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This is an image of a woman with a ponytail putting a mask on her face. She is looking into a mirror in her bathroom.

The Dirt on Clay Masks

It may amuse you to imagine that first human to try sticky, muddy clay thinking to themselves, “Hmmm ... a handful of this plopped on my face is just what’s gonna take my beauty routine to the next level!”

And although historians cannot pinpoint the exact first moment we used clay as a beauty aid, what we do know is that clay enjoys a rich and strong through line from ancient times to present, and the benefits of clay for the skin are as robust today as they were then.

A history of clay masks

The first documented use of clay and mud applied as treatments for the skin occurred in India about 5000 years ago. According to Ayurvedic tradition, face and body masks called ubtan were adjusted according to the season in which they were applied. Incorporating a mix of various flowers, roots, plants, and herbs, ubtan was modified for various skin types in order to achieve desired outcomes. Ubtan became popular across India and was adopted during religious festivals including Diwali, and the Haldi ritual during Indian wedding ceremonies.

Word spread about how clay could soften and heal skin. And, in fact, Greek and Roman ancient texts refer to clay as a natural remedy for skin problems including acne, eczema, and psoriasis, as well eliminating uneven skin coloration and stimulating blood flow to the skin.

Cleopatra is reported to have indulged in clay masks twice every week to ensure that her skin was free of blemishes and remained soft and supple. And Aristotle suggested that eating clay would also bring health benefits as long ago as 384–322 BCE. So, the ability of clay to detoxify, beautify, and refresh, when applied as a mask, are well-established.

So what is clay exactly?

“Clays are defined as soft mineral substances from weathered volcanic ash. Broken down over time, clay is formed as a result of volcanic activity subjected to environmental (physical and chemical) influences. Sourced from different places on Earth, clays differ in structure and composition and, just as there are no two identical fingerprints, it is impossible to find two identical clays. Each comes with its own unique mineral compositions—making some better for beauty than others.”

There are various types of clay, and each has different properties. Here is the lowdown on two of  the most popular clays used in masks, skin, body, and hair treatments: Bentonite Clay and Rhassoul Clay.

Bentonite Clay

Popular in skin products, Bentonite clay is often found in acne-fighting skin treatments because of its ability to absorb. Bentonite clay is particularly good for pulling in excess sebum. Bentonite clay swells when mixed with water, making it highly porous. It absorbs more than its initial mass and can also include excess sodium from your face.

Bentonite clay also displays a strong negative electromagnetic charge which, when activated by water, acts like a magnet when applied to our bodies, pulling toxins and metals toward it. That’s how impurities are drawn out. And while its ability to draw out toxicity from within the body and from the surface of the skin is significant, Bentonite clay minerals—including calcium, magnesium, silica, sodium, copper, iron and potassium—are also considered beautifying.

Rhassoul Clay

Rhassoul clay is, for many, a go-to for both skin and hair treatments. And that unique multi-purpose is one of the reasons it is such a popular ingredient in beauty products. Rhassoul clay, often called Moroccan red clay or ghassoul clay, is a type of stevensite—a magnesium-rich clay replete with other minerals. This timeless clay is mined in Morocco, and boasts a high negative charge, which means it is a mega-magnet for pulling impurities from the skin and scalp since impurities are positively charged. And despite being an excellent puller of blackheads, oil around hair follicles, and sebum plugs, Rhassoul clay does not dry out skin and hair because of its elasticity. Rhassoul clay is excellent for cleansing hair, removing excess build-up, and restoring volume, curl, softness, and shine.

Here are some of the masks we enjoy:

 

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Jill Ettinger is an LA-based writer and editor focused on vegan and cruelty-free living.