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How to Choose the Best Clay Mask for Your Skin

By Kari Molvar

Mari Maeda and Yuji Oboshi

Clay might not be the most high-tech beauty ingredient — the fine, earthy sediment has been used in facial remedies for centuries — but it’s one of the most efficient. When used in a paste or scrub, it is particularly adept at temporarily removing “surface oil and bacteria,” says the New York City dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, and can lead to a cleaner, brighter-looking complexion. Yet, slathering on clay is not always pleasant: The mineral-rich substance has the texture of thick mud, is messy to apply and often becomes dry and flaky when spread on the face. But there is a better way. The latest wave of clay treatments come in innovative new formats — from soft creams to sheet masks to customisable powders — that can help clear out pores with minimal irritation (and frustration). Here, four tips for choosing the best mask for your skin type and schedule.

Pre-mixed, clay-based cream masks often have milder formulas that only gently exfoliate the skin, making them a good option for dry or sensitive skin. Dr. Barbara Sturm’s Deep Hydrating Face Mask ($160), for example, pairs kaolin clay with calming aloe vera and has a dewy texture that retains moisture while the mask is on the face (for a recommended 10 minutes). Those with oilier skin types might prefer Lixirskin’s Soft Clay Rubber ($32), a mask and scrub with a pliable, gel-like feel that can either be massaged onto the skin then rubbed off to manually lift dead skin or, for a gentler fix, left on for five minutes and then rinsed off.

Sheet masks infused with clay fit snugly over the face, which helps the ingredients sink in deeply, usually in about 10 minutes. Patchology SmartMud’s No Mess Mud Masque ($30 for a four-pack) has a noticeable cooling effect while its mix of clay, volcanic ash and activated charcoal absorbs debris and impurities. MagicStripes’ Deep Detox Tightening Mask ($50 for a three-pack) boasts bentonite, a “unique clay that has evidence showing it calms irritated skin,” says Dr. Nazarian. Despite claims to the contrary, though, neither mask is completely mess free: Be prepared to get some clay in your hair, as the one-size-fits-all cloths are cut generously and are well saturated.

If you don’t mind investing the time, dry clay powders can be customized to target your skin concerns and left on for about 15 minutes. Ranavat Botanics’ Flawless Veil Illuminating Masque ($65), which contains a mixture of dehydrated clays and pulverized plants, can be blended with either a few teaspoons of water, to slough skin, or a splash of toner, to replenish lost moisture. Odacité’s Synergie[4] Immediate Skin Perfecting Beauty Masque ($59) includes a recipe card with optional mix-ins: Combine with apple cider vinegar to decongest pores, lemon juice to dissolve dead skin or organic milk for a brightening effect.

No matter the mask, avoid keeping it on longer than the prescribed time. Doing so won’t make it work better; it will just be harder to remove. Always rinse a mask off with lukewarm water and follow with moisturizer to prevent dryness. And, since clay has a natural purifying effect, you might want to switch to a mild cleanser between masking, which Dr. Nazarian recommends doing once a week. “Often times, the avoidance of a harsh cleanser is what actually improves skin’s appearance,” points out Dr. Nazarian, “not necessarily the magic of the clay itself.”