals such as zinc, calcium, and magnesium. The name “kaolin” comes from the Chinese village Kao-Ling, meaning “high ridge,” where it was mined for centuries.
A very fine-textured and soft white clay that’s exceptionally adsorbent, Kaolin spreads easily when applied wet–though it’s not creamy like rhassoul clay. It’s suitable for all skin types, but it’s especially effective for environmentally damaged, sensitive, mature, or delicate skin. This clay is perfect for gentle facial masks, cleansers, and exfoliants. Kaolin also makes for a soothing mud pack that treats mild cases of weeping eczema and psoriasis. Powdered kaolin is often blended with ingredients such as oat flour, almond flour, powdered lavender, calendula, or roses to add different aromas and effects. I’ve also added this powdered clay to herbal deodorants and diaper rash powders to boost the efficacy of these herbs.
Utilizing natural clay is only one of many methods of skincare, but it’s one of the easiest and most effective ways to tackle a laundry list of potential skin concerns. No matter your skin type — irritated, injured, infected, sensitive, dry, oily, or mature — there’s a clay up to the task of healing it.
Stephanie Tourles has been practicing and teaching healthy living for over 25 years. She is a licensed skincare herbalist and certified aromatherapist. Stephanie is the best-selling author of 12 books. Visit her at StephanieTourles.