No Joke: Volcanic Ash Is a Magical Skin-Clearing Ingredient

Dermatologists weigh in on its oil-clearing properties.

Close up of woman's face

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When you learn that one of the latest need-to-know skincare ingredients hails from the fires of a volcano, you might think the quest for eternal youth has finally gone too far. But volcanic ash—yes, like actual ash, from an actual volcano—has been popping up in our creams, masks, and cleansers for a bit, and for good reason. While the name may be off-putting and raise questions about how it's sourced, volcanic ash boasts a bevy of skin benefits. Think of volcanic ash as the marginally-gentler-but-equally-effective cousin to clay and mud. We spoke to Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, MD, founder of Mudgil Dermatology in NYC; Dr. Marie Hayag, Board Certified dermatologist and founder of 5th Avenue Aesthetics, and Grace King, a cosmetic scientist and president of Grace Kingdom Beauty, to get the lowdown on the detoxifying ingredient that seems to be everywhere.

Type of ingredient: Antioxidant

Main benefits: Clarifying, antibacterial, reduces oxidation.

Who should use it: In general, people with acneic, oily skin.

How often can you use it?: Try not to use it more than once every few days, as it can be drying.

Works well with: Hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid.

Doesn't work with: Not recommended for use with other exfoliants, as it can be stripping.

What is Volcanic Ash?

According to National Geographic, in simplest terms, "Volcanic ash is a mixture of rock, mineral, and glass particles expelled from a volcano during a volcanic eruption." According to Dr. Hayag, "Volcanic ash is a combination of sulphur and betonite clay." As opposed to lava or volcanic rock, however, volcanic ash isn't something that flows from volcanoes. Instead, it's expelled across large distances along with water and gas. Volcanic ash has actually created plenty of problems for people over the years—from killing crops to delaying and cancelling flights. However, its unique structure makes it a fantastic ingredient for skincare.

Volcanic ash particles are tiny and highly porous, which means they're incredibly absorbent. This works very well for cleaning up liquids; in the beauty market, this means they're specifically great for clearing off the stubborn oil and sebum that sit on your face during the day. It also means the ash is helpful in clearing up any less-than-natural things that may be residing on your face, like pollution and extra makeup.

Benefits of Volcanic Ash for Skin

Dr. Hayag lauds its anti-inflammatory properties, saying that it "has been known for many years to help soothe inflamed skin in eczema and psoriasis." 

In other words, it soaks up all the bad stuff like a sponge. According to King, volcanic ash "works like clay, to soak up sebum, making it especially helpful for those with oily, acne-prone skin."

Sonya Dakar, celebrity esthetician and founder and CEO of Sonya Dakar Skincare and Skin Clinic, echoes King. "Volcanic ash is extremely rich in minerals and has antiseptic, antibacterial, and antioxidant properties. So it works really well to not only clear blemishes but heal the inflamed, irritated skin." Basically, if your skin feels polluted—for whatever reason—volcanic ash is a pretty good ingredient to turn to.

Side Effects of Volcanic Ash

Volcanic ash has the same major side effect as pretty much any volcanic or mud-based product: it's drying. As in, if it's not mixed with the right ingredients, it can cause some seriously intense facial irritation. Skin isn't meant to be totally oil-free—that's why oil cleansers exist and some people with oily skin actually find it helps when they add more oil instead of trying to dry it off. Try to make sure the volcanic ash-based product you're using has a lot of hydrating ingredients to balance it out.

How to Use It

"Volcanic ash has antioxidant and antibacterial properties," Dr. Mudgil reiterates. However, he suggests a way to use them: "These are best used as a mask, to help give the skin some 'pop.'" Because of its drying properties, volcanic ash isn't an ingredient you necessarily want to leave on your face for an extended period of time, unless your skin is extremely oily. However, it makes for a fantastic treatment. "I can say that my skin always looks radiant after a sulphur spring mud bath in St Lucia," quips Dr. Hayag.

Ready to incorporate volcanic ash into your skincare routine? Here are our product recommendations.

The Best Products with Volcanic Ash

Irish Moor Mud Purifying Black Mask 5 oz
Peter Thomas Roth Irish Moor Mud Purifying Black Mask $60
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If your skin needs a serious detox, look to this mask. It's got all the heavy-hitting skin purifiers: volcanic ash, Irish moor mud, and activated charcoal. For balance, it also contains nourishing hijiki seaweed. It's purifying, but not aggressive on your skin.

Super Volcanic Clusters Pore Clearing Clay Mask
Innisfree Super Volcanic Clusters Pore Clearing Clay Mask $15
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Clay masks have a tendency to be both messy and drying. This one bypasses both of these negatives. Like most masks, it's easy to apply, and because it's formulated with volcanic ash and lactic acid, it's resurfacing while it sucks the gunk out of your pores.

VOLCASMIC™ Matte Glow Moisturizer 1.7 oz/ 50 mL
GlamGlow Volcasmic Matte Glow Moisturizer $49
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Because it's water-based, this moisturizer is super lightweight. The volcanic ash combined with super hydrating ingredients helps keep skin shine-free all day long without drying it out. Bonus? It doubles as a primer—so you don't have to worry about pore-clogging ingredients layered on top of it.

Saturn Sulfur Acne Treatment Mask 2 oz/ 60 mL
Sunday Riley Saturn Sulfur Acne Treatment Mask $55
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First off, yes, this mask contains sulfur, so we'll concede that it does stink a tiny bit. (The things we're willing to do for perfect skin...). Regardless, when combined with bentonite clay—aka volcanic ash—sulfur is an even more effective acne fighter than it is alone. This mask also touts tea tree oil as an ingredient, to clarify the skin and kill acne-causing bacteria.

ouai super dry shampoo in an all white aerosol can
Ouai Super Dry Shampoo $24
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Does your dry shampoo always do its job? We're guessing not, because there are some messes that can't be cleaned up with your basic dry shampoo—especially if it touts other qualities like "volumizing" or "conditioning." Ouai's dry shampoo is for the days when you really need to clean up your part and roots, and it utilizes volcanic ash to absorb grease and grime sitting on your scalp. Volcanic ash isn't just for your face.

bite beauty changemaker foundation
Bite Beauty Changemaker Flexible Coverage Pressed Powder $36
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Many people use volcanic ash-based products to mop up sweat and oil that accumulates on their face through the day, and Bite Beauty has taken advantage of the ash's absorbent properties with its pressed powder. The product offers genuinely flexible coverage, and comes in six different shades that accommodate a range of skin tones.

Joanna Vargas Exfoliating Mask
Joanna Vargas Exfoliating Mask $75
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While volcanic ash is used to draw out impurities in this mask, it comes secondary to the acids (lactic and kojic) used to gently slough off dead skin and target hyperpigmentation. It also utilizes galactoarabinan—a plant-based polysaccharide—to boost cell turnover.

Morning Mojo Bar Soap
Ursa Major Morning Mojo Bar Soap $14
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Although people often forsake bar soap for its liquid counterpart, Ursa Major's affordable-and-effective version may change your mind. Volcanic minerals are included to purify and exfoliate skin, along with eucalyptus and mint essential oils to invigorate the senses. Not only is bar soap more sustainable than regular soap, but the palm oil the bar is made with is certified sustainable as well.

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