Clay face masks

Who knew clay was so useful in skincare.

For my next DIY cosmetics post, let’s explore the world of cosmetic clays. As you probably know, clay is the common name for different mixtures of minerals found allover our planet and it’s also the predominant material we use for pottery. Clay forms over time as a result of rock erosion and chemical weathering and humans have been using it in many different ways since the dawn of our existence. Well, naturally the cosmetic industry has found a use for it too.

You can find certain types of clay microparticles mixed in with shower gels, deodorants, shampoos and other products, but you can also make a simple, efficient, natural and practically zero waste clay facial mask at home to help with your specific skin needs. The main benefit of clay is its ability to adsorb and absorb due to a high cation exchange capacity. Adsorption in this case is a physical process where weak interactions are formed between the clay and another substance, causing it to adhere (stick) on the surface of the clay. The main difference between adsorption and absorption is that adsorption only happens on the surface, while absorption means that a substance takes another substance into its volume, like oxygen dissolving in water. In terms of your skin that means that the clay can bond with all the dirt, excess oils and everything else that could potentially clog your pores, which is then removed with the clay when you wash it off.

Three main types of clay are normally used in cosmetics because of their mineral composition and properties: Kaolinite, Illite, and Smectite (Montmorillonite). They come in different colours from allover the world and mainly differ in their cation exchange capacity and absorption strength. Stronger clays will absorb more unwelcome stuff from your skin and power clean your pores, but they’ll also strip the skin of its natural oils and can dry it out, so you’ll want to pick the right one for your skin type.

Types of clay

Here’s a brief overview of different popular clays and their properties, but you can use a more detailed guide to choose:

  • White kaolinite clay: Kaolin clay is the mildest of all clay types and suitable for all skin types. It has a high silica content and only adsorbs, so it should remove impurities without drying the skin, as well as exfoliate and improve circulation. It will leave your skin feeling smooth and glowing and might even make your pores seem a bit smaller.
  • Red illite clay: This one has a high iron oxide content is suitable for all skin types, but it’s best used for ageing skin with broken capillaries. It will improve skin texture and circulation and have a sort of revitalizing effect on tired, sallow skin. Don’t expect miracles though.
  • Green French clay: This is another illite clay, which was first mined in France. It’s suitable for all skin types and has a relatively good absorption strength, so it will remove impurities and also give you a slight firming effect as it dries.
  • Fuller’s earth and bentonite clay: Both of these have very strong absorption properties and are best used on oily or acne-prone skin. They’ll take out your blackheads and everything else over time, but they will also take away all the skin oils, so you’ll need to use a moisturiser after for sure.

Since I like to mix and match, I’ve got 2 prepared mixtures that I use for clay face masks every 14 days or so, depending on what’s going on with my skin:

  • The bad acne skin option: Fuller’s earth + activated charcoal + ground kelp seaweed
    This one packs a punch and will clean off your whole face, so I only use it when my pores get very clogged. Both Fuller’s earth and activated charcoal have strong absorbing properties and exfoliate, while kelp helps improve circulation and calm inflammation (it contains iodine though, so watch out if that’s a problem for you).
  • The nice skin option: White kaolin clay + red Australian illite clay + green tea extract powder
    This one is for maintenance face masks, for when I want to clean my pores and revitalise my skin. Both white and red clay are good for improving circulation and skin texture while green tea extract has anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory properties.
  • I also like to use only white clay once in a while, because it leaves my face feeling spectacular.

Just to be clear, I probably wouldn’t mix and match quite so much if I didn’t have all these random ingredients at home because of other stuff I make (i.e. I got kelp and red clay as a gift when I bought ingredients over a certain amount), so a clay face mask made of only 1 type of clay is perfectly fine and still very effective.

How to use a clay face mask

Mix 1 teaspoon of clay with 1 teaspoon of water to form a thick paste, then let it sit for 5 minutes for the clay to absorb the water a bit. Spread on your face with your fingers or a brush and leave it on until it starts to dry (3-5 minutes). The clay only absorbs for as long as it’s still wet, so wash it off when it stops feeling wet and starts to kind of constrict a bit. Don’t let it dry out completely, because it will suck all the moisture out of your skin (not desirable) and bits of powder will fall off your face allover the place.

You can also use a hydrosol (flower water) instead of a water for your face mask if you want to add some fancy flower properties too, as well as different oils (be careful with essential oils, because they can irritate your skin) or additional ingredients like aloe vera gel, honey, oatmeal, flaxseeds or other cosmetic ingredients, but that’s if you want to make it complicated. I find that simplicity works just as well, although it’s nto as fancy. Also, some of these clays are very pigmented, red in particular, so don’t be alarmed if your face will look a bit red, I promise it will wash off. It also successfully washes off your towels if you get it on them.

By the way, as a true cheese lover I use a small ceramic pot that one of the stinky French cheeses was packaged in for my face masks.

Final word of advice, if your skin feels very tight, dry and constricted after using a clay face mask, you chose a too strong clay and should pick another one. I use clay face masks about every 10 – 14 days, but the usual recommendation is up to once per week. You can usually buy cosmetic clay in 50 g packages, which is like a year’s worth of clay for face masks. They cost about 2-6 € per package here in Slovenia, so most types are quite cheap and you can experiment a bit to find the right type. If it doesn’t suit your skin, pass it on to a friend, use it in a body scrub, add it to a DIY soap or even use it to fertilise your plants.

Some people also like to use clay masks on their armpits, feet, scalp and so on, but personally I wouldn’t know because I get selective blindness when I hear the words toxins, detox or body cleanse. Again, I’m no cosmetics expert, I’m just trying to show you what’s out there in terms of DIY natural cosmetics and encourage you to give it a try, so do you research first. Keep in mind that all clays are drying in general because of their absorption mechanism, so if you have very dry skin you’ll need to plan accordingly. Also, always do a patch test for allergies when using some new DIY cosmetics and don’t expect results overnight. Clearing out your pores and improving skin texture takes time, whether it’s done with a store-bought gel/face mask or clay face masks.

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