By Anne Williams
Originally published in ASCP's Skin Deep, April/May 2007.
Girls might be made of sugar and spice and everything nice, but if they’re smart and want great skin, they’ll take a hint from boys and play in the mud.
Fangotherapy is the use of mud, peat, and clay for healing purposes (fango is the Italian word for mud). Fangotherapy first gained popularity in the early eighteen-hundreds in Europe where it was, and still is, used to treat a variety of musculoskeletal and skin conditions. Fango treatments have been used successfully on such conditions as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, endocrine imbalance, immune disorders, fibromyalgia, muscular pain, pulmonary tuberculosis, bronchitis, acne, dermatitis, psoriasis, chronic dry skin, and scars.
All types of fango have heat-retention properties and can be warmed up and applied to the skin to stimulate and improve circulation. This aids nutrient and waste exchange, opens follicles, and improves the elasticity of skin. Apart from the common effect of increased circulation, clay, mud, and peat each have
different therapeutic properties and uses.
It’s All About the Minerals
Clay is a general term for a variable group of fine-grained natural materials that are usually plastic when moist. When viewed under an electron microscope, clay particles are about one hundred times longer than they are wide. If water is added to dry clay, the moisture is held between the flat plates by surface tension so that the particles do not pull apart, but instead, slide easily over one another. This gives moist clay its smooth and creamy consistency.
Many types of clay are commercially available from different soils and environments around the world. Clays from marine sediments or from areas around hot springs usually have higher mineral contents than other clays, but all commercially available clay has the same basic properties. Clay is highly absorbent and is used to draw impurities and moisture from the surface of the skin. This drawing action simulates circulation and lymphatic flow and purifies the skin. While clay should not be allowed to completely dry out on skin, it can be allowed to dry slightly to aid natural exfoliation and improve skin texture. Kaolin and French green clay can also be softening, even for dry skin, so long as they are kept moist while on the skin.
Clays readily suspend to form an emulsion in water or other liquid substances. This property is useful in cosmetics as clay helps to hold other substances together and prevent separation. Clay is regularly used as an emollient and colorant in powders, liquid foundations, lotions, and skin masks. This characteristic also makes it useful as a carrier product for other therapeutic substances. Items like seaweed, herbal infusions, essential oils, and natural food products (yogurt, honey, milk, fruit juices, and mashed fruits) can be mixed into clay to make interesting treatment products. The clays described below are often used in cosmetic products or for treatment masks.
Kaolinite or Kaolin Clay: The name kaolin comes from the Chinese word kauling, meaning high ridge, which refers to the hill in the Jiangxi province of southeastern China from which this clay was first obtained to make porcelain. Kaolin clay is pure white and has a fine-grained consistency, making it smooth and creamy when wet.
Illite Clay: Illite clays are mica-like in structure and often originate from recently deposited deep-sea sediments, providing a high mineral content. French green clay classically refers to illite clay mined in France and dried in the sun. Today, illite clays are found all over the world and the label French green clay does not always mean the product originated in France. This type of clay is extremely fine-grained, pale in color, and smooth when wet.
Semectite Clay: Semectite clays are expanding lattice clays that usually swell in water. Sedona clay has a fine to medium texture and is red. It may be smooth to slightly abrasive in consistency. Formed from ancient ocean sediment and volcanic activity, this clay is a good choice for oily or congested skin.
Wyoming bentonite is associated with freshwater sediments and has a rather lumpy consistency. Sodium bentonite is a better choice as it comes from marine sediments and has a higher mineral content. Its gel-like consistency is often used to regulate the viscosity of skin care products.
Fuller’s earth gets its name from fulling, the process of removing grease from woolen cloth. When mixed with water, Fuller’s earth crumbles into mud and has little natural plasticity, which can make it difficult to use. When used regularly, Fuller’s earth has a reputation for refining the skin and evening skin tone.
Sulfur in Mud is Key
While mud, like clay, is mainly mineral in origin, it contains 2–4 percent organic substances, which play an important role in mud’s therapeutic use. Mud softens skin’s texture and some minerals may be absorbed from the mud into skin, although the evidence for this is inconclusive. Therapeutic mud is matured or ripened in natural mineral water. The maturing process for each mud may be slightly different, but generally involves the oxidation and reduction of the mud over a period up to twelve months long. The process of maturing mud is characterized by changes in the chemical composition and appearance of the mud.
Sulfur is perhaps the most important component of therapeutic muds and occurs naturally in proximity to volcanoes and hot springs. Sulfur baths have been researched as a means of reducing oxidative stress on the body and decreasing inflammation.
Sulfur-rich mineral and mud baths are useful in the treatment of fungal infections, scabies, psoriasis, eczema, and acne. According to a study published in Dermatologic Therapy, sulfur exerts beneficial anti-inflammatory, keratoplastic (promoting keratinization and thickening of keratin layers), and antipruriginous (itch relief) effects on skin.
One of the most popular types of sulfur-containing therapeutic mud is obtained from the Dead Sea region in Israel. The extremely saline water (27 percent salt) is ten times saltier than the Mediterranean Sea and has a high concentration of calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, and bromine. Research on Dead Sea mud supports its use in the treatment of psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis. This mud has the ability to stay warm and moist for up to an hour, which stimulates circulation and clears skin of dead epidermal cells.1
Beauty from the Bog
Sphagnum is the main genus of mosses that form a bog. As the Sphagnum moss decays, the bog becomes filled with a deeper and deeper layer of dead Sphagnum, known as peat. Lack of oxygen in the bog and acidic conditions created by Sphagnum slow the growth of microbes. This is why human bodies unearthed from peat bogs thousands of years after burial are perfectly preserved. As the rate of decomposition is very slow, minerals usually recycled by living things remain in the peat.
Some studies suggest treatments with peat help normalize the pH of skin, strengthen the barrier function of the stratum corneum, decrease transdermal water loss, and normalize sebum flow. This makes peat useful for both dry and oily skin.
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After an application of fango, recipients will often notice the improved texture of their skin and its softness, brightness, and clarity. Like their skin care professionals, they will soon be touting the benefits of playing in the mud.
Anne Williams is a licensed massage therapist, licensed esthetician, aromatherapist, certified reflexologist, registered counselor, educator, and author. The work outlined in this article and the images are adapted from portions of her textbook, Spa Bodywork: A Guide for Massage Therapists (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2007). Williams also is education program director for Associated Skin Care Professionals.She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
- Associated Skin Care Professionals acknowledges there are environmental concerns associated with harvesting mud from the Dead Sea.