Get Clean By Getting Dirty

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After years of stripping every possible layer from my skin with microdermabrasive scrubs, acids at strengths that aren’t entirely legal in the UK, and peels left on far longer than prescribed, I'm very much in need of some quality time spent with something gentle on my face. But gentle doesn't have to mean ineffective—especially for those of us looking to draw clogs out of our pores (gross). Because your skin doesn't actually open or close like a window, the most important factor for a thorough cleaning is an ingredient list that can penetrate and absorb bacteria, dirt, and oil. Mud masks (calling them 'clay' masks might be more accurate) do this in spades.

Kaolin clay is super absorbent and, because it is such a versatile bulking agent, is the dreamiest holding base for other mysterious inclusions in your skincare. Bentonite is the other clay most frequently used in cosmetics—again, it absorbs oil and dirt like a sponge and has a deliciously mud-like texture when added to water. These clays work as stabilizing agents for whatever magic people manage to cram into a pot to make your skin fabulous, but they also mattify your face by absorbing excess sebum so, if you have a combination or oily complexion, rejoice. And try one of these six:

Eve Lom Rescue Mask: The Rescue Mask has won every skincare award there is. And the ingredient list is nothing to shrug at with kaolin clay, camphor (to soothe inflammation), ground almonds (for exfoliation), and honey (the ideal antibacterial and skin conditioner)—but the miracle effects come with the application. Leave on for 20 minutes and rub off with your fingertips for a combined circulatory massage and exfoliation. Then, wipe clean with a muslin cloth (I buy mine in bulk online) and you’re totally radiant. Plus, if you’ve stayed up too late, diluting the mask with water and leaving it under your eyes for five minutes is the dream solution to puffy redness.

May Lindstrom The Honey Mud: Made with raw honey, witch hazel, and white halloysite clay (similar to kaolin) combined with an assortment of plant oils, it can be used either as a facial cleanser or a mask, and smells like the best thing on earth. It feels like putting pudding on your skin and with such a rich, velvety texture, I’d be using it even if it didn't make my skin glow. But it does.

Clark’s Botanicals Intense Radiance Mask: Clark’s Botanicals was founded by Francesco Clark when he damaged his central nervous system in a diving accident. Unable even to sweat, he developed a skincare line with his physician father to clear up the resulting acne—and managed to create one hell of a skincare line. Kaolin and bentonite combine with jasmine, which naturally rebalances skin and works as an antibacterial, amongst other magical plant-based ingredients, for an a mask that both cleanses and exfoliates. RAD(iant).

Sisley Creamy Mask with Tropical Resins: I've had phases of using this Sisley mask every single day without any recourse—it's that gentle. Not only does it cleanse sebum and clarify imperfections, it also stops your face from looking red and blotchy. That, combined with Sisley’s Tropical Resins Complex, is a skincare salvation when nothing else is doing a whole lot of good.

Kiehl’s Rare Earth Deep Pore Cleansing Masque: Once a week, I take a bath, put on Radio 4, and hang out with this on my face. With the standards of kaolin and bentonite combined with aloe vera and oatmeal, it is the perfect combination of soothing and cleansing and has the most deliciously rich, silky texture. Plus, at $23, it’s a total bargain and lasts for ages.

Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay: I have saved the cult hero for last. Aztec Secret sell a 100% calcium bentonite clay powder, which you can mix with equal parts apple cider vinegar (make sure you get it raw–I recommend Bragg’s) to form a bizarrely powerful paste. Apply it incredibly thick and leave on until it goes all crispy (it will make your face feel like it's pulsating), then rinse off with lukewarm water for a treatment that isn’t the most relaxing of all time, but is definitely the most effective. Don’t use it more than once every two weeks because it is a little harsh, but nothing unclogs my pores better or more satisfyingly. Slight discomfort is sometimes beauty. And I’m prepared to make that sacrifice.

—Olivia J. Singer

Photos by Tom Newton.