|This article may contain inappropriate or misinterpreted citations that do not verify the text. (June 2009)|
The use of medicinal clay in folk medicine goes back to prehistoric times. Indigenous peoples around the world still use clay widely, which is related to geophagy. The first recorded use of medicinal clay goes back to ancient Mesopotamia. A wide variety of clays is being used for medicinal purposes—primarily for external applications, such as the clay baths in health spas (mud therapy), but also internally. Among the clays most commonly used for medicinal purposes are kaolin and the smectite clays such as bentonite, montmorillonite, and Fuller's earth.
Questions of nomenclature 
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There are considerable problems with the exact nomenclature of various clays. No clay deposit is exactly the same and, typically, mineral clays are mixed in various proportions.
The overwhelming majority of clay mined commercially is for industrial uses, such as construction and oil drilling. Thus, the precise classification and chemical composition of these clays are somewhat secondary to their intended use. For practical purposes, the terms bentonite clay, montmorillonite clay, and Fuller's earth are basically interchangeable.
On the other hand, the clays that are typically used for medicinal purposes have usually been discovered either based on local folklore, or by simple trial-and-error after investigations by various healing enthusiasts. And so, their discoverers may have been either not too concerned about these clays' precise scientific classification and chemical properties, or perhaps not necessarily adequately equipped to conduct such studies. Their primary, and often only, concern was the efficacy of any particular clay for some specific medical condition or conditions.
Sodium bentonite/calcium bentonite are the most commonly used medicinal clays today (sodium bentonite for external use, calcium bentonite for internal use), although there is no precise definition of what this term means. In fact, typically, "bentonite" refers to a wide spectrum of clays with a wide array of properties (such as a variety of colours). In alternative medicine, often this is used as more or less a catch-all term for medicinal clays. Another such term is "montmorillonite", which is often interchangeable with "bentonite". Bentonite is included in the United States Pharmacopeia, and the USP-grade bentonite is widely used in various pharmaceutical and cosmetic preparations as a compounding and suspending agent. It is not entirely clear where the source of USP-grade bentonite is located; it may be a mixture of various bentonites.
Animal geophagy 
A relevant subject is how the animals—both in the wild and domesticated—seek out and consume different types of earth in general, and clay in particular (clay is present in most types of soil).
Galen, the Greek philosopher and physician, was the first to record the use of clay by sick or injured animals in the second century AD. This type of geophagy has been documented in "many species of mammals, birds, reptiles, butterflies and isopods, especially among herbivores."
In particular, in Peru, Amazonian rainforest parrots of some 21 species gather at certain sites on cliff faces where bare soil is exposed, and eat the clayish soil. The soil they seek is highly specific, since they focus on a rather narrow band of exposed soil. What they seek is mostly clay that is less than 0.2 millimetre in particle diameter.
Historical use 
There is a large amount of anthropological and historical literature describing the medicinal use of clay around the world from the earliest times.
Human prehistory 
Some scholars believe that prehistoric ancestors such as Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis used ochres to cure wounds as well as paint caves. Ochres are a mixture of clay and iron hydroxides.
"The oldest evidence of geophagy practiced by humans comes from the prehistoric site at Kalambo Falls on the border between Zambia and Tanzania (Root-Bernstein & Root-Bernstein, 2000)." Here, a calcium-rich white clay was found alongside the bones of Homo habilis (the immediate predecessor of Homo sapiens).
Use by aboriginal peoples 
Clay is used widely by indigenous peoples around the world, and is related to geophagy (since the clay is consumed internally).
Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia 
The first recorded use of medicinal clay is on Mesopotamian clay tablets around 2500 B.C. Also, ancient Egyptians used clay. The Pharaohs’ physicians used the material as anti-inflammatory agents and antiseptics. It was also an ingredient used for making mummies. It is also reported that Cleopatra used clays to preserve her complexion.
