Twenty years ago, going to a health spa meant predawn workouts, spartan living, and low-cal dining. We called them fat farms. These days, spas—which operate on the philosophy that total well-being can be attained by focusing on wellness, fitness, and relaxation—have taken on new life, with a variation to fit every need and budget. There are resort spas, destination spas, and even day spas where patrons can turn off the outside world for a few hours as they receive a quick facial or massage.
The business of spas has transformed as well. According to the International Spa Association (ISPA), a trade organization, the number of spas in the United States has snowballed from 80 in 1980 to 1,130 in 1998. More than 50 percent of spa goers are between the ages of thirty and fifty-five, and in the past ten years the proportion of men visiting spas has tripled from 9 percent to 27 percent. Spa-Finders, the world’s largest spa travel agency, reports that per-person rates for complete spa programs start as low as $72 per night. At the same time, herbs, a small but integral part of the “spa experience” decades ago, have taken center stage. “Herbal wraps have always been the treatment of choice,” says Tanya Lee, spa director at The Spa at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida. “But with the baby boomers taking a more proactive look at health and their desire to return to ancient cures, herbs are being used in everything.”
Thus, herbs are headlining spa menus as fast as one can say, “parafango.” Mint, rosemary, clove, lemongrass, and sage are in. Aromatherapy treatments feature towels steeped in chamomile, rosemary, or lavender infusions and draped over the body to combat stress. Masks and poultices slather the skin with herb-based cremes; body wraps “mummify” clients in sheets soaked in herbal solutions. Ayurvedic treatments seek to heal and balance the body by combining exfoliation (removal of dead skin), aromatherapy, and a light massage with crushed herbs and oils.
Aspen, Colorado, journalist Madeleline Osberger is an avid spa visitor. “I really like the use of lavender in my treatments. It’s very calming,” she says. “Afterwards, I usually take some of the lavender-based lotion home, so I can re-create the experience.” Jane Wilson of Sharon, Pennsylvania, favors massages whenever a spa getaway is on her calendar. “Herbs are really an added element. If I’m feeling tired, I ask the therapist to use some peppermint or rosemary in the oils. If I’ve had a day of stress, maybe I’ll opt for chamomile or sage,” she explains.
According to Mike Christenberry, spa director at the Vail Cascade Club and Spa in Vail, Colorado, spas are following a consumer swing toward natural remedies and treatments. “The Chinese have used specific herbs for treatments for thousands of years. Then the Europeans picked up on the trend, and it slowly worked its way into our business,” he says. “But it’s really been in the last five years that herbs have exploded onto the United States spa scene. We’ve gone from using herbs in facials and simple massages to body wraps, scrubs, polishes, aromatherapy, baths, and compounds in mud treatments.”
Judy Snow, spa director at The Gainey Village Health Club and Spa in Scottsdale, Arizona, credits the herbal tea industry for getting spas started in using herbs. “It seems to me herbs came into the forefront when everyone woke up to the idea if you drank different herbal teas you got a different herbal benefit,” she says. “So spas began brewing teas as a supplement to their treatments. As we got smarter about herbs, we brought more into the treatments.”
Lee, who has been in the spa business for almost two decades, maintains that competition has been key to the herbal renaissance: “In the last two or three years, a gazillion spas have opened, each wondering, How can we set ourselves apart? Consultants tell them to look at the indigenous flora and fauna to create signature treatments. If you are in the desert, go for sage scrubs and aloe; if you are by the ocean, use salt and seaweed.”
The Sanibel Harbour Resort and Spa in Fort Myers, Florida, for example, offers the Peppermint Sea Twist, an aromatic body treatment that combines peppermint oil with fresh seaweed. At the Fontainebleau Hilton Spa in Miami Beach, clients can get a Sea Salt Body Polish, a rubdown with sea salt and essential oil, or a Marine Algae Body Mask, a warm mixture of seawater, algae, and essential oils. The Centre for Well-Being at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, uses desert plants and minerals in treatments such as the Jojoba Body Polish, the Desert Clay Refining Body Wrap with spirulina, and a body wrap containing sage, chamomile, rosemary, and juniper. At Canyon Ranch in Tucson, the Aloe Glaze, a full body treatment, is followed by an application of rose hip aloe cream and a mist of lavender essential oil.
“Does it work?” asks Christenberry. “Clients think so. Is a massage with herbal-infused oils better than a rubdown with Crisco or table salt? Absolutely. I admit many people just need to be locked in a dark room with soft music and no fax machine to feel better, but some properties from herbs are known to exist. There’s an instant cause and effect. You feel different. Your skin looks different.”
Wilson agrees. “I admit just being pampered and treated like royalty for a few hours makes all the difference, but I truly believe using the herbs helps with the ‘therapy,’ too. Breathing in the wonderful scents, having the oils worked into the skin, even drinking a cup of herbal tea can alleviate stress and give me that extra charge to get back out into the world.”
Spas also aim to create an experience that the customer can take home. “For instance, someone opts for an adobe clay body mask, which is drying to the skin,” Snow says. “So to rehydrate, we have them shower and then massage them with juniper and sage oil and have them drink juniper and sage tea. Now that creates a total experience.”
And it’s the total experience that counts. “Herbal spa treatments are an alternative way of dealing with common stresses,” Lee maintains. “Aromatherapy smells good and has soothing properties, it feels good on the skin but won’t remove cellulite. The bottom line is, herbs enhance a treatment. They take it to another level.” ¶
Snowmass, Colorado writer Laura Daily is a sucker for any foot massage that promises to revitalize her sole.