By: Ananda Mahony ND
Clay has been used as a cosmetic ingredient and healing agent in Europe as far back as the 12th century and even before then by indigenous peoples from around the world. The most familiar use of clay in the modern day is in the form of facial masks however other applications such as body wraps, baths and poultices are also common. The term relating to the use of clay is Pelotherapy which is defined as the application of peliods, such as mud, peat, or clay to all parts of the body with the aim of healing or rejuvenation. Numerous types of clay are used depending on their different healing or beneficial qualities.
Clay is composed of various mineral compounds rich in silica and aluminium, sometimes including iron, copper, zinc and magnesium and other trace minerals. The aluminium found in clay is quite different from the toxic inorganic substance used in commercial deodorants and so isn’t associated with the same risks. The two key compounds form flat layers of minute particles as rocks such as shale and mud stone are weathered by the elements. The clay layers create a large surface area which is highly reactive and due to the bond between silica and aluminium, the clay particles contain negatively charged ions. This
forms the basis for clay’s properties which include 1:
• Adsorption – This is the capacity of clay to draw compounds to the outside of the molecule and hold them there. The negatively charged ions in the clay attract the positively charged ions in pollutants, an effect similar to a magnet. This property allows clay to bind to toxic substances and micro-organisms.
• Absorption – this is the ability of clay to draw compounds inside of the molecular structure of the clay. Once inside the clays swells trapping the toxins and thereby ensuring they can’t be released again. The greater the surface area of the clay, the more it is able to attract positively charged particles or toxins. Due to this property, clay can be used to draw toxins out of the skin and reduce pus and inflammation from swellings, abscesses and cysts.
• Ionic Exchange – this is the capacity to change the electrical charge of a surface that the clay comes into contact with. This effect is quite unique and contributes to the balancing effect clay has on the skin.
Individual clays are classified by their layer structure as well as the different mineral compounds. The different minerals contained within the clay contribute significantly to the therapeutic effects. Minerals stimulate many localised skin responses in Natural skin care, such as promoting healing and tissue regeneration, enhancing local skin immune responses, help to destroy bacteria and draw out toxins. Mixing clay with water allows the minerals to be readily supplied to the skin.
The skin is an organ of elimination and as such many toxins are excreted this way. Clay applied externally can be used to help draw out and eliminate these toxins. This has the added effect of reducing the bodies overall toxic encumbrance. Process of Organic skin care such as clay baths in particular can help to reduce overall toxicity. The warmth of the bath water improves circulation to the skin and opens up pores allowing the clay to work more effectively. Facials are beneficial for localised toxic build up such as skin congestion, cysts and acne.
Along with its cleansing effect, clay can also help to improve circulation to the skin which will help to clear away internal toxins as well as improving blood supply of nutrition. Improved circulation will help to improve the appearance of the skin. Clay can have an antibacterial effect, destroying bacteria on the surface of the skin so is useful for acne where bacterial overgrowth can contribute to the condition. The high levels of minerals in clay such as zinc and silica will help provide essential nutrition to the skin externally, promoting healing and skin regeneration.
Clay has been used to effectively reduce local skin inflammation and swelling. This effect is useful in facial masks as it helps reduce skin hypersensitivity and draws out the impurities that contribute to inflammation in the first place. The ion exchange effect of clay also has a rebalancing effect on skin tissues, promoting cellular health.
There are three main types of clay; kaolin, montmorillonite and
Kaolin – gentle in action this clay is ideal for sensitive skins. It is rich in silica and is useful for helping to heal scars and damaged tissues.
Montmorillonite – containing high levels of magnesium, a three layer structure and a weak silica-aluminium bond giving it great capacity for absorption. For this reason, Montmorillonite clay is ideal for detoxification and cleansing.
Illite clay – the presence of potassium ions and a high level of calcium carbonate make this clay ideal for drawing fluids, purification and detoxification.
Cosmetically, different clays are used for different properties. Clays have greater or lesser absorbency, green being the most absorbent and white being the least. The more absorbent clays are ideal for cleansing and detoxifying congested, pimply or acne prone skins. This will help to calm inflammation and allow the skin to heal. The less absorbent clays are ideal for smoothing, softening and toning skin.
Green Clay is the most absorbing of all the clay types. Used for face masks, it draws out impurities, cleanses the skin and helps to normalise sebum production. It is suitable for all skin types but particularly useful for oily skin types and acne prone skins. Green Clay will also assist with tissue repair and calm inflammation.
Yellow Clay is rich in minerals. Used in masks, Yellow Clay helps to improve the condition of tired and devitalised skin.
Red Clay is high in trace elements particularly iron oxide, which gives the clay its red colour. Red Clay is oily and mildly absorbent working to revitalise and improve skin radiance. It is ideal for sensitive skin and skin with capillary damage.
Pink Clay contains iron oxide, silica and trace elements. It has a softening and toning effect on the skin making it ideal all skin types and particularly for mature skins.
Suitable for all skin types White Clay is the most gentle of all clay types. White Clay is ideal for sensitive, dry and mature skin types.
When using clays for face or body masks the thicker the application the greater the drawing effect. With body masks, wrapping the body parts over the clay will increase circulation and allow the clay greater penetration. Once applied allow the clay to dry and wash it away as soon as it has dried. If left on once dried, the clay may draw essential moisture out of the skin which is generally not a desired effect. Alternatively, spray the clay with plain or floral water when
it starts to dry out. Once removed, clay takes the toxins from the skin
so avoid the temptation to reuse clay.
The ingredients mixed with clay can also enhance its actions. For example with dry skin, base and essential oils combined with white clay can have a deeply hydrating effect. Enzymes from papaya or kiwi can help to break down dead skin cells so that green clay can work more effectively for congested and acne skins.
1. Brian Skinness. 2007. Pelotherapy 101. Joint Adventure
2. Stubbin C. 1999. Do It Yourself Pure Plant Skin Care. The International Centre of Holistic Aromatherapy, Brisbane.
Ananda Mahony ND is a naturopath and holistic skin specialist. Her practice focuses on the treatment of skin conditions and Food As Medicine. Ananda also owns Vitale Natural Skin care Body Care, a natural organic skin care store in Paddington.