Last week one of our wonderful tabloids published "the most amazing pictures you will ever see of the world's biggest superstar". And they were pretty amazing, actually. There was Madonna, heavily pregnant, wallowing like a very jolly, very muddy hippo in the murky sludge of a volcanic lake on an island off the west coast of Sicily. It was clear she had spent time slapping the goo from the bottom of the reed-lined lake all over her bump (her second child is due in September), her limbs and her face.
I am not sure I have ever seen Madonna - a woman we never normally see out of make-up and designer clothes - looking happier, and there's no doubt that mud baths, especially in the open air, are brilliant fun. But coating yourself with mud is also said to have amazing benefits for both your skin and your health.
Can it be true? Judging by the number of health spas and beauty clinics that now offer their own in-house version of the treatment, it is not just Madonna who thinks so. "Nowadays we are more in need of this kind of treatment because a lot of nutrients that are in the soil generally have become so weakened that we need to remineralise the body," says Haley Neech, spa manager at Forest Mere in Liphook, Hampshire, which provides more than 1,500 mud baths each year for its clients. "Hence there is a lot of hype now about taking vitamins and minerals and eating organic food."
But like many hippy, New Age therapies, the idea is far from new. Cleopatra was apparently a big believer in the anti-ageing properties of mud; she is said to have sent slaves all the way to the Dead Sea to collect mud for her bath. That aside, a quick glance at any nature programme will probably confirm that elephants, rhinos and pigs are among those who hold the copyright. Lolling about in the mud appears to be a cunning skin- conditioning treatment for over-heated mammals. If it can work for them, why not us?
Human devotees say that both the open air and beauty parlour version (which involves being slapped in mud, wrapped up in cling film for about 20 minutes, showered and then wrapped up in cling film again to sweat out impurities), has an amazing smoothing and moisturising effect on the skin. There's no denying it because you can feel that it works.
As for the health benefits, you are not going to find a professor of anything with much to say on the subject, but tradition has it that minerals are absorbed through the skin, and different muds are good for different illnesses. "Muds from various parts of the world contain different mineral contents," says Neech, "each of which has different qualities. Madonna's volcanic mud is particularly rich in sulphur and sodium which is good for toning, and magnesium is a natural sedative that is good if you are particularly tense since it can help relax the muscles." Zinc-rich mud is recommended for acne and psoriasis, while copper is apparently beneficial for arthritis, rheumatism and aches and pains.
But before you start digging your own refreshing mud pit in your back garden, take note: no one says all mud is good for your skin. "A lot of the time the mud we have in the back garden is not refined enough to have any of the minerals in it," says Neech. "Also there a lot of pesticide in mud these days and if you live in a city the chances are most of the mud is highly polluted rather than good for you." Shame. It would have given Madonna a great excuse to headline a mud-drenched Glastonbury next year.