Umbrian clay a star ingredient for beauty label Fresh

A quarry in Umbria, Italy, is a treasure trove of mineral-rich clay which helped the ancient Etruscan civilisation flourish. Watch how the clay is turned into treatment bars by beauty brand Fresh.
"They (the shop) called it white clay... She told us her skin responded to it almost immediately and, within six months, it pretty much cleared." - FRESH FOUNDER LEV GLAZMAN (above left, with co-founder Alina Roytberg) on how they discovered Umbrian
"They (the shop) called it white clay... She told us her skin responded to it almost immediately and, within six months, it pretty much cleared." - FRESH FOUNDER LEV GLAZMAN (above left, with co-founder Alina Roytberg) on how they discovered Umbrian clay in 1992 when their friend in Rome used it to cure her severe acne. The clay is now an ingredient in the beauty label's Umbrian Clay collection.PHOTOS: FRESH
PHOTOS: FRESH

Umbrian clay from Italy's Nocera Umbra can treat burns and acne and is now an essential ingredient for beauty label Fresh

At the end of a rugged path that cuts through slopes of green olive trees swaying slightly in the light Italian breeze is a hillside clay quarry.

The earth that is mined here looks rough, uneven and pebbly.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine that this gravelly clay, chunks of which crumble easily in my palm, is the prime ingredient of a best-selling beauty mask marketed all over the world.

In Singapore, many households swear by prickly heat powder to combat rash and one will be hard- pressed to find a home without a bottle of Axe oil - handy for quick relief from a throbbing headache.

In Nocera Umbra, about 180km from Rome, the miracle cure is Umbrian clay - naturally occurring in the central Italian town's many quarries and springs.

During the Etruscan civilisation - the period from the 8th to 3rd century BC - that preceded the Romans, baths and spas were filled with the town's mineral-rich spring water for people to drink from and soak in.

People thought it was the water that was healing, but when they studied the earth over which the water flowed, they discovered that the therapeutic properties came from the clay.

The clay was also used to treat bites and burns and a teaspoon of the powder diluted in water was touted to heal ulcers when ingested.

  • Fresh's interesting ingredients

    Beauty brand Fresh is known for its use of interesting ingredients sourced from around the world. Umbrian clay aside, here are a few of its unique finds.

    ROSES

    For its rose collection, Fresh sources the flowers from the Turkish town of Isparta, also known as the city of roses. In a ritual going back 200 years, the farmers of Isparta hand-pick roses from the town's lush fields at sunrise, when oil yield from the petals peaks. Roses from Isparta are believed to yield more oil compared with roses from elsewhere.

    Popular in Singapore: Rose Face Mask ($95) and Rose Deep Hydration Facial Toner ($69)

    BLACK TEA

    The brand first turned to black tea because of its high levels of antioxidants. But then it started researching and using Kombucha, a fermented black tea blend with a recorded history tracing back to 250 BC. The Chinese call it an "immortal health elixir" due to its ability to aid digestion and promote health of the gut.

    Popular in Singapore: Black Tea Instant Perfecting Mask ($144) and Black Tea Firming Overnight Mask ($144)

    VITAMIN NECTAR

    The face mask under this collection is made of real fruit paste from crushed oranges, lemons and clementines harvested in the Mediterranean once a year. Citrus fruit that grow in the Mediterranean climate have bright, smooth skins and an optimal blend of sweetness and acidity, according to Yara International, a global firm specialising in agricultural products.

    Popular in Singapore: Vitamin Nectar Vibrancy Boosting Face Mask ($105)

In the old days, it was also used to clean teeth and lumps of clay were found among other precious possessions in tombs dating back to the 6th century BC.

These days, it is used in medicinal products for animals as a cure for injuries, in pottery workshops and can be bought as powder at local pharmacies as a treatment for bites, burns and aches.

It is also available in Singapore, in Fresh products, thanks to sleuthing on the part of the beauty chain's founders Lev Glazman, 56, and Alina Roytberg, 55.

The American duo, who are married and split their time among Boston, New York City and Hudson city, discovered the clay in 1992 through a friend they visited in Rome, a long-time sufferer of severe acne. It was a year since they had last met her.

"I remember when we saw her, her skin was completely clear. It just looked perfect. We asked her, 'What did you do to your face, are you going for any kind of treatment?'" Mr Glazman recounts.

It turns out that the cure was found in a small Italian herbal pharmacy which sold the Umbrian clay as a powder.

She showed the couple a bag filled with the ashy grey clay.

"They (the shop) called it white clay and told her to mix it with a little water, put it on and leave it on for as long as she wanted. She told us her skin responded to it almost immediately and, within six months, it pretty much cleared," he adds.

Curious, the pair, who had founded Fresh the year before in 1991, asked her to put them in touch with people who knew more about the clay.

The next day, they drove to Nocera Umbra to meet the quarry and factory owner, took the ingredient back home to their laboratory and started tinkering with it.

It also became a mainstay in their home in the United States - as an ointment to soothe their two daughters' nappy rash problems and later to address their teenage skin breakouts.

In 2000, Fresh launched its Umbrian Clay line.

It first launched a toothpaste and the pure Umbrian clay bar, and then the mask, lotion, toner and other products. The toothpaste was popular, but the founders discontinued it to prioritise other skincare formulas and products that feature the clay.

In Singapore, the clay products are sold at Fresh's two boutiques - at Ion Orchard and Raffles City - and at Sephora.

Fresh did not give financial details, but Ms Roytberg says they have received a "terrific response from Singapore" for the clay products.

The founders put this down to the product's versatility.

Their purifying clay mask - a concoction of processed Umbrian clay, which is now soft and silky-smooth to touch, blended with sandalwood oil, camomile flower, lavender water and other ingredients - is a multi-tasker: It can be used as a mask, a cleanser or as an ointment for dabbing on small skin imperfections.

Its treatment bars, which are 100 per cent clay, can be slathered on moist skin during baths and left to dry for five minutes before rinsing.

Mr Glazman says: "We believe in taking the incredible ancient remedies that sustain and survive for centuries and making them relevant today because modern technology allows us to make them even better."

And in making products relevant, packaging, too, has a part to play.

To celebrate its connection to Nocera Umbra, Fresh - which has 34 standalone retail stores around the world, including the two in Singapore - collaborated with Italian ceramic workshop Rometti to design a limited-edition packaging for the clay mask.

An Etruscan woman, a silhouette of a modern woman and colours inspired by the Umbrian landscape form the design of Fresh's new packaging for the 100ml jar, which has been available in Singapore since the beginning of this month.

For the Fresh founders, collaborating with artists from the same place from where they source their clay means taking the story of the ancient ingredient forward.

"We are storytellers. We believe that there is a reason for every ingredient. There is history and, without the past, there is no future," says Mr Glazman.

•The writer's trip was sponsored by Fresh.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2017, with the headline 'Goodness from the earth '. Print Edition | Subscribe