The Ebers Papyrus of about 1550 BC (but containing the tradition going back many centuries earlier) is an important medical text from ancient Egypt. It describes the use of ochre for a wide variety of complaints, including for intestinal problems, as well as for various eye complaints.
Classical times 
Lemnian clay 
This was a clay used in Classical Antiquity. It was mined on the island of Lemnos. Its use continued until the 19th century, as it was still listed in an important pharmacopoeia in 1848 (the deposits may have been exhausted by then).
if rubbed under the eyes, it moderates pain and watering from the same, and prevents the flow from the lachrymal ducts. In cases of haemorrhage it should be administered with vinegar. It is used against complaints of the spleen and kidneys, copious menstruation, also against poisons, and wounds caused by serpents.
Lemnian clay was shaped into tablets, or little cakes, and then distinctive seals were stamped into them, giving rise to its name terra sigillata—Latin for 'sealed earth'. Dioscorides also commented upon the use of terra sigillata.
Another physician famous in antiquity, Galen, recorded numerous cases of the internal and external uses of this clay in his treatise on clay therapy.
Galen... used as one of his means for curing injuries, festering wounds, and inflammations terra sigillata, a medicinal red clay compressed into round cakes and stamped with the image of the goddess Diana. This clay, which came from the island of Lemnos, was known throughout the classical world.
Other clays used in classical times 
The other types of clay that were famous in antiquity were as follows.
- Terra chia, Terra cymolia (Cimolean earth): these were both white earths and considered of great value.
- Samian earth: Pliny in c. 50 AD (Nat. Hist.) details two distinct varieties, colyrium - an eye salve, and aster, which was used as a soap as well as in medicines.
- Terra sigillata strigoniensis (Strigian earth, derived from Silesia) - this clay, yellow in colour, appears to have been famous later in medieval times.
All the above seem to have been bentonitic clays.
- The earth which did not stain the hands was known as rubrica.
Medieval times 
In medieval Persia, Avicenna (980-1037 CE), the 'Prince of Doctors', wrote about clay therapy in his numerous treatises.
- the terra sigillata,
- Egyptian earth,
- Samian earth,
- earth of Chios,
- Cimolean earth or pure clay (cimolite), soft earth, called al-hurr, green in color like verdigris, is smoked together with almond bark to serve as food when it will turn red and assume a good flavor; it is but rarely eaten without being smoked—also called 'Argentiera',
- earth of vines called ampelitis (Pliny XXXV, 56) or pharmakitis from Seleucia in Syria,
- Armenian earth (also known as the Armenian bole), salutary in cases of bubonic plague, being administered both externally and internally,
- earth of Nishapur.
Renaissance period, and up to the present 
A French naturalist Pierre Belon (1517‑1564) was interested in investigating the mystery of the Lemnian clay. In 1543, he visited Constantinople where, after making enquiries, he encountered 18 types of different products marketed as Lemnian Earth (he was concerned about possible counterfeits). He then made a special journey to Lemnos, where he continued his investigation, and tried to find the source of the clay. He discovered that it was extracted only once a year (on 6 August) under the supervision of Christian monks and Turkish officials.
Modern investigation has shown that this was a clay similar to the modern 'bentonite'.
Preparation of clay 
Clay gathered from its original source deposit is refined and processed in various ways by manufacturers. This can include heating or baking the clay, since the raw clay tends to contain a variety of micro-organisms
Too much processing, likewise, may reduce the clay's therapeutic potential. In particular, Mascolo et al. studied 'pharmaceutical grade clay' versus 'the natural and the commercial herbalist clay', and found an appreciable depletion of trace elements in the pharmaceutical grade clay. On the other hand, certain clays are typically heated or cooked before use.
Medicinal clay is typically available in health food stores as a dry powder, or in jars in its liquid hydrated state - which is convenient for internal use. For external use, the clay may be added to the bath, or prepared in wet packs or poultices for application to specific parts of the body. Often, warm packs are prepared; the heat opens up the pores of the skin, and helps the interaction of the clay with the body.
