by Melinda Minton

Ingredients from the sea are making the rounds in spas with astonishing popularity and definite drama. In fact, these single-celled wonders have been key ingredients in beauty products and spa therapies for ages in other parts of the world. Kelp, bladderwrack, carrageenan, Irish moss and other oceanic crops have been used in cellulite-reduction and detoxification therapies for centuries. Various algae-based products are also used in skin- and body-care formulations as emulsifiers, soothing agents, and for antibacterial and anti-inflammatory purposes.

The history of sea therapies
Sea plants, seawater, sea salt and oceanic clay have long been popular physical-therapy ingredients in Europe. Recommended as medical therapeutic agents as early as 1578, seawater and sea derivatives were administered for rheumatism and general rehabilitation. In 1753, The Uses of Sea Water, by English author and physician Charles Russel, explained the various therapeutic properties of seawater. In search of those therapeutic benefits, the European elite sought out ocean-side resorts with bathing facilities.

With marine hospitals, which started in England in 1780, the seawater craze quickly became French domain. The first French marine hospital, Petit Berck, opened in 1861. In 1865 Joseph La Bonardière coined the term thalassotherapy (from the Greek thalassa for "sea" and therapeia for "care") and began a tradition of serious study regarding the health benefits of seawater. In 1899 Louis Bagot started balneotherapie (bath therapy) treatments at the clinic at Roscoff called the Institut Marin de Rockroum. This was the first true thalassotherapy clinic in Europe.

French scientist René Quinton devoted much of his life's work to the study of seawater and in 1906 published L'eau de Mer, Milieu Organic ("Sea Water, Organic Medium"), which demonstrated the chemical similarity between blood plasma and seawater. Quinton's colleague Claude Bernard discovered that the body is comprised of 70 percent water. Working from Bernard's findings

regarding the makeup of blood, intracellular fluid and lymphatic fluid in the body, Quinton stated in 1897 that the human system is analogous to the systems found among marine life: "In the internal environment of our system, and only there we find the same mineral make-up, the same physiognomy, as that of sea water [sic]."

From this notion that seawater is a complete mineral source came multiple ideas of the healing powers of seawater. Quinton's study indicated that seawater and human plasma are almost identical in their composition of mineral salts, proteins and various other elements. Quinton also established that human cells could continue to live in seawater, while they break down and disintegrate almost instantly in any other medium.

This original connection between seawater and the healing benefits brought through its trace elements and molecular structure expanded over the years. Various forms of seaweed were scrutinized for healing properties, and many different types of therapies sprouted from the balneotherapy and thalassotherapy treatments that were popularized in the 1800s.

Today, the same healing principles apply.

Sea therapies today.
While there are no recent studies proving the benefits of algae for the many therapeutic and beauty purposes for which it has become known, folklore and tradition continue to perpetuate its popularity in European and American spas alike. From sea-salt scrubs to thermal seaweed wraps, ocean-mud packs to sea-algae baths, kelp facials to algae buffs, ocean products are experiencing renewed popularity in spas all over the world, resulting in exotic therapies that effect powerful healing.

"Seaweed therapies are great for all clients because they nourish the skin, reduce cellulite and remove toxins from the system. They are easily our most popular type of treatment, besides the typical facial or one-hour massage," says Gohar Thomas, owner of Gohar Beauty Clinique in Glendale, California.

At Thomas' spa, specialty baths are a popular accompaniment to other services. "Our sea-algae bath with [Dead Sea salt] and aromatherapy is probably the most popular," Thomas says. "Oftentimes clients will opt for a marine-based bath before a massage to loosen up the muscles and complement the detoxification process that comes with deep-tissue work."

The Limu Seaweed Body Wrap offered at the Kohala in Waikoloa, Hawaii, is among that spa's most popular services. This treatment uses processed seaweed from the Brittany Coast of France, and includes exfoliation and detoxification.

Among the marine-based services offered at The Spa at the Four Seasons Hotel in Las Vegas is the four-layer facial, which involves applying layer upon layer of fresh European seaweed to rejuvenate and tone, followed by a warm, mineral-rich thermal masque to moisturize and nourish the skin.

"Seaweed-based products are one of the classics, because seaweed is such a complete plant source of nutrients and benefits," says Michelle Bartok, owner of International Beauty Solutions (IBS), a manufacturer of spa, health and beauty products.

One of the more innovative spa treatments of late is the "sushi wrap," says Bartok. "We wanted to combine all of the therapeutic ingredients that should go into an effective body treatment while keeping the service fun and interesting," she says. "The combination that we came up with is a ginger-wasabi solution that is healing and anti-inflammatory. This is followed by a rice putty that is rich in amino acids and creamy to the touch. Finally, a seaweed paste is layered onto the body and the client is wrapped."

Spa client Stephanie Kersulis of Los Angeles tries to visit a spa on a monthly basis and typically gets some kind of sea wrap or buff because she believes it is good for her entire system. "The last spa that I visited was the Gaia Day Spa in La Jolla [California]," she says. "I received a French algae all-over body buffing, which was divine. They combined fruit acids with essential oil and the algae for an invigorating buff.

"I followed the treatment with a hot shower and then a massage, Kersulis continues. "Before leaving I stocked up on some new balneotherapy algae bath soak for at home. I try to keep up with the ritual when I can't get to a spa for a professional treatment."

Kersulis isn't squeamish at the idea of having algae on her skin. "I don't think I have ever been to a spa where the seaweed was anything but wonderful," she says. "I would go every day for a seaweed wrap if I could."

Sea-derived products
As the spa movement has grown, manufacturers have had to expand the selection of products offered that can enhance some of the more classic therapies.

IBS, for example, sells raw materials like bulk-powdered algae. "Algae has wonderful drawing qualities. We suggest that spa technicians mix one part dry algae to five parts water or solution," says Bartok. "That sort of mixture will produce a thick paste. The algae is very concentrated, has a strong odor and can be used in baths, masques, body pastes and as a part of other therapies."

Rebecca Holborn, founder of Organic Therapy Inc. in Lake Mary, Florida, creates natural products mostly from sea-based ingredients.

"It takes a living ingredient to heal a living system," she says. "Algae and forms of seaweed are ideal

because the seawater and sea plants so precisely parallel our body's interstitial fluid and blood plasma."

Beyond this fundamental comparison, the ocean's bounty is rich in trace minerals, such as iodine, magnesium, sodium, potassium, fluoride, sulfur and carbonates. "All of those minerals are absorbed by the skin to allow the body to regain systemic balance. Most of all, when heat accompanies a treatment with seaweed extracts or alginates, both detoxification and replenishment occur," says Holborn.

Sharon Weizman, vice president of Acticell natural beauty products, based in Swampscott, Massachusetts, explains, "Our epidermis can absorb the seawater and seaweeds, but the dermis [a deeper layer of skin] actually has a positive charge, which attracts the negative ions in the seaweed. As the blood flow increases at the surface of the skin and the pores open to allow the alginates into the dermal layer, toxins are drawn out through the skin's surface as nutrients are drawn in."

Bringing the sea inside
"TOP">As messy and extravagant as seaweed wraps and baