by Brett Aaron Marlow, he/him
It's no secret: clays get a bad rap in skincare, but these ancient ingredients deserve more hype. It's partially due to hack culture and misconceptions and partially their attention-seeking (and often unnecessary) partners in mask formulations that leave skin, well, confused. You know the usual suspects by now: sensitizing fragrances, non-sustainable glitters, colorants, and other gimmicks, which often overshadow clays' powerful abilities with their penchant for irritation.
A tap through skincare TikTok only confirms this: most clay masks wind up on the "nope" versus "yep" side of “my favorite skincare" videos. You've likely lived, written a review, or re-gifted a conventional clay mask because of a scenario similar to: "This left my skin so dry!" Or, "I felt like Kevin McAllister screaming into this mirror the moment I applied this mask; it stung so badly, I had to take it off after two secs!"
But these ancient ingredients—sustainably mined from Earth itself, have been used for centuries to heal and treat skin ailments—are top-shelf status. Each varietal contains its own set of unique properties and abilities that can rapidly restore skin's factory settings whenever you need it, helping pores, oil, and a chaotic complexion get back on track. So, where'd we go awry?
It turns out we've been doing a few things wrong: sabotaging their benefits with ingredients that minimize and discredit their efficacy and simply misusing them. To ensure you get results, not reactions from every future at-home facial, we tapped everyone from formulators to dermatologists to debunk the biggest clay misconceptions and set the record straight.
Myth 1: Clays aren't effective skincare ingredients
FALSE. "Clays are absorbents.They literally go into the skin and mop up all the dirt, pollutants, and decomposed skin," says Robyn Watkins, founder of Holistic Beauty Group, a clean product development agency that helps brands create more sustainable and effective formulas with minimal environmental impact.
"They date back to Egypt and Mesopotamia and are one of the most ancient ways to treat your skin."
Besides drawing out toxins and refining pores, many also have therapeutic properties.
"Green clay, which comes from the south of France, contains algae and chlorophyll. Both of which are healing for the skin."
Myth 2: Leaving clay masks on longer than instructed will boost results
FALSE. "Most folks use clays incorrectly," says Shani Hillian, a New York-based holistic esthetician. No matter your skin type or the mask, you never want to allow the clays to dry fully.
Dr. Melissa Farber, a board-certified dermatologist in Philadelphia, echoes the advice.
"More is not more! Do not leave your clay mask on for too long." The sweet spot is around 10 minutes. A clay mask's primary goal is to reset and detox so skin behaves better; they're not meant for every day or over-use. Apply clays only where needed and keep their use to once or twice weekly, max. Otherwise, you’re hitting undo on the work you've put in toward achieving your skin goals.
Myth 3: Clays are only beneficial for younger skin more prone to oil
FALSE. "A lot of people think you have to be a teenager or have acne to use a clay mask. A skin type is not relevant to age; you're born with it," says Laura Cline, Director of Education at Youth To The People. "Whether you're combo or oily or not, a clay mask will help throughout your lifetime to reset and balance the complexion.”
Myth 4: The type of clay doesn't matter
FALSE. "The type of clay 100% matters, depending on one’s skin type or skin condition," says Hillian. If you’re sensitive, look for white and kaolin clays; they're the least likely to irritate. Oily, acne-prone, and combo skin types should utilize treatments containing bentonite clay. It absorbs excess sebum without being overly stripping.
"Fuller's Earth clay and Rhassoul clay are good at absorbing oil, but likely too drying for most," adds Dr. Farber.
Myth 5: Anyone can use a clay mask
(MOSTLY) TRUE. If you deal with rosacea, eczema, or dermatitis, clays can make conditions worse, says Hillian. Clay won't singularly cure acne, but it will help speed the process along.
Myth 6: Flushing is normal after masking
TRUE. "I don't think it's a warning sign, per se, but I don't know that all clays cause flushing," says Valerie George, co-host of The Beauty Brains podcast, a weekly show where scientists debunk beauty myths. "There is a bit of ion exchange occurring as many of the clays have minerals that are being deposited onto the skin." This can increase circulation, leaving you with that coveted "I just left my facialist" glow. Prolonged redness, itching, or rashes: these are signs it's time to enlist a dermatologist's help—and find a more suitable clay blend.
For more about when flushing is and isn’t normal in skincare, click here.
Myth 7: Clays aren't always the culprit
TRUE. "I think some of the challenges of over-drying, tightness, and sensitization [that are often associated with clay masks] may also be compounded by other ingredients present," says George. Most clay-based products tend to include mint, menthol, and drying alcohols that can wreak havoc on skin and cause irritation.
Other times, it’s just a lemon in your lineup.
"You can train your skin to love something that's not good for it, almost like a bad relationship," explains Jacob Tomás del Rosario, Senior Regional Sales + Education Executive at Youth To The People. "Your skin will start to overcompensate."
Myth 8: Single clays are equally as effectively as blends
FALSE. Clays can be damaging when used alone or mixed with other ingredients such as apple cider vinegar, says Hillian.
"It is always important to look for additional ingredients to reduce reactions to skin," adds Dr. Farber. Look for masks that include calming, antioxidant-rich tea extracts, aloe—even charcoal to help reduce oil. (All present and accounted for in Youth To The People's new Superclay Purify + Clear Power Mask, by the way).
Myth 9: Clay masks are quick fixes
TRUE + FALSE. While they can rapidly decongest, deep clean pores, and gently exfoliate, leaving skin softer and smoother, it's best to include a clay mask in an overall routine, says Dr. Farber. No single product is going to be a miracle.
Myth 10: Clays damage skin's moisture barrier
FALSE. “Not if you're using the correct clay for your skin type," says Hillian. If your skin is extremely dry and already lacks oil and water, a clay mask is the last thing you want to add into the mix. Instead, focus on strengthening skin by leaning on emollients, humectants, and occlusives to improve barrier function. Once strengthened, consider using clays to spot treat the chin, nose, jawline instead of applying to your whole face.
Myth 11: Clays strip skin of its natural moisturizing factors
FALSE. "Not all oil is bad," confirms Watkins. It's an essential part of your skin's barrier. Depending on your pore size, though, excess sebum can get embedded in pores and cluster with other debris, leading to blackheads and breakouts. This is where clays can help to encapsulate and remove surplus, before it starts trouble.
Myth 12: I don't need a clay mask if I already exfoliate
FALSE. Unlike exfoliants, which propel cell turnover, clays act like more like a sieve, filtering out the the bad while leaving the good.
"Clays draw out [impurities] and deposit minerals back in, leaving skin as it was, not taking layers off as acids can," explains Watkins. Both are essential for a clear complexion. When combined in a treatment, the two work together to pack powerful results—just be sure not to use scrubs or other exfoliants on the same day.
FALSE: It's all in the steps you take before and after applying a clay mask. First things first: cleanse. This critical step preps skin to absorb any actives and minerals in the treatment while ensuring clays can perform at their fullest. Then, you have options to enhance outcome, says George: You can spritz a hydrating mist or toner (such as the Adaptogen Hydrate + Soothe Activated Mist) onto skin before and after masking or try layering an oil ahead of application. These steps can help optimize your experience and decrease the odds of a super dry or taut after-feel.
Myth 13: Clay masks leave skin dry + depleted