There’s nothing quite as relaxing as a trip to a day spa.
Unless, of course, you’re covered with snakes.
For some reason, people will believe in the therapeutic effects of, well, pretty much anything, and some spas don’t mind selling dubious services at a premium. You might have heard of bird-poo facials, caviar pedicures, or fishy foot baths; they’re all real, and they’re all fairly expensive.
As for me, I’ll stick with a good old-fashioned deep-tissue massage.
We decided to look into a few unusual spa therapies to determine whether they actually provide any sort of benefit. We also reached out to Emanuela DeFalco, the founder of cosmetics line Dirty Little Secret. A renowned beauty expert and lifelong spa-goer, DeFalco has actually tried a few of these strange therapies herself, and she was kind enough to provide her insight; we also looked into the science to see whether there’s any legitimate reason for a person to, say, rub stem cells on their face.
Not surprisingly, we found that most of these treatments aren’t worth the money, even if they do sound strangely appealing. For instance…
Fish foot spas are exactly what they sound like.
Spa-goers dip their feet into shallow pools, and exotic fish pick off the dead skin. Yes, it’s weird.
Fish pedicures are sometimes used medically to treat skin diseases like psoriasis, but in recent years, spas across the United States have offered this natural treatment to their patrons as a standard service. They typically use the garra rufa “doctor fish,” which eat away dead skin.
There are, of course, caveats. As the CDC notes, the Chinese Chinchin fish is easily mistaken for the garra ruffa, which is problematic—the Chinchin grows teeth, which can draw blood, increasing the chances of an infection. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also discourages the practice, since the garra rufa could pose a serious threat to indigenous wildlife if accidentally released into the wild. Several U.S. states have banned fish pedicures, citing environmental and health concerns.
But while DeFalco says she was initially skeptical, she finally worked up the courage to give this spa treatment a try.
“The fish actually eat away at the dead skin on your heels, around your toes, everywhere,” she told us. “It’s a super quick and inexpensive treatment that leave your feet feeling soft and smooth and ready to be shown to the world. If you wear heels a lot like I do, your feet get beat up and dry, [and] I would definitely recommend doing this treatment.”
The CDC says that it isn’t aware of any published reports of illnesses resulting from fish pedicures, but as the pedicure tubs can’t be easily cleaned between customers when the fish are present, we think that you’re better off going to a high-end spa if you want to try this.
That means that you get what you pay for—then again, if you want fish to eat the dead skin off of your feet, your budget probably isn’t your primary concern.
For a more terrifying treatment, opt for a snake massage.
Ada Barak’s Spa in northern Israel offers this strange treatment, in which six non-venomous snakes slither across the patron’s body. The service is somewhat gimmicky, as the spa doesn’t claim any pseudo-scientific health benefits. Some customers do say that the treatment eases aches and pains, so perhaps it’s sssatisfying (sorry).
Of course, you’ll have to be careful to avoid sudden movements, and you’ll fork over $70 for the privilege. If you absolutely love snakes, you might as well go for it. However, as DeFalco correctly points out, there’s no reason to think that snake massages are any more effective than human massages.
“I wouldn’t recommend this treatment, not based solely on the fact that snake would be on my body, but also because I really don’t see the point,” she says. “If there was something on [the snakes’] skin that made the massage beneficial, then maybe, possibly, I would go for it. But I think this is more of a thrill-seeking, adrenaline move rather than something beneficial for your body.”
Even so, DeFalco keeps an open mind.
“If you’re looking for a thrill and not exactly [worried about getting] a therapeutic experience, then go for it!” she says. “As for me, I’ll stick with a good old-fashioned deep-tissue massage.”
If you don’t mind the cold, you might consider cryotherapy.
This “recovery therapy” uses targeted cold air to reduce the temperature of the entire body, which ostensibly promotes healing. It’s been said to treat conditions as diverse as insomnia and nerve damage, and for athletes, it’s one of the hottest spa treatments around (oddly enough).
