Getting Clean by Getting Dirty

by Laura Pilati

This past weekend, I decided to rub a little dirt on my face.

My boyfriend begrudgingly enthusiastically partook as well. And yes, I realize that an alternative title for this post could have been: How My Boyfriend and I Got Dirty Together (sorry, couldn’t help myself).

On a more serious note, we decided (or maybe that was really me, and I just told him what was happening–either way, he was a good sport about the whole thing) to try our hand at making and applying some clay masks! All I did was purchase about 1/3 cup of French Red clay from the store (pure, and very finely ground, so as to not introduce any unwanted contaminants or irritants), a gallon of distilled water (it’s better to not use tap for this, since tap contains a lot of things other than just plain ole H2O, and again, we were trying to clean our skin), and then mixed the clay with about 1/4 cup of the water to get a nice, thick (but not too paste-y) consistency.

We applied it in a thin layer to our skin, avoiding hair lines, and then waited about fifteen minutes. Then, it was time to rinse it off (again, with the distilled water).

Is it just me, or is a boy who will try your face masks and smile about it just plain heart melting?

The main reason that I asked Rob to do this experiment with me is because we have very different skin types. Rob is very thick skinned, warm blooded, and has the tendency to produce oil (he is a bonafide kapha, for you ayurvedic folks). I, on the other hand, have medium to thin skin, am always very dried out, and sensitive to temperature, environmental conditions, products, you name it (conversely, a pretty strong vata). Maybe you could say that we complement one another. But for this experiment, I wanted to see how each of us would react to clay–a cleansing, yet supposedly gentle agent.

Kapha versus Vata

Towards the end of fifteen minutes, our masks had both pretty much dried out. It was hard to smile (note the photos) and talk–I was really ready to get it off of my face, but scared that my skin was going to be totally parched. After realizing how messy it was to try to pour distilled water into our hands and then wipe the clay off, I settled on using a terry washcloth to do the job. I just soaked a corner of the cloth and rubbed…much better (and less messy) results! Though it did take quite a few rinses. When I finally had all of the clay off, I took a look in the mirror and “got a feel” for the results.

My skin was definitely as clean as it could be! Let me preface this by saying that I’ve never been a girl to use facial cleansers. In fact, the only time I really rinse my face is in the shower and sometimes with a washcloth if I’ve been sweating a lot. Does that make me dirty? Maybe?? But given my skin condition, I think this is honestly one of the things that has–over the years–saved me from breakouts, acne, and rashes. I personally am much more prone to those kinds of things when my skin is wiped clean of its limited, natural oils. By leaving everything alone, I think it actually has led to significantly less irritation and oil build up (under the premise that stripping the skin/scalp of its natural oils will usually cause it to produce more oil to keep up–as I briefly discussed in my last post).

Anyway–my skin was clean and definitely smooth, but after a few minutes I did notice that it was quite dry (though nowhere close to as dry as I expected). I have to wonder if this result would have at all varied had I at least partially used an oil as a carrier for the clay. Does anyone have words of wisdom to share on this? Also, Red French clay is not the gentlest of all clays (I probably should have tried Green French clay myself). But I was still happy with the result. As for Rob? It worked pretty well on him, too–though I was surprised to hear that he felt a little dried out after the experiment, as well. Nonetheless, we did notice that it reduced the number of blackheads he had…so I think that using a clay mask once every week or so for him (perhaps with a carrier oil) would be something worth trying out. We’ll see.

But let’s get back to the heart of this post–clay! My knowledge about clay before researching for this experiment was dirt. No, really–I took a soil science class in college as part of my Environmental Science major curriculum. So I thought back about the general physical and chemical properties of clay particles, and I realized that it would be a great candidate for skin cleansing treatments…I’d just never put two and two together! Clay (in general):

  • Is the finest type of grain to appear in components of soil (there are three broad size divisions: sand, silt, and clay). But small doesn’t do it justice–clay is REALLY small. Like electron microscope small (less than 2 micrometers, by most scientists’ definition). Translation: it won’t be super abrasive to skin when you rub it on.
  • Has a large surface area, and thus a high adsorption potential (usually). This essentially means that clay particles have the capacity to pick up other charged particles, or ions. In soil science, this translates to an affinity for filtering out pollutants and contaminants such as pesticides. On your face, this means that clay can draw out tiny dirt and oil particles, air pollutants that have landed on your skin, and even bacteria and viruses!
  • Absorbs water and retains it extremely well. This fact alone explains why you should always get your soil tested before building a home. But for our purposes, it means that the fine particles make for a very good mask consistency. It can also help tighten your pores! As I mentioned, this also means that it can dry out your skin if left on too long or if you choose a clay that is too absorbent for your skin. Never use a clay mask more than once a week!

These properties are what has made clay a valuable material resource for thousands of years–for pottery, construction, water treatment, and medicinal uses. Yes–soil is not just for geologists and soil scientists anymore!

There are many different types of clay available for purchase at your local health food stores, specialty stores, and online. Although we decided to use Red French clay for our experiment, Green French clay and “white clay” were also available at Ellwood Thompson’s (a local market) and Mountain Rose Herbs sells White Cosmetic (or White Kaolin) clay, Fuller’s Earth clay, Bentonite clay, and Rhassoul clay. Each clay has its own properties and strengths, determined by the rocks and minerals that break down to eventually produce it (for example, White Kaolin clay comes from Kaolinite…). Also, though we made a very simple mask from just clay and water (mostly because I was trying to be scientific here–boiling this down to as few variables as possible), if you research clay masks, you’ll find that people frequently use oils, essential oils, and extracts to enhance their mask experience.

Clay’s medicinal uses extend far beyond facial masks, however. For centuries, many cultures used it as an indigestion remedy (and many subscribing to natural health beliefs still use it for internal detox). Now, it appears in some pharmaceutical drugs and a recent study was conducted and published by professors at Arizona State University to test French green clays specifically as treatment for flesh-eating bacterias (conclusion: yes, it helps!).

To me, clay is a great example of how we often overlook our relationship with the earth and the resources it has already provided us. One of my favorite quotes–“be gentle with yourself./You are a child of the universe,/no less than the trees and the stars;/you have a right to be here.” (Max Ehrmann) But are we more than the trees and stars? If I had told you clay’s properties without telling you that I was describing clay, what would your reaction have been? Maybe you would have thought of still more uses for it! Sometimes, I think that less can be more when we think about things in that way.

Have you ever experienced a clay mask? Or have you coerced your significant other into trying a new cosmetic treatment with you? Please tell me I’m not the only one! What other homemade remedies and concoctions have you brewed up for yourself?

3 responses to “Getting Clean by Getting Dirty

  1. Great post!!! I’ve been using Dr. Bronners soap as a face wash and from time to time I would do a microdermabrasion treatment with baking soda + distilled water at home. I’m going to give your clay treatment a go and have my hubby try it with me too. 😉

    Thanks for the wonderful post.

    • Thanks, Rona! I use Dr. Bronners as my body wash in the shower and it is also a nice, gentle cleanser. I’ve heard of using baking soda for “no poo” hair cleaning methods but never as a facial treatment…will have to try that out sometime!

      Thanks for following!

  2. Pingback: Personal Care Rituals: Bon Voyage! « Get Clean, Girls·

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