Halotherapy: What Is It & Is It Worth the Hype?
Spending time in a salt room is said to have huge respiratory and skin benefits, and it may help treat stress, and anxiety, too. So should we all start hailing halotherapy? We shed some light on the science of salt therapy.
Ever gargled with salt water to quell a sore throat? Or soaked in a tub of Epsom salts? Or stood by the ocean and swore it improved your mood? If so, you took part in a practice most Americans are familiar with: wet salt therapy.
But there’s a flipside to this practice – one that very intentionally removes moisture from the equation – that is starting to gain traction in the U.S., particularly in the spa and wellness space. Called dry salt therapy (or halotherapy, as “halo” is the Greek word for salt), it’s trending upward for good reason, too. Because, now more than ever, our lungs are full of gunk.
“There’s a lot being thrown at our respiratory systems,” says Leo Tonkin, founder/CEO of SALT Chamber and a thought leader in the world of halotherapy. “Allergy seasons are more intense and lasting longer than ever. More wildfires mean more toxic pollutants. Then, according to the World Health Organization, indoor air quality is three to five times worse than outdoor air quality. That’s a result of the chemicals we use on our surfaces, on our floors – which we then breathe in. It’s frightening.”
Which is where halotherapy sessions – the process of breathing in a dry salt aerosol within a closed-off room to dust off your lungs and respiratory system – come into the picture. And Opal Collection resorts and hotels are helping to facilitate the act of “getting salted” by working – in partnership with Tonkin’s company – to implement state-of-the-art Salt & Sound Lounges across our Opal Spas. In September of 2023, the first one premiered at The Sagamore Resort’s Lake George luxury spa. Next on the docket to open in November: the lounge within the on-site spa at Wentworth by the Sea, located on the New Hampshire Seacoast.
But, of course, we don’t expect guests to hop into one of these salt rooms without, first, gleaning a little more insight into the “how?” and “why?” behind the benefits of halotherapy.
THE HISTORY HALOTHERAPY
While halotherapy may seem like a newfangled wellness trend, it actually dates back to the salt mines of seventeenth-century Eastern Europe, when Polish physician – Dr. Feliks Boczkowski – noticed something rather interesting about these salt miners: They didn’t have lung issues like workers in other mines did. Not to mention, they tended to be healthier and happier overall. Dry salt therapy – where people could sit in salt caves underground – took off from there, and has since been a staple in spas throughout Europe, Canada, and Australia.
“In many European countries, halotherapy is a medical treatment covered by insurance,” says Tonkin, who founded SALT Chamber in 2012 after learning you could count the number of salt therapy facilities in North America on two hands. “In the states, it has started to penetrate the spa and wellness industry in the last decade or so.”
A large part of that is owed to spa – what was historically known for mere massages and facials – undergoing a transformation to also incorporate elevated (and often touchless) experiences. Think red-light therapy, cryosaunas, contrast bath hydrotherapy – to name a few. “Consumers are starting to expect these kinds of experiences, so we are seeing a rise in the awareness around halotherapy as a result of that,” adds Tonkin, who is also one of the founding directors of the Salt Therapy Association, a not-for-profit organization providing research, education, and innovation for the salt therapy industry. “We’re not at a critical mass yet, but it will start to tip. That’s why Opal Spas implementing these halotherapy experiences is so innovative.”
THE SCIENCE BEHIND SALT
Halotherapy touts a range of benefits: predominately, the cleaning out of your respiratory system and opening of your airways, which, while good for anyone, is especially beneficial to those with COPD, cystic fibrosis, emphysema, chronic allergies or sinus infections, and other breathing problems. Other benefits include improved skin conditions, better sleep, reduction in stress levels, and more.
Salt Therapy Benefits: How Does Halotherapy Work?
- Salt is Super Absorbent: “Have you ever salted a piece of eggplant and saw how it drew out moisture to the surface?” explains Tonkin. It’s the same idea: Dry salt is super absorbent, acting like a sponge to attract and pull out foreign substances in your bronchiole and capillaries around your larynx, windpipe, sinuses, throat, and lungs. “Every day, we brush our teeth to remove buildup. Halotherapy is like a toothbrush for our lungs.”