There’s actually some scientific basis to this therapy.
“Although I’ve never tried this, I’ve heard wonderful things about it,” DeFalco notes. “I’ve heard that the cold air decreases inflammation as well as increases performance levels, which is why many athletes practice it. I’ve also heard it increases your metabolism, helps with chronic pain and boosts collagen, which will essentially slow down the aging process if done periodically. One article I read also claimed it helped with fatigue. If you experience any of these symptoms on a daily basis, I would try it and see if it works for you.”
However, before you rush out to your nearest cryotherapy spa, know that the scientific evidence for the treatment is limited at best. A 2014 study suggested that while whole-body cooling therapies aren’t necessarily harmful, they have limited therapeutic benefits.
The therapies offer no antioxidant properties, as some sources have claimed, and the authors of the study recommend “less expensive modes of cryotherapy” over whole-body cooling—for instance, ice packs and cold baths. In other words, you can get many of the same benefits with a trip to your own freezer.
For a truly surreal experience, you can invest in an integratron sound bath.
This is probably the strangest item on this list, but it’s also the only one that we’re tempted to try.
The Integratron is a 55-foot, all-wood dome located in Landers, California. Its website claims that its design was originally based on “Moses’ Tabernacle, the writings of Nikola Tesla, and telepathic directions from extraterrestrials.” One of those things is not like the other.
Visitors can purchase “sound baths,” in which they’re bathed with sound waves generated within the dome. An Integratron employee plays quartz crystal bowls for 25 minutes, “each one keyed to the energy centers or chakras of the body, where sound is nutrition for the nervous system.”
It sounds delightfully strange, and it’s probably a pretty relaxing experience. Once again, however, there’s not much scientific reasoning behind the claims.
“Although [the] healing bath is meant to result in relaxation, rejuvenation and introspection, there is no clinical proof it has any effect on the human body,” DeFalco says. “I can imagine that the music being played relaxes your mind and soul. However, I think playing these types of meditating sounds in the comfort of your own home in a warm bath will do the same.”
Given that “sound baths” are fairly expensive, DeFalco offers the following advice:
“Don’t believe the hype on this one, and definitely don’t waste your money.”
If you are looking to waste a bit of money, we’ve got just the thing…
Stem cell therapy is an especially popular (and expensive) treatment, and it’s sort of terrifying.
Stem cell facials cover a customer’s face with—you guessed it—stem cells, which are said to promote new cell growth. It’s a popular anti-aging therapy. As one site that offers the treatment claims, stem cells are “among the few cells in the body that are specialized and have the potential to become a particular cell type and replace worn and damage [sic] cells.”
The stem cells come from adult humans and plants, by the way, and they’re either rubbed on the customer’s face or injected directly into the skin. Proponents of stem cell therapy say that it’s an alternative to more invasive procedures.
“This has been huge with celebrities of all kinds, because it decreases the need for facial surgery, specifically face lifts,” DeFalco explains. “Because the stem cells tighten the skin, it prevents any unwanted ‘sagging,’ leaving your face and skin looking and feeling younger. Stem cells are known to promote collagen and elastin production, so if you were thinking about getting a facelift, you might try this less invasive option first.”
That’s partially true, but with that said, there’s not an enormous scientific consensus supporting the cosmetic use of stem cells. In fact, some experts warn against these frequently untested products, since other ingredients may interact with the stem cells in unexpected ways.
One woman had a nightmarish experience when one of the fillers in her stem cell facelift injection turned to bone. Doctors successfully removed bits of bone from her eyelids, and she fully recovered, per a report in Scientific American, but for days, the woman would hear a jarring clicking sound every time she blinked. That’s not exactly what you’re hoping for when you spend a day at the spa.
Then again, perhaps “bone-generation facelifts” will become a sought-after spa treatment some time in the future. For now, we’d steer clear of strange therapies; for most of us, a simple shiatsu massage and manicure will do just fine.