I’ve sunk into a comfy lounge chair and I’m breathing in the salt air. No, I’m not at the beach. I’m in a dimly lit, manmade salt cave in Louisville, Colorado. My 4-year-old daughter plays at my feet with grains of sand, in a floor that is reminiscent of a sandbox.
Salt spas, as they are called, may well be the latest trends in pampering. In 2011, Spafinder Wellness, a company that tracks the international wellness industry, labeled halotherapy—”halo” is Greek for salt—one of the “top 10 global spa trends to watch. Since then, salt rooms have grown from a handful to practically ubiquitous, popping up in over 32 states, with New York, Florida, and California boasting the most.
But many would say that while it is indeed restful, halotherapy is so much more than a mere splurge. Many holistic doctors claim salt therapy is an effective treatment for skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema and a range of respiratory ailments, including colds, asthma, allergies and bronchitis.
From a wellness standpoint, the therapy is designed to mimic salt caves, which have been considered therapeutic throughout Europe and the Middle East for thousands of years. While the studies are scant, it’s not as far-fetched as it may seem. A TIME magazine article from 2010 cites a 2006 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that inhaling salt-infused vapor improved lung function in people with cystic fibrosis. “Another study, also in 2006, of cigarette smokers, published in the European Respiratory Journal, found that inhaling aerosolized salt temporarily improved smoking-related symptoms such as coughing and mucus production,” says TIME.
Salt therapy advocates extrapolate beyond the science to claim that the whole microclimate—air quality, humidity and salt particles—is effective for cleansing the respiratory tract, the skin and the body. Not only does it boost immunity, it can also help with stress, insomnia and snoring.
It’s definitely an escape. The rooms, designed to provide a relaxing and unusual experience, feel primal, even mystical. The walls and ceilings are salt-coated—picture a rough stucco-like effect—and grains are often scattered a few inches deep on the floor. Some caves even have salt-coated stalactites. A machine called a halogenerator creates a dry aerosol of salt as it blows microscopic particles of high-grade sodium chloride into the air.
Truth be told, I did find the whole experience incredibly relaxing. In “my” cave, salt lamps shaped as Hindu deities periodically changed color and the soothing hum of the halogenerator further enhanced the ambiance. I confess—I napped, repeatedly—while my daughter played at my feet. Maybe it had something to do with all those negative ions, busily clearing the air?
Halotherapy can be used as a complementary treatment to prescribed medications or as a sole treatment. Typically the roughly one-hour sessions cost around $45, with discounts when you buy a package. You can even purchase a yearly membership. And while the studies are by no means conclusive, it’s certainly worth a try, if only for the sensual experience it offers.