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ASU study finds clay can potentially cure skin diseases

Uses of clay for healing and beautiful skin go back to prehistoric times, and many claim that it holds the secret to beautiful skin. Recently, microbiologists at ASU have discovered that clays can potentially treat skin infections.

Professor Shelley Haydel, a professor in Biodesign, is helping lead the study.

“We have known since before recorded history that clays can absorb bacteria, water and oils," she said. "That’s why we get clay facials at the spa."

Haydel has been studying mycobacterium tuberculosis for 20 years. She got involved in this research because there was anecdotal evidence that certain types of clays could heal patients with skin diseases.

The study is being funded by the National institutes of Health, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Microbiologists have found that certain clays can eliminate bacteria like E. coli and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

Haydel said the team focuses on finding out if clay killed bacteria and, if it did, how it happened. Those two questions are what have driven the research investigations in the lab.

“After figuring out how clays killed bacteria, that led to the third question; ‘Is it the properties in clay that kills bacteria or is it a chemical entity that is released from the clay?’” she said.

There are all sorts of different bacteria, so there are a lot of different variables linked with this investigation. There is no way of knowing for sure what types of clays are most effective in curing skin infections.

The experiments being conducted are all based in a laboratory. Human subjects have not yet been tested.

“We have not yet dealt with the complexities of the human body,” Haydel said. “Everything is in a test tube.”

Haydel said her research team is beginning to learn how the clays are killing bacteria.

“When we put clays in a water environment and mix them, metal ions from the surface of the clay are killing bacteria,” she said.

The beneficial aspects of clays are that they are naturally absorbent. However, similar to antibiotics, clay can absorb good bacteria needed in the human body just as well as it can absorb bad bacteria.

Some clay can also contain toxins that are detrimental to human health.

For years, an anti-diarrheal medicine called Kaopectate, which contained kaolin clay, faced a lawsuit after a young boy ingested the medicine and contracted lead poisoning that was in the clay. Today, Kaopectate no longer contains kaolin clay.

“I want to emphasize that we are not advocating ingesting clays at all,” Haydel said. “Depending on what is present in the clay, it could potentially be toxic.”

Over the past two decades, the population has been more accepting to different kinds of treatments, she said.

Haydel said her research team is trying to validate complementary alternative medicines.

“If we can ensure that clay treatments are safe, then it will be accepted on an individual basis,” she said. “Then that individual basis can extend acceptance to healthcare workers as well.”

Haydel said she wants to emphasize that her research team is not trying to replace antibiotics.

“We are trying to complement them with something that could be applied topically to the surface of the infection,” she said.

Political science senior Tierra Wheatley said she would definitely give clays a try if they came into commercial use.

“Especially if it is something that comes from a natural source,” she said.

Music education sophomore Kristina Misch said she is always open to new medicine that could be beneficial.

“If it works, it works,” she said.

Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @kelciegrega

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