In the European health spas, the clay is prepared for use in a multitude of ways - depending on the traditions of a particular spa; typically it is mixed with peat and matured in special pools for a few months or even up to two years.
"The majority of spas ... use artificial ponds where the natural ("virgin") clay is mixed with mineral, thermo-mineral, or sea water that issues in the vicinity of the spas or inside the spa buildings."
Medicinal properties of clay in modern research 
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Absorptive and adsorptive properties of clays 
Kaolin is used medicinally in kaolin and morphine mixture where it is claimed to absorb toxins in the intestines.
Antibacterial properties 
"...exhibits bactericidal activity against E. coli, ESBL [Extended-Spectrum Beta-Lactamases] E. coli, S. enterica serovar Typhimurium, P. aeruginosa, and M. marinum, and significantly reduces growth of S. aureus, PRSA, MRSA, and nonpathogenic M. smegmatis approximately 1,000-fold compared to cultures grown without added mineral products."
Another study of more than 20 different clay samples from around the world, including the bentonite-type clays, achieved promising results against MRSA superbug infections and disease.
Falkinham et al. studied the antibiotic and antimicrobial activity of red clays from the Kingdom of Jordan (Jordan's Red Soil). The authors conclude that the antibiotic activity of Jordan's red clays is likely due to the proliferation of antibiotic-producing bacteria, that is induced by the clay.
Trace minerals 
Clays contain massive amounts of trace minerals, necessary for good health. (For example, it is common to see as many as 75 different trace minerals in Montmorillonite clays.) This may explain many of the healing properties of clay. Specific trace minerals that various clays possess vary very widely. Also, the amount of any particular trace mineral in any specific clay varies a lot among clays from different locations. For example, the amount of iron in various bentonite clays can vary from well below 1%, and up to 10%.
External use 
Mud baths 
Mud baths are perhaps the most common use of clay. Almost all health spas around the world use clay on a daily basis, and report health benefits for bathers.
Skin infections 
Many types of skin infections have been healed by the application of medicinal clay (this was already noted in ancient times by Galen; see above). For example, montmorillonite has shown its effectiveness in this area. It has also shown itself useful for tissue engineering.
As Carretaro et al. say,
"Clays can eliminate excess grease and toxins from skin, and hence are very effective against dermatological diseases such as boils, acne, ulcers, abscess, and seborrhoea."
Clay is used in many dermatological over-the-counter remedies, such as in acne treatments (this information may not be mentioned on the label specifically).
Use in bandages 
In April 2008, the Naval Medical Research Center announced the successful use of a Kaolinite-derived aluminosilicate nanoparticles infusion in traditional gauze known commercially as "QuikClot Combat Gauze".
Internal use 
According to one hypothesis,
"In the stomach, the negative electrical charges of tiny clay particles attract positively charged toxins from stomach fluids. This clumping prevents very small particles, such as toxic molecules, from passing through the walls of the intestines and entering the bloodstream."
The author claims that, together with the clay, the toxins are then eliminated harmlesslyout of the body through the kidneys, despite not entering the bloodstream, or through the bowel.
There are many over the counter remedies for internal use that contained clay before discontinuation. The examples are the tablets such as Kaopectate (Upjohn), Rheaban (Leeming Div., Pfizer), and Diar-Aid (Thompson Medical Co.). The labels on all of these showed the supposedly active ingredient to be Attapulgite, each tablet containing 600 (or 750 mg) of this component along with inert materials or adjuvants. However, since April 2003, attapulgite medication was discontinued due to lack of evidence according to the U.S. Foods and Drugs Administration.
Numerous medicines also use Kaolinite clay, which has long been a traditional remedy to soothe an upset stomach. Also, Kaolin is or has been used as the active substance in liquid anti-diarrhea medicines such as Kaomagma. Such medicines were changed away from aluminium substances due to a scare over Alzheimer's disease, but have since changed back to compounds containing aluminium as they are most effective.
