“Ethical and ‘Green’ make-up is too often implied to be founded on ‘old wives’ tales’. To me this is part of the same discourse that drowned witches.” With a career in makeup on the rise, Crystabel Riley was perfecting adolescent boyband skin when persistent eruptions of eczema made her begin to really question what was she putting on her skin? And what was she putting on the skin of those teenage boys sat in her chair? “There seemed no way into understanding or breaking down my questions about skin and the chemical make up of make-up.” In the first instalment of her series SKIN(CARE/UNCARE) makeup artist Crystabel Riley explores the ambiguous and ancient substance of clay.

Words and Beauty

I am increasingly focused on the idea of care/un-care. And how to find the best of both. CARE: at every level about the materials one works with. UN-CARE: open-minded attitudes towards beauty and people, construction/deconstruction, stumbling across the chic and desired… AKA finding the PHD in the GCSE, as opposed to the GCSE in the PHD.

Ethical and ‘Green’ make-up is too often implied to be founded on ‘old wives’ tales’. To me this is part of the same discourse that drowned witches. I don’t want to further riddle the internet with closed, diametric positions. Together, with you, I want to take a small step towards becoming more informed. To contribute not only in the editorial sense, but in the communal sense. In this series of pieces, I want to explore the ambiguity of ethics within the 21st century make-up industry. Thinking through concepts, materials and microbes.

Like all elements of beauty (personalities, bodies, products, ingredients, faces) clay is an ambiguous substance. A mega-mix of minerals with ironising properties. Clay works using an iron exchange system; attraction takes place between ions in the sebum of the skin and the oppositely charged ions in the clay (1). Clays exist in layers with spaces in between that are “empty” can “trap” water and oils that migrate into these interstitial spaces (2). This mechanical technology of balancing of the unbalanced (electrolytic charges) is an ancient system used to achieve a smooth service.  Much like the smooth landscapes of the East Midlands, before deep mining scarification changed the terrain (3). Or we have open-pit kaolin mining. Upper earth crust rotovation, changing the colour and composition of the Dartmoor dermis like the strongest face-bleaching, melanin-inhibiting hydroquinone creams. Past-and-present mining practices have unearthed Palaeozoic strata (dinosaur territory), changing the landscape and the behaviour of the earth in ways we perhaps don’t know or understand.

But this geo-material is one of the most effective and simple formulations. Powdered clay has a winning ‘free from’ list. No synthetic preservations necessary, simply add water and nota bene the common misconceptions of use (4)Interestingly ‘preservation’ is one of the biggest conundrums in the natural/synthetic skincare market. Whilst humans struggle in the lab trying to invent the next phenoxyethanol, clay, in its many forms, waits in perfect preservation for tens/hundreds/thousands/millions of years. 

This geo-material is one of the most effective and simple formulations. Powdered clay has a winning 'free from' list. No synthetic preservations necessary, simply add water.

Compare this to its lab synthesised AHA/retinoid cosmeceutical counterparts that change the landscape and the behaviour of the skin in ways we don’t know or understand, setting up channels of passage for fashionable or unfashionable preservatives (depending on the depths of the brand’s ethical strata.) Yet, despite the face rotovation, this is all human surface activity. The geological strata stays intact. But whilst the geology is fixed, the biology and chemistry of some of our commonly synthesised ingredients are literally shapeshifting.

Parabens  are the most famously promiscuous, even reacting with water as we wash our faces. Tap water with traces of chlorine or bromine can react with cosmetics containing parabens to form halogonated or brominated derivatives respectively.  Little is known about these halogenated derivatives. In contrast, clay is relatively inert. I feel totally privileged to work and play with this early terrestrial substance which has existed for billions of years and to have the possibility of leaving it in the cupboard for another billion years.


1. Carroll D. 1959. ‘Ion Exchange in Clays and Other Minerals’ Geological Society of America Bulletin.
2. I asked green beauty formulator Mark Broussard about how clay works and if it could still be described as inert, despite its apparent effectiveness: “Clays exist in layers with interstitial spaces between the layers that are “empty” can “trap” water and oils that migrate into these interstitial spaces.  The action of clays in skincare is purely a mechanical action and there is no chemical reaction on the skin surface.”
3. After decades of visual poverty and neglect, the region saw re-generational trees planting projects.
4. Try not to let it dry on the face; hot steamy flannel on top is my preference to promote perspiration and subsequent sebaceous secretions OR mix with plant oil, I like jojoba/rosehip OR forget the plant oils and once your mask is on spritz with water spray. It is believed (by some) that some (not all) clays loose their ionic charges and are therefore less effective when they have come into contact with metal. As a precaution (in case this is true) I always mix with wooden spatulas and avoid my metal make-up palette.
5. My current favourite (for my own (dry) skin) is from the Atlas mountain range. Rhassoul clay has a high silia, I have very dry skin and it seems to almost moisturise whilst the ion exchanges are happening.
Photography Thomas Cooksey
Beauty Crystabel Riley
Hair Anna Chapman at Julian Watson using Session Kit
Styling Vincent levy
Model Jay Jay at Troy Agency
Beauty Assistance Madeleine Feeney
Styling Assistance Lily Austin