clay mud mask

Clay Mud Masks

Clay is an ingredient that marketers hate, formulators love, and users probably don’t think much about.  If you are trying to portray your product as uniquely natural, superlatively scientific or having some kind of special ingredient with unique properties, clay isn’t really much use is it.  It is hardly a charismatic material.  Everyone knows what it is.  There is plenty of it about.  Its not really the stuff of viral marketing.

Making Clay Mud Masks

But it gets a lot more respect in the lab.  You can use clay as a thickener and stabiliser in a wide range of products, as a base for mineral make up and as a way of delivering some pharmaceutical actives efficiently to the skin.  But for me the most interesting use is where the clay itself is the product when it is used as the main ingredient in a mud mask.  (Or, as they are very often called, a masque.  Be honest- it sounds better in French doesn’t it.)

The main ingredient in a mud mask is clay – usually somewhere between 30% and 50%.  Most of the rest is water.  The form of clay usually used is kaolin, which is mined in quite a lot of locations around the world.  It is washed using water and then dried.  The properties vary from place to place.  I think you get best results from kaolin mined in Cornwall, but that may simply be because that is the one I am most familiar with.  You can make your own clay mask with kaolin and water if you are that way inclined.

How Clay Mud Masks Work

What a clay mask does is remove oil from the skin.  And if you have oily skin and have tried one, you will be able to confirm that it does this very effectively.  The reason is quite interesting.  If you look at a particle of kaolin under a powerful microscope you will see that it is made up of millions of tiny plates aggregated together.  When preparing a clay mud mask you disperse the kaolin powder in water and apply energy to it in the form of either heat or high speed mixing – or if you want to get home in time for Eggheads both.

As the clay disperses into the water the plates separate into smaller and smaller particles, but they retain their plate like shape.  As it happens, the faces of the plates tend to be negatively charged and the edges are positively charged.  This has the most bizarre effect.  The edge of one plate is attracted to the face of an adjacent plate.  As the dispersion progresses the whole thing builds up into what has been called a ‘deck of cards’ structure.

Time for another of my famous home made illustrations.

Microscopic structure of clays

The result of this is that a clay dispersion has a huge surface area onto which things can absorb.  For instance, you can simply stir large quantities of oil into clay dispersion and it simply seems to disappear.  This is how it works to soak up and remove oil or sebum from your face.

Using Clay Mud Masks

Clay mud masks with a high clay content are the ones that really clear up the grease on your skin.  To my mind kaolin based ones work best, but bentonite is used in some and works well too.  One grade of clay is usually labeled by its chemical name magnesium aluminium silicate, but still works well.  The ones with kaolin, bentonite or magnesium aluminium silicate high up the ingredient list will be the most absorbent.   Preferably they should be second place after water.  There is no particular advantage to waiting for a clay mask to dry before removing it, and none at all to leaving it on once it has dried.  It will only work while it is still drying.  The basic colour of clay is white and it has no smell.  But most formulations on sale have some colour and fragrance to make them a bit more fun, and why not?

I’d be interested to hear what other people’s experience of clay mud masks is.  I don’t suffer from greasy skin myself so although I can get an idea about them I can’t fully feel their benefits.

17 thoughts on “Clay Mud Masks”

  1. Thank you! A really explanatory article. I have myself a very oily skin with acne breakouts from time to time. I use a clay mask, Avene’s Cleanance mask which also contains some AHA’s and BHA’s, once or twice a week and i find my skin smoother and tight.
    Unfortunately, within the next one or two days, oilness returns..That, and I have noticed that when there is a zit ready to pop up, that mask makes it way easier for that to rise.
    On the other hand, it helps to “vanish” some marks on my face, generated by previous breakouts.

  2. Thank you Colin for sharing your experience with clay. I love it and find it really good for the skin. I played with a grade of clay rich in Sulphur and found it really good for acne and also dandruff (a little messy but really helped clearing dandruff)..
    May I ask you where I can find Cornish clay?

    Many thanks


    1. Hi Barbara, sorry I have taken so long to reply. Cornish clay is easy enough to buy by the ton, but I am assuming you’ll only want a few kilograms. I have drawn a blank so far but I’ll let you know if I find somewhere. I have a feeling there will be somebody somewhere who bags up small packs.