Clays have proven to be effective against the Candida albicans infections. This is a type of a fungus (or yeast), which is a causal agent of opportunistic oral and genital infections. This type of infection, known as Candidiasis, also may enter the bloodstream, and become a systemic Candida infection.
In 1971, the influence of bentonite clay on the growth of Candida lipolytica has been studied by Maignan and Pareilleux. A clearly unfavorable effect of bentonite on Candida lipolytica growth in vitro was observed 
Later on, the same authors have concluded that,
"The respiration of Candida lipolytica on n-tetradecane is decreased in the presence of bentonite."
According to a 2009 study by Ghiaci et al. published in Applied Clay Science, bentonite clay acts very strongly against Candida:
"The modified bentonite with monolayer surfactant (BMS), was the best support, for immobilization."
Heavy metal chelation 
Chelation therapy is the use of chelating agents to detoxify poisonous metal agents such as mercury, arsenic, and lead by converting them to a chemically inert form that can be excreted without further interaction with the body, to treat cases of severe heavy metal poisoning. It is also used as a scientifically unsupported treatment for heart disease and autism.
Clay has proven to be a very effective chelating agent.
Oyanedel-Craver and Smith have studied sorption of four heavy metals (Pb, Cd, Zn and Hg) to 3 kinds of bentonite clay. The overall conclusion of the study was that the organoclays studied have considerable capacity for heavy metal sorption.
Irritable bowel syndrome 
"[B]eidellitic montmorillonite is efficient for C-IBS patients (suffering from constipation-predominant irritable bowel syndrome)..."
Aflatoxins are naturally occurring mycotoxins that are produced by many species of Aspergillus, a fungus. Aflatoxins are toxic and among the most carcinogenic substances known. They cause Aflatoxicosis, which can afflict both animals and humans.
Bentonite clay has proven to show a very strong protective effect against Aflatoxicosis.
"The addition of bentonite or HSCAS [hydrated sodium calcium aluminosilicate] to the AF-contaminated diet diminished most of the deleterious effects of the aflatoxin. Pathological examinations of liver and kidney proved that both bentonite and HSCAS were hepatonephroprotective agents against aflatoxicosis."
"The addition of sodium bentonite was significantly effective in ameliorating the negative effect of aflatoxicosis on the percentage and mean of phagocytosis."
Use during pregnancy 
Pregnant women in many indigenous and traditional cultures very commonly consume clay, especially to reduce nausea. Since clays contain a very large amount of trace minerals of all sorts, this most likely contributes to the development of a healthy fetus.
Scientific analyses of clays selected by pregnant women in Nigeria show that eating as little as 500 mg (about the equivalent of two Tylenol capsules) per day can satisfy nearly 80 percent of a pregnant woman's calcium needs.
Use by the NASA space program 
The effects of weightlessness on human body were studied by NASA in the 1960s. Experiments demonstrated that weightlessness leads to a rapid bone depletion, so various remedies were sought to counter that. A number of pharmaceutical companies were asked to develop calcium supplements, but apparently none of them were as effective as clay. The special clay that was used in this case was Terramin, a reddish clay found in California. Dr. Benjamin Ershoff of the California Polytechnic Institute demonstrated that the consumption of clay counters the effects of weightlessness. He reported that "the calcium in clay ...is absorbed more efficiently ... [clay] contains some factor or factors other than calcium which promotes improved calcium utilization and/or bone formation." He added, "Little or no benefit was noted when calcium alone was added to the diet."
Side effects and USFDA disproval of oral intake effectiveness 
Substances discontinued such as kaolin and attapulgite were formerly considered gastric demulcents and diarrhea medication, until official studies by the USFDA disproved these views. Clays are classified as excipients and their main side-effects are that of neutral excipients, which is to impair and slow down absorption of antibiotics, hormones and heart medication amongst others by coating the digestive tract  and this slowed down absorption can lead to increased toxicity of some medication (e.g. citrate salts) which can become toxic if not metabolized quickly enough, which is one contraindication of attapulgite. Usual mild side-effects are nausea, slowed down absorption of nutrients from food (in excess dosage of medicinal clay) and constipation.
