LONG BEFORE THERE WERE SPAS, PEOPLE WERE slathering their skin with various elements found in nature—milk, honey, fruit, and herbs. There wasn't much that Mother Earth provided that our ancestors wouldn't apply topically in the name of beauty. The most abundant and beneficial skin saver, though, was the earth itself. Mud and clay, which were used by ancient people from almost every culture around the world, have been employed for thousands of years as natural sunscreens, cleansers, and moisturizers. And although most people would probably be reluctant to slop some straight from the ground and onto their skin, they have no problem coating themselves with it at a spa, as evidenced by the continued popularity of mud and clay treatments.
While mud and clay both come from the earth, there are key differences between the two. Clay consists of a variety of minerals and is usually formed by the weathering of rocks that contain silicon. Mud, however, is defined as a liquid or semi-liquid mixture of water and some combination of soil, silt, and clay. The many types of mud and clay are usually distinguished by the locale from which they're extracted or the amount of organic or inorganic matter they contain. Moor mud, for example, is high in organic matter. It is found near or in bodies of water where plant life has decomposed and mixed with the mud. Dead Sea mud, found along its shores, is reputed for its mineral-rich properties. French green clay, which despite its name can be sourced from several places around the world, is probably the most common form of clay used in cosmetics. Bentonite and kaolin clays are also extremely effective when used in skincare products.
Mud and clay are also valuable healers. Doctors in central Europe have been using mud baths and wraps for more than 200 years to treat a host of medical conditions, such as arthritis, rheumatism, and skin inflammation. "Moor mud is very special in Europe," says Michael Beressord, president and founder of Moor Spa, a line of Moor mud-based skincare products. "It's part of the whole medical system over there. It's used in hospitals and wellness centers and recommended by doctors." The Dead Sea has become a mecca for spa-goers interested in treating a variety of ailments, such as dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis, and more. Most dermatologists also believe in the skin-healing benefits of clay. "The bottom line is that clay has been shown to have many positive effects on the skin," says Elizabeth Tanzi, M.D., clinical instructor of dermatology at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. With much of the medical community endorsing mud and clay, spa-goers can rest assured that a service that uses these substances will provide more than mere stress-reducing benefits.
Stress reduction, however, is certainly a benefit of these types of treatments. "Using mud and clay gives guests a concrete connection to the earth, which is very grounding," says Travis Anderson, spa director at The Spa at Four Seasons Hotel Austin (TX), where the Colorado River Mud Mask body treatment ($135, 50 minutes) is performed using a warm, bubbling mud from Phytomer. Muds are also great for easing sore muscles. High levels of minerals like magnesium—which, in studies at SUNY Health Science Center in Brooklyn, NY, were found to help reduce inflammation and relieve muscle tension—make muds the perfect ointment during treatments created to soothe sports-related muscle pain. And because mud and clay have unique heat-retaining abilities, they are excellent when used as the base for poultice-type treatments.
The Well Spa in Indian Wells, CA, offers guests the opportunity to apply their own mud and clay as part of the Pittura Festa treatment.
Facials employing clay masks have been performed for a few decades and are still favored by seasoned and newbie spa-goers alike. "In my experience, clay-based products are particularly helpful for irritated or acne-prone skin," says Tanzi. When mixed with water and applied to the face, clay acts as a sponge that soaks up excess oil so it can be washed away. "Its anti-inflammatory properties also calm skin," says Tanzi. While green clays are usually the most effective on oily skin, they can be quite drying. Clients with mature or dehydrated skin might be better treated with red or white clays. An immediate tightening of the skin and a shrinking in the appearance of pores also make clay masks popular with women looking for a quick anti-aging fix.
The fine particles that make up muds and clays can also provide light exfoliation. "We use a volcanic ground lava rock clay, which isn't as viscous or liquid as some clays and muds, to give a light polish to the skin," says Jim Root, general manager of spa operations for the Sea Island Resorts, home of The Spa at Sea Island in Georgia, of the Replenish from the Sea treatment ($290, 120 minutes). A body scrub using volcanic mud is also performed during the Merapi Volcano Mud Body Treatment ($154, 60 minutes) at Taman Sari Spa in Whistler, Canada. According to the spa's marketing director, Jay Wahono, the ashes from Mt. Merapi, the most active volcano in Southeast Asia, have been used by locals in Indonesia for various skin and body treatments for centuries.
Perhaps the most exciting use of muds, and specifically muds that contain humeric acid (Moor mud is an excellent source), is in detoxifying treatments. Recent studies have shown that chelating agents like humeric acid, which draw iron and other toxins from the body, can help prevent photoaging. Iron actually catalyzes free radical interactions, so removing the metal from the skin can prevent premature aging. Using detoxifying muds and clays in body wraps is one way to take advantage of this chelating characteristic. At The Bachelor Gulch Spa at The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch in Avon, CO, guests can try the Fun in the Mud Wrap ($145, 60 minutes). A heated mud is applied to the skin and then guests are wrapped in mylar blankets to keep them warm and aid in detoxification.
Dirty No More
Another way to enhance the detoxifying properties of mud and clay is to apply them in a steam room. While steam opens the pores and allows some toxins to be sweated out, the mud and clay further move the detoxification process along. The Bachelor Gulch Spa keeps samples of its mud mask in the steam rooms in hopes that guests will try the product in this environment and then request the more complete service. And at the G2O Spa and Salon in Boston, clients are painted with six different types of clay before entering the elaborately tiled Rasul Room for a steam ($130, 50 minutes). "The clays are on a palette and labeled with what part of the body they should be applied to," says spa director Christine Hadad. "Guests can have a therapist apply the clay, apply it themselves, or—because there are two seats in the Rasul Room—a couple can apply the clays to each other and experience the treatment together."
Capitalizing on the do-it-yourself and group nature of mud and clay treatments keeps them on trend. The Well Spa in Indian Wells, CA, offers the Pittura Festa (which means "painting party" in Italian) treatment for couples ($115, 45 minutes). Guests receive several muds and clays and then are given time to play with and apply them to each other. After the application, there's time to lie in the sun to allow the products to warm up and bake into the skin before a rinse and a hydrating massage. "Not only is this a fun service for our guests, but they also like that they can let their hair down and not be so serious," says spa director Jennifer Di Francesco. "Plus, it has significant therapeutic effects on the skin." Mini pots of mud are also given to guests as they leave the spa in hopes that couples will recreate this treatment at home.
For a truly original group treatment, spa-goers need look no further than the Living Earth treatment ($250, 3 1/2 hours) at Spa Samadhi at Sunrise Springs in Santa Fe, NM. First, clients spend about an hour in the resort's pottery studio, molding clay into a piece of art that they can fire and bring home as a keepsake. "Working with the clay is a beautiful, meditative process that requires you to slow down and really get your hands dirty," says spa director Cari Cohen. Next, it's on to the cedar sauna to start the detoxifying process, then a red mesa clay wrap. "The clay we use is from Santa Fe, and I think that aspect of actually being connected to the earth and the location of the spa in that intimate way is very enticing," says Cohen. Enticing is right—and utterly entertaining, as well. —Megan O'Connell
For products containing clay and mud, see "Dirty No More" on the next page.