  3. I really like Kiehl’s Rare Earth Deep Pore Daily Cleanser. It isn’t a mask, it’s a cleanser with a lot of clay:

    Water, Kaolin, Glycerin, Alcohol Denat., Sodium Cocoyl Glycinate, Coco-Betaine, Acrylates Copolymer, Sodium Chloride, Titanium Dioxide, Diatomaceous Earth, Phenoxyethanol, Peg-14m, Glycol Distearate, Sodium Benzoate, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Salicylic Acid, Oat Kernel Flour, Tocopherol, Sodium Hydroxide, Allantoin

  4. After reading those ingredients listed above (thanks Pedro) I was wondering about the ingredient “Alcohol Denatured”. I have read that this ingredient, when high up on the ingredient list, is extremely irritating to skin and can cause free radical damage. Since the Kiehl’s product is a cleanser I would think it isn’t much of a problem-but please correct me on that if I’m wrong, but what about makeup or instant tanning bronzer’s, where it is left on the skin? Two products that come to mind are a makeup foundation base and by the same company an instant tanning bronzer, where it doesn’t actaually “self-tan” you but washes off in the shower when you’re finished with wanting to look “tan”. Both of these products list Alcohol denatured at the top (I think the third ingredient listed). Thanks for another great article.

  5. Alcohol is very drying to the skin when used neat. I suppose it can cause free radical damage, but that is a bit of a dramatic way of putting it. It is a toxin certainly, but one that our body has plenty of enzymes available to deal with and you won’t get anywhere near a dangerous level from a face mask. I would guess that the role intended for the alcohol in this formulation is to speed up the drying. I doubt there is enough in Pedro’s product to do any damage to the skin of the user. I’d be surprised if there were even 5% in it.

    I am not so sure about the make up foundation or the quick tans though. People often enjoy the cooling sensation you get from alcohol on the skin, but you might well pay for it by having your skin dried out for a few days afterward.

  6. Good read – thanks. I LOVE clay as an ingredient and am just writing a blog post on the subject myself. The main problem I see is people using it in the wrong way (leaving it to dry). Once dried on the skin it seems to zap the skin of hydration and will leave the surface tight & dehydrated looking. Removing it once it begins to dry still absorbs that excess oil and also has an exfoliating effect on the skin – ideal for skin types that can’t tolerate hydroxy acids. Thanks for writing about the science behind it.

    1. @Keely, thanks for that. It is interesting that you have already worked out from using it that the clay is only effective while it is still wet. I’d be interested to hear how you remove the mask.

  7. I tend to avoid clay because from my experience, the more you try to dry oily skin, the more oil your skin produces.

    I tell people with oily skin to wash with my mild hand made soap, or a gentle face wash, and even use a very light moisturiser if their skin feels tight.

    any thoughts on this? Zoe

    1. @Zoe, yes that is definitely true for some people. I wouldn’t disagree at all. Another possible remedy is to use a light oil neat. Grapeseed oil is one I know can work.

  8. A bit late to the discussion but I thought I’d comment anyway…
    I like using the Eve Lom clay mask that actually has kaolin before the water,

    (kaolin, aqua (water), glycerin, alcohol denat., mel (honey), prunus amygdalus dulcis (almond meal and extract), camphor, magnesium aluminum silicate, sodium chloride, allantoin, aluminum chlorohydrate, propylene glycol, magnesium chloride, methylparaben, phenoxyethanol, butylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, calcium chloride.)

    I find clay masks good for mattifying and making my skin appear smoother (and just’better’?) but most that I used before this were quite drying, I’m not sure what it is about this mask that stops that.

    I tend to wait until my mask is just dry, then crumble it off (it is also an exfoliator) and rinse with warm water.

    1. Thanks for that Sarah. I think the kaolin is ahead of the water because there is also glycerin and alcohol in it. I expect it has much the same kaolin level as other face masks. What they have done is load it up with glycerol to stop it drying your skin out. Then the alcohol is there to speed up the drying time, which the glycerol slows down, so you don’t wait all day for it to dry. I think that is the main reason you like it. A lot of regular clay mask users positively like the drying effect, so I think this one is destined to be a minority taste. (Not that there is anything wrong with that of course.)

  9. Pampered Prince

    I have quite an oily t-zone so have used clay masks for years. I find the the kaolin based masks work best. Specifically those mixed with some form of vegetable oil so they don’t dry hard & crack. Those tend to be a little too drying rather than balancing. I also like masks with an exfoliant in like salicylic acid and calming / balancing ingredients like ylang ylang or lavender. Super Facials clay mask & Elemis lavender mask are two really good examples.

  10. Geneviève Côté

    I have a question concerning clay and metal. I’ve received controversial information, on one hand I’ve read that we should not mix clay in a metal bowl, or with a metal spoon, including stainless steel, on the other, I’ve also been told that this was not an issue, someone once said this and everyone followed suit and regurgitated the misinformation.

    Have you looked into this, does using a metal spoon, or bowl actually have an effect on the product. If there is an impact is it only the hydrated clay, or will it affect dry clay as well?

    Hoping you have further information related to this topic!

  11. Hi, thank you for the article. I am confused with the new way to prepare clay masks as for dispersing clay in oil and then applying on skin. Do you think this way clay is doing any work or it is just oil cleansing?

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