“Mud, mud, glorious mud!”

Besides cooling the blood of amorous hippos, mud’s popularity for treating a wide range of conditions hasn’t waned since antiquity. Mud baths, mud packs, facials and the like are just as popular now as when Cleopatra bathed in the black mud of the Dead Sea. But are mud’s therapeutic powers real—or folklore?

Actually the “mud” used for mud therapy (also called pelotherapy and mud-balneotherapy) can be a combination of clay, peat and/or volcanic ash and is rich in minerals and trace elements, including sulfur, magnesium, calcium, phosphorous, iron, potassium and silicon. Since skin is absorbent, applying mud to skin is an effective way for our bodies to absorb these nutrients directly, bypassing the digestive system. Mud also holds moisture, which helps plump skin and smooth wrinkles…and mud retains heat, making it an ideal moist “heating pad.”

While mud therapies have been used for a long and varied list of conditions, supporting research is limited and inconclusive. It can also be hard to untangle real benefits from spa hype. For instance, some of the minerals and nutrients in mud do support liver and kidney function and therefore support the body’s natural detoxification process—but that doesn’t mean that mud “detoxifies” your body by “pulling out” metals, toxins and other allegedly noxious substances.

Here’s what we do know about how mud therapy can help…

  • Skin conditions. An Israeli study published in Dermatologic Therapy reported that balneotherapy successfully treated psoriasis. The researchers speculate that magnesium and potassium in the mud curbs excessive cell buildup, easing the scaling and itchiness of psoriasis—and may also explain why mud therapy can clear eczema and control the excess oil that can lead to acne.
  • Arthritis. A small study done at Sapienza University in Rome found that mud therapy reduces the frequency and severity of knee arthritis symptoms. Another study, done at Gulhane School of Medicine in Turkey, demonstrated that chemical properties of mud (minerals and trace elements)—rather than just the benefits of something moist and warm on a painful joint—may contribute to the healing effects.
  • Inflammatory conditions. Other studies have shown that mud has anti-inflammatory properties….and suggest that the absorption of minerals and trace elements from mud can benefit the body’s whole immune system. For instance, sulfur baths are known to help with ailments related to compromised immunity, such as contact dermatitis, psoriasis and atopic dermatitis.
  • Stress. Mud therapy affects cortisol levels in a way that improves stress resilience, according to other research from University of Parma in Italy—beyond the obviously soothing effects of being pampered in a dimly lit spa with soft music playing, where most mud therapy is applied. It is not surprising that mud is such a good de-stresser—it contains magnesium, a vasodilator that helps lower blood pressure.

TYPES OF MUD

You can buy commercially packaged muds, and they are also available as treatments in spas and from some naturopathic practitioners. Here are some examples and typical uses…

Dead Sea mud. High in salinity and rich in sulfur, sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium and chloride, Dead Sea mud is often used to treat psoriasis, eczema, acne, rheumatoid arthritis, knee osteoarthritis, spondylitis and fibromyalgia.

Moor mud. Derived from peat and moor mud (decomposed flowers, grasses and herbs) primarily from Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, this spa favorite has a high proportion of amino acids, plant hormones and fatty acids. It is often used to treat arthritis, rheumatism, muscle aches, ligament and tendon injuries as well as acne, psoriasis and eczema. Austrian emergency rooms reportedly keep it on hand for burns. It’s also popular for face masks for its exfoliating and antioxidant properties and its ability to improve skin turgor (hydration and elasticity).

Peat. Made from decomposed mosses and other vegetable matter from boggy ground, this is not the stuff you use in your garden. Peat is mildly astringent and anti-inflammatory, which is why it’s used for treating skin diseases and fungal infections. Peloid packs (mud packs) of peat have also been used to treat ligament and muscle sprains, strains and general inflammation. Heated mud also helps treat Lyme disease—the heat drives the bacterial spirochetes out of tissues and into the bloodstream where antibiotics and herbal therapies are more effective at killing them. Interestingly, in Romania and the Czech Republic, papillomavirus infections and infertility are treated with vaginal peat tampons.

Illite (French green clay). Long-prized as a beauty treatment and an ingredient in many face masks, the antibacterial properties of illite are currently being studied at Arizona State University and elsewhere. Illite has been found to be effective in fighting gastrointestinal distress from food poisoning (E. coli, Salmonella typhimurium and other bacteria) when taken internally. Note: Do not ingest illite or any other mud/clay unless under a doctor’s supervision.

Fuller’s earth. Super absorbent, Fuller’s earth is beneficial for acne and oily skin. Fuller’s earth is particularly rich in magnesium and has bleaching properties that help lighten dark spots and acne scars.

Bentonite clay. Also super absorbent and beneficial for acne and oily skin, as well as psoriasis and eczema, bentonite contains volcanic ash, making it a good exfoliator, although drying. Bentonite clay is rich in calcium carbonate. Bentonite clay also is an effective treatment for boils.

GETTING MUDDY!

Mud bathing isn’t for everyone. Get an OK from your doctor first if you have heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure or a condition that could be negatively affected by stimulating blood flow, such as a malignant tumor or a blood disorder or clotting issue. Stay out of the mud if you have an implanted device, such as a pacemaker, since minerals can affect cardiac rhythm. Women with IUDs shouldn’t sit in a mud bath. If you have sensitive skin, do a patch test first. And of course, don’t get into mud with open cuts or sores and keep it away from your eyes and mouth.

Spas and resorts that offer mud treatment often are located at hot springs and have their own mud sources. Check the list on Spas of America. It’s a good idea to ask the spa where its mud comes from. Mud can contain harmful substances—such as dangerous levels of heavy metals, bacteria and radiation. Be especially cautious of mud that comes from Japan, China and developing countries. Also ask whether there are medical personnel on site for emergencies.

Finding a practitioner who offers mud therapy as a treatment for specific conditions might take some sleuthing. Some licensed naturopathic doctors (ND) use mud therapies in their practices—you can search for an ND on American Association of Naturopathic Physicians and call to ask.

You can also make your own “home spa” mud bath…

Fill your tub with hot water and, because some people find mud’s strong earthy odor unpleasant, you can add a few drops of your favorite scented oil if you wish. Place a screen (available at hardware or home goods stores) over the drain. Then add two cups of commercially packaged mud, breaking up any chunks with your hands. Good brands: Pascalite, Greenclays.com and Ahava. Also look for mineral-rich mud from hot springs, saltwater seas such as the Dead Sea, glaciers and volcanic ash—but, as noted above, be careful to check the country it comes from.

Slip into the tub, immersing your entire body up to your head. Soak no longer than 20 minutes. Drain the tub, rinse off the mud under a warm shower—no soap, so the minerals can stay on your skin to continue to be absorbed—and dry off. Enhance your “spa experience” by resting for about 30 minutes…maybe with a soothing cup of herbal tea!

No-tub option…

For mud benefits without the mess and hassle of filling your tub with mud, apply it directly to your skin. Mix one cup of mud with enough warm water, warm green tea or warm apple cider vinegar plus a few drops of scented oil to make a thick paste. Slather the mud over your entire body—or on the select areas you want to treat—and cover the mud-covered spots with a warm, wet towel or washcloth.

Mud on your face: If you’re doing an exfoliating mud facial, let the mud sit for four to five minutes uncovered, then wipe off in small circular motions with a warm, wet washcloth. If you’re using mud as an antioxidant facial, apply the mud, then lay two folded, warm, wet washcloths over your face diagonally, leaving an opening for your nose and mouth. Let your skin absorb the mud for 20 minutes. Rinse off with warm water…and relax!