Common medicinal clays 
- Bentonite-type clay has been used to treat infections, indigestion, and other medical problems by both applying wet clay topically to the skin as a poultice, and by ingesting it. Bentonite has been prescribed as a bulk laxative, and it is also used as a base for many dermatologic formulas. Dermatologically, it is used as part of a treatment for pruritis. Also, bentonite can be used as a therapeutic face pack for the treatment of acne/oily skin. Clearasil, an acne cream, uses bentonite as an agent to absorb excess sebum, clearing pores.
- Montmorillonite is the main constituent of bentonite.
- Attapulgite or palygorskite is a very absorbent clay, somewhat similar to bentonite. When used in medicine, it physically binds to acids and toxic substances in the stomach and digestive tract. For this reason, it has been used in several anti-diarrheal medications.
- Kaolin is not as absorbent as most clays used medicinally (it has a low shrink-swell capacity). Also, it has a low cation exchange capacity. This clay is also known as 'white cosmetic clay'. Clay, in the form of kaolin, was a common ingredient in western medicines such as Kaopectate Rolaids and Maalox, but is no longer present in them nor in similar preparations, as it is considered ineffective by the USFDA.
See also 
- Jared M. Diamond, "Evolutionary biology: Dirty eating for healthy living". Nature 400, 120-121 (1999)
- Olle Selinus, B. J. Alloway, Essentials of medical geology: impacts of the natural environment on public health. Academic Press, 2005 ISBN 0-12-636341-2, p. 446
- ASU research[dead link]
- PAPYRUS EBERS, 1937 translation.
- Recipes for Treating the Eyes: Papyrus Ebers[dead link]
- Cited in Thompson CJS. The mystery and art of the apothecary, by C.J.S. thompson. London: John Lane; 1929. p. 44.
- Dr. H. Van Der Loos, The Miracles of Jesus, Leiden, the Netherlands, Brill, 1965. p. 82.
- Soranus' gynecology, Owsei Temkin (tr.), JHU Press, 1991 (reprint). pp. 239-240. ISBN 0-8018-4320-0
- L. Leclerc, "Traite des simples", II, 1881, pp. 421-427; for a general appreciation of this work see Baron Carra de Vaux, "Les penseurs de lslam", II, 1921, pp. 289-296 (original note in Laufer)
- Laufer, Berthold (1930). Geophagy (available online). Chicago: Field Museum Press.
- "Soil, including kaolinitic and montmorillonitic clays, contains considerable amounts of organic material, including many live microorganisms." from CDC.gov website Callahan GN. Eating dirt. Emerg Infect Dis [serial online] 2003 Aug. (accessed 16 June 2009)
- Mascolo, N.; Summa, V.; Tateo, F. (1999). "Characterization of toxic elements in clays for human healing use". Applied Clay Science 15 (5–6): 491. doi:10.1016/S0169-1317(99)00037-X.
- An example of this is the medieval 'Argentiera' clay, mentioned in this article.
- "Hot application is recommended in geotherapy, pelotherapy or paramuds in beauty therapy..." Carretaro MI, Gomes CSF, Tateo F. "Clays and human health." In: Bergaya F, Theng BKG, Lagaly G, editors. Handbook of Clay Science, Developments in Clay Science. Vol. 1. Elsevier Ltd; Amsterdam: 2006. pp. 717–741. ISBN 0-08-044183-1 p. 723
- Carretaro MI, Gomes CSF, Tateo F. "Clays and human health." In: Bergaya F, Theng BKG, Lagaly G, editors. Handbook of Clay Science, Developments in Clay Science. Vol. 1. Elsevier Ltd; Amsterdam: 2006. pp. 717–741. ISBN 0-08-044183-1, ISBN 978-0-08-044183-2 p. 724
- "Kaolin and morphine mixture". Netdoctor.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-10-07.
