Kaolin Is a Game-Changer for Oily Skin—Here's How to Use It in Your Skincare Routine

Guide to Kaolin

Anna Efetova for Getty Images/ Design by Cristina Cianci

If an oily complexion, lots of little blackheads, or a shiny T-zone are skin concerns of yours, you already know all about the wonders of clay masks. But when it comes to choosing the right clay for your skin (never mind finding the right mask), things might not be as crystal clear.

One type that we think deserves the spotlight? Kaolin. You'll find this ingredient in tons of different treatments, cleansers, and other skincare products, and for good reason. The absorbent ingredient targets excess oil, blackheads, and shine, resulting in softer, smoother, and more mattified skin. To find out how exactly kaolin works, who should try it, and which kaolin-based products to use, we turned to the experts.

Meet the Expert

  • Fran E. Cook-Bolden, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist at Park South Medical in Bronx, New York.
  • Ranella Hirsch, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in Boston.

Ahead, find out everything you need to know about kaolin as an ingredient in your skincare products.

Kaolin Clay

Type of ingredient: Absorbent, drying agent

Main benefits: Binds sebum, removes excess oil, mattifies, and draws out impurities.

Who should use it: In general, those with oily or breakout-prone skin looking to control oil and shine would benefit from using kaolin in their skincare routines, but the ingredient is safe for most skin types.

How often can you use it: Hirsch says for most people, kaolin can be used to treat an oily complexion as little as once a week, but Cook-Bolden says it can be used up to four times weekly, depending on the patient.

Works well with: Cook-Bolden says other botanicals and minerals that can heal, soothe, and calm the skin can be used along with kaolin, and Hirsch suggests trying chamomile for its potential soothing benefits. 

Don't use with: Cook-Bolden says it’s a good idea to avoid using other drying agents in conjunction with kaolin.

What Is Kaolin?

Kaolin (also referred to as white clay, China clay, hectorite, or magnesium silicate) is a type of soft clay found in nature, but can also be produced synthetically in a laboratory. It serves many different purposes, including uses in medicines and makeup, but in regards to skincare, kaolin adds absorbency and texture and is used as a drying agent, as Cook-Bolden explains it. Unlike some other clays, kaolin is known for being gentle on the skin, which makes it safe for most skin types.

"One of the most common ways we see it used is as a mask treatment for people with oily or breakout-prone skin," Hirsch explains. Cook-Bolden says although kaolin is most often used in products like masks and cleansers, it also works well in serums and formulations made specifically for absorbing excess sebum and moisture in oily skin.

Benefits of Kaolin for Skin

Although kaolin doesn't boast a wide range of skin benefits and it might not be the most multipurpose of skincare ingredients, it's an effective treatment for an oily complexion and could be a great addition to your weekly skincare routine for the following reasons:

  • Binds sebum: According to Cook-Bolden, kaolin absorbs excess sebum (the oily substance our skin makes) and moisture in oily skin.
  • Controls oil and shine: Got a shiny T-zone? Kaolin can mattify your complexion by removing excess oil from the skin's surface.
  • Draws out impurities: "Kaolin complements acne therapy regimens as it effectively draws out impurities from deep within the skin, dries up blackheads, absorbs excess oils, and minimizes the appearance of pores, leaving the skin feeling soft and smooth," Cook-Bolden explains.

Side Effects of Kaolin

Although kaolin is a pretty benign ingredient and is considered to be a safe substance when used in personal care products by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel, Hirsch says if it's used too frequently, it can be quite drying. "If you suffer from very dry skin, you may want to avoid kaolin," Cook-Bolden adds. "Otherwise, there are no real contraindications to using it on the skin."

How to Use It

The manner in which kaolin should be applied to the skin depends on the product in question. With that said, kaolin is most commonly used in the form of a mask, and Hirsh generally recommends applying it once a week. Some (those who can tolerate it) can benefit from using the clarifying ingredient up to four times a week to control oil and shine, according to Cook-Bolden: "Actual usage will be determined based on the patient's skin condition."

If using it as a mask, Cook-Bolden recommends applying it liberally (depending on the oiliness of the skin) and leaving it on for 10 to 15 minutes before rinsing.

If the pores in your T-zone are looking particularly congested, this clarifying mask should do the trick (trust us, we've tried it). This formula gets straight to work with a blend of six exfoliating acids to unclog pores and a combo of activated charcoal and kaolin to remove excess oil from your skin.

Cook-Bolden recommends this exfoliating treatment for its blend of favorite acne-fighting ingredients, such as kaolin clay to draw out impurities and absorb excess oil, multifruit acid AHAs to provide gentle exfoliation, salicylic acid (BHA) to help unclog pores, and bamboo exfoliant to smooth skin texture and tone.

Both derms call out this mask from SkinCeuticals as one of the best kaolin-based products. It's so beloved that it is frequently out of stock. True to its name, it clarifies the skin with both kaolin and bentonite clays. But that's not all: it also works to exfoliate dead skin with fruit extracts such as glycolic and lactic acids, and potentially soothes with aloe and chamomile.

Yep, you saw that right. This mask, one of Hirsch's top picks for weekly masking and deep cleansing, is only seven bucks, but it's worth so much more. Credit both kaolin and smectite clay for removing impurities, excess oil, and dead skin buildup.

Hirsch likes this formula by Dr. Barbara Sturm for the added chamomile to help calm the skin, but it also boasts soothing aloe and purslane, and of course, kaolin, making it a good choice for most skin types.

If you enjoy the fun of applying a mask, you'll love this powder formula that you whip up yourself and peel off once dry. Although it is currently out of stock, this single-use mask body treatment works to soften rough, dry skin, and according to our product review, the results are pretty much immediate.

  • What does kaolin do for skin?

    Kaolin binds sebum, removes excess oil, mattifies, and draws out impurities. It's particularly beneficial for those with oily or breakout-prone skin.

  • How often can you use kaolin in your skincare routine?

    Hirsch says for most people, kaolin can be used to treat an oily complexion as little as once a week, but Cook-Bolden says it can be used up to four times weekly, depending on the patient.

  • Does kaolin clay exfoliate the skin?

    While kaolin does not directly exfoliate the skin, it can decongest and smooth it for a clearer, brighter appearance. As you wash off a kaolin clay mask, you can wet your skin and rub the clay in gentle circles for an exfoliating effect.

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