There’s a certain sense of peace and well-being you only experience when you find yourself thousands of miles away from a metropolitan city. Unfurling over your body like a warm haze, it’s a reaction that feels as physical as it does mental. Your jumpy, overly caffeinated heart rate slows to a pleasant, steady thumping; you breathe more deeply, your tired lungs marveling at the untainted countryside air; your tense shoulder muscles relax with an unfamiliar feeling of relaxation. You’re suddenly smiling more—and no, it’s not just from the really good wine you’re having at lunch, dinner, and occasionally, even breakfast (delivered with a nod and a wink by a very nonjudgmental bartender).
To anyone wishing to experience this full body and mind unwinding, I highly recommend taking a trip to Umbria, Italy. Nicknamed the “Green Heart of Italy” (a term I heard at least once a day—Umbrians are proud of their city’s connection to the earth), Umbria is just a two-hour drive north of Rome and four hours south of Venice. Those few hours may as well be days.
Whereas Italy’s major cities boast stunning history and a hefty dose of bustling tourism, there’s a slight feeling of grandeur-gone-by; Umbria’s rolling green fields and endless vineyards hold a precious beauty unchanged by the passing of time. Though you know deep down it’s not the case, you can’t help but feel like perhaps you’re the first person to stumble upon this place where street lamps don’t exist, and where stars burn brightly against a pitch-black sky.
When Fresh invited me to come with them to Umbria and learn more about one of their most iconic products, I expected to hear a nice-sounding story and to eat a lot of pasta and cheese. The latter certainly happened (I’m still reeling from the sheer size and magnitude of this “appetizer” cheese platter presented to me on our first day), but Umbria’s untouched beauty and cheerful inhabitants took my jaded city heart by surprise.
Every Umbrian I met—from our raven-haired tour guide in Assisi to the owner of the Castello Monte Vibiano Vineyard—had the blithe, joyful, unencumbered air I usually associate with someone who has just returned from a long vacation, or perhaps recently taken a Xanax. Plus, their skin. The word “glowing” gets tossed around too easily in the beauty world, but it’s the truest description of their complexions; most of the women looked like they’d never spent a second of their day finding their foundation match, and yet their tawny, sun-warmed skin reflected light from every angle without the help of Pat McGrath’s Skin Fetish 003.
I needed to know the reason. I originally sought to uncover traditional beauty secrets from Umbrian women, but I found that the more I asked around, the more it became evident that there was only one major beauty secret worth mentioning: clay.
Fresh co-founders Lev Glazman and Alina Roytberg created their now best-selling Umbrian Purifying Clay Mask ($62) after witnessing the transformative powers of this clay on a friend who was suffering from acne. According to them, this friend moved to Nocera Umbra, a small town in the city of Perugia, and used the clay from the city every day—supposedly even sleeping with a layer of it over her face—and in just six months, her skin had cleared.
Sensing an untapped new hero ingredient, Glazman and Roytberg immediately arranged a meeting with the owner of a quarry in Nocera Umbra, who they work with to this day to create their mask. The concept of a skin-clearing clay mask is hardly new—there’s an overwhelming amount on Sephora’s website alone, not to mention divisive versions like the one from Aztec Secret—but Fresh says there’s something special about clay from Nocera Umbra specifically.
Like all good stories, there’s an element of mythical folklore. For hundreds of years, neighboring cities believed Umbrian water to have magic healing properties; it flows over the earth, picking up vital nutrients and minerals along the way. Nowadays, however, it’s the country’s rich clay deposits that’s touted as the miracle healer.
Supposedly, Umbrian clay is higher in silica, has a neutral pH, and unlike other clays, doesn’t overdry the skin when applied topically. During the trip, we were told that Umbrians have used the clay from their earth to do everything from heal cuts, bites, and burns to soothe diaper rash for centuries—some inhabitants even drink it in the hopes of treating ulcers and hemorrhoids (it appears that Shailene Woodley’s clay-eating habit isn’t as radical as I thought).
To really emphasize the rich history of Nocera Umbra’s clay, on the second day of the trip, a silver-haired archaeologist told a room of editors that when a team of archaeologists excavated a cemetery filled with noble people, they found “loaves” of clay buried in 10 of the tombs. “Between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, clay was used in rituals and in beauty routines,” she explained via an interpreter. “These priests and noble men and women were buried with their precious belongings, including blocks of clay which were found next to their heads or by their feet in big chunks.” A beauty and health secret so valued and treasured, inhabitants were buried with it—you couldn’t make up a better backstory.
But like any dubious beauty editor who’s heard her fair share of exotic stories (many of which are just that: stories born out of necessity rather than honesty), I had my reservations. Surely, the story was a little too perfect? The secret to these women’s radiating complexions couldn’t possibly be something so simple, so easily bottled and purchased?
Turns out, that was exactly the case. In Assisi, I probed our tour guide, with her makeup-free skin and swish of black eyeliner, about her beauty routine. “Oh yes, my grandmother used clay, and then my mother, and now myself,” she tells me cheerfully as we take in the majesty of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.
The clay she mentions is not Fresh’s specifically, but rather one she purchases as the local drugstore; but like Fresh’s, it too comes from Umbria’s rich, fertile earth. “I mix it with water and apply it to my face like a paste, or mask—then I wash it off after a few minutes,” she divulges further. A day later, I practically accost a glowy-skinned French woman named Lea working at the Rometti ceramics house (which Fresh just collaborated with for a limited edition version of their mask).
What was the biggest beauty secret she’s learned since moving to Umbria? “I make a clay mask from powder,” she explains to my somewhat surprised expression. “I find it in a sort of Italian pharmacy, and mix with a bowl of water. You can also add some drops of rose oil or other oils if you want perfume in it. The clay is going to open your pores, and after twenty minutes, you have to remove it with a washcloth.” Did she credit her good skin to this clay? “Yes, after you apply your cream every day, it gets more beautiful,” she affirms.
Did she think everyone in Umbria used clay in their beauty routines? “I think so—grandmas used to use it, so it transmits through generations. This is a secret of Italian girls. It’s very old stuff. The mother gives it to the daughter, and so on. I have Italian friends, and I can tell you, yes, they use it.” In America, mothers pass product recommendations and sage beauty advice like “Put down the tweezers” to their daughters; in Umbria, it’s all about the clay.
Perhaps it was the sheer number of women I observed and spoke with who proclaimed their love for this centuries-old beauty secret (people this happy and carefree can’t possibly be bothered to lie, right?). Maybe it was the way the sun melted over the horizon every night, reminding me that the world is exploding with jaw-dropping, gasp-inducing moments of beauty—you just have to look. Or maybe I just consumed one too many glasses of Monte Vibiano’s world-famous Maria Camilla wine. Whatever it was, my jaded self—chided by the mood-boosting powers often found during a respite from city life in a far-away country—started accepting this lovely, too-perfect story as the truth.
What’s your favorite natural beauty ingredient? Tell me below!
This press trip was paid for by Fresh. Editors’ opinions are their own.