- Haydel, S.; Remenih, C.; Williams, L. (2008). "Broad-spectrum in vitro antibacterial activities of clay minerals against antibiotic-susceptible and antibiotic-resistant bacterial pathogens.". The Journal of antimicrobial chemotherapy 61 (2): 353–361. doi:10.1093/jac/dkm468. PMC 2413170. PMID 18070832.
- Haydel, S.; Remenih, C.; Williams, L. (2008). "Broad-spectrum in vitro antibacterial activities of clay minerals against antibiotic-susceptible and antibiotic-resistant bacterial pathogens.". The Journal of antimicrobial chemotherapy 61 (2): 353–361. doi:10.1093/jac/dkm468. PMC 2413170. PMID 18070832. (full text of the article)
- Falkinham Jo, 3.; Wall, T.; Tanner, J.; Tawaha, K.; Alali, F.; Li, C.; Oberlies, N. (2009). "Proliferation of antibiotic-producing bacteria and concomitant antibiotic production as the basis for the antibiotic activity of Jordan's red soils.". Applied and environmental microbiology 75 (9): 2735–2741. doi:10.1128/AEM.00104-09. PMC 2681674. PMID 19286796.
- US Patent 6962718 Table 1: Montmorillonite Components; Average Nutrient Content (accessed 29 Nov 09)
- A systematic review of contact dermatitis treatment and prevention. Saary J, Qureshi R, Palda V, DeKoven J, Pratt M, Skotnicki-Grant S, Holness L. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005 Nov;53(5):845. Review.
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- Cytotoxic assessment of L-ascorbic acid/montmorillonite upon human dermal fibroblasts in vitro: MTT activity assay. Lee, Y.-H., Chen, B.-Y., Lin, F.-H., Lin, K.-Y., Lin, K.-F. 2008 Biomedical Engineering - Applications, Basis and Communications 20 (6), pp. 337-343
- Preparation of biomimetic three-dimensional gelatin/montmorillonite-chitosan scaffold for tissue engineering. Zheng, J.P., Wang, C.Z., Wang, X.X., Wang, H.Y., Zhuang, H., Yao, K.D. 2007 Reactive and Functional Polymers 67 (9), pp. 780-788
- Carretaro MI, Gomes CSF, Tateo F. "Clays and human health." In: Bergaya F, Theng BKG, Lagaly G, editors. Handbook of Clay Science, Developments in Clay Science. Vol. 1. Elsevier Ltd; Amsterdam: 2006. pp. 717–741. ISBN 0-08-044183-1 p. 722
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Further reading 
- Michel Abehsera, The healing clay : the centuries-old health & beauty elixir rediscovered. Brooklyn, N.Y. : Swan House, 1979. ISBN 0-918282-10-1 OCLC 12094673
- Cindy Engel, Wild Health: Lessons In Natural Wellness From The Animal Kingdom. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003. ISBN 0-618-34068-8
- Knishinsky, Ran. "The clay cure – natural healing from the earth". Healing Arts Press. 1998.
- Laufer, Berthold (1930). "Geophagy" (available online). Chicago: Field Museum Press.
- W. Rudolph Reinbacher, "Healing earths: the third leg of medicine : a history of minerals in medicine with rare illustrations from 300 to 1000 years ago." Published by W. Rudolph Reinbacher, 2002
- Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, "Honey, Mud, Maggots and Other Medical Marvels." Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
- "The Original Georgia Grown Gourmet White Dirt" Kaolin-type clay from Georgia, USA.
- "Parrots That Eat Dirt"- by Jack Myers
- French muck: Is this the new penicillin? - by Paul Rodgers (accessed 3 Nov 09)
- ABC News, Experts claim habit of eating dirt may be beneficial for some, October 4, 2005 (accessed 17 Dec 09)