- Salt is Antibacterial: “There’s a reason why we use salt as a preservative,” says Tonkin. “It’s antibacterial, anti-fungal, and antimicrobial. Nothing grows on salt – SARS, MERS, COVID can’t thrive.” Think of salt as a way to improve your respiratory hygiene and boost your immune system.
- Salt is Anti-Inflammatory: “Again, just like how you put salt on a protein to tenderize it or calm it, salt therapy reduces inflammation in the airways to open them up, so you get more oxygen,” says Tonkin. So you’re not just cleaning out the passageways, you’re opening them as well – particularly beneficial if you suffer for sleep apnea or snoring, asthma, or COPD. Similarly, if you suffer from psoriasis or eczema, exposure to salt on your skin can help improve these conditions since it provides relief for itchy irritated skin.
HALOGENERATOR: THE MAGIC IN THE MICRON
So how exactly do we absorb the salt into our systems? It’s not a salt bath or something we drink down because, again, it has to be dry in order for it to have its detoxifying effects. The key lies in sitting in a closed-off, ambient temperature room with something called a halogenerator, a piece of machinery that grinds pharmaceutical-grade salt (actually 99.9% sodium chloride) into tiny invisible particles that it then pumps and disperses throughout the room.
Tonkin’s company – which specializes in implementing salt rooms at country clubs, personal homes, independent day spas, resorts, and more – utilizes stainless-steel halogenerators made by a medical device company that also makes nebulizers and blood pressure equipment. “Our machines are the only ones that are UL-listed and made to this level of precision,” he explains. “That’s essential because it allows you to get the particles down to the smallest size possible: less than a micron.” To put that in perspective, if you were to pull out a piece of your hair, it would be about 50 microns in diameter. And the smaller the particles you breathe in, the deeper they penetrate your system to pull out all that gunk. “A lot of people think you should see this room laced in salty haze,” Tokin adds, “but the particles are too small for the naked eye.”
Another misconception about Tonkin’s salt therapy experience is that it’s a room filled with large amounts of salt bricks or salt lamps (Dead Sea, Himalayan, rock salt, etc.). Known as passive salt rooms, they aren’t considered as effective because you’re not inhaling the salt like you would in an active, halogenerator-serviced salt room. But that doesn’t mean the meditative, ambiance of a passive room isn’t there.
“We build walls of pink Himalayan salt, then essentially hide the halogenerator behind it,” he says. That’s why when you visit the Salt & Sound Lounge at The Sagamore Resort, you’re greeted with a wall of beautifully illuminated, hand-carved salt blocks. But the real therapy is hidden from plain sight.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN A SALT THERAPY SESSION AT OPAL SPAS
- Always Make Sure You’re Dry: You can certainly do a halotherapy session in conjunction with a steam shower or soak in a jacuzzi tub, but the key is that you’re totally dry before entering the room. Because when you introduce moisture, that is what those salt particles will cling to (instead of penetrating deep down).
- Expose As Much of Your Skin as You Like: If you’re comfortable doing so, expose your arms and legs to reap the anti-inflammatory and antibacterial benefits (which helps clear the skin from acne or blemishes). Salt also encourages skin regeneration, which is perfect after any sort of exfoliation treatment you might have just had.
- Don’t Worry If You’re on a Low-Sodium Diet: Yes, you’re inhaling salt, but you’re not eating and digesting it. The two systems – respiratory and digestive – are very distinct from each other, so you won’t be going against any doctor’s orders.
- Feel Free to Let It Double as Meditation: This is where the stress-relieving benefits of a salt session come into play because it ultimately requires you to tune out and get your chill on. Serving as your cozy seat during a session, the spa’s heated custom-designed loungers also feature built-in sound wave and vibration therapy which lulls the body into a deep meditative state.
- Breath Normal or Breath Deep, It Doesn’t Matter: No, you don’t have to take deep breaths to get the full benefits, but Tonkin says plenty of people like to practice their breathwork during the process.
- Hydrate Post Session: Because you’re going to be purging toxins, drinking plenty of water afterward will help aid that process along. Sure, you might find yourself coughing up a bit of flehm, but, for the most part, the salt breaks up mucus, dissolves it, then just flushes it out in your urine.