The addition of clay minerals in drilling fluids modifies the dispersion's viscosity. In this article, scientific advances related to the use of clays and clay minerals (bentonite, palygorskite, sepiolite and mixtures of clay minerals) in drilling fluids are summarized and discussed based on their specific structure, rheological properties, applications, prevailing challenges and future directions. The rheological properties of drilling fluids are affected by the temperature, type of electrolytes, pH and concentration of clay minerals. Bentonites are smectite-rich clays often used in drilling fluids, and their composition varies from deposit to deposit. Such variations significantly affect the behaviour of bentonite-based drilling fluids. Palygorskite is suitable for use in oil-based drilling fluids, but the gelation and gel structures of palygorskite-added drilling fluids have not received much attention. Sepiolite is often used in water-based drilling fluids as a rheological additive. Dispersions containing mixtures of clays including bentonite, kaolin, palygorskite and sepiolite are used in drilling fluids requiring specific features such as high-density drilling fluids or those used in impermeable slurry walls. In these cases, the surface chemistry–microstructure–property relationships of mixed-clay dispersions need to be understood fully. The prevailing challenges and future directions in drilling fluids research include safety, ‘green’ processes and high-temperature and high-pressure-resistant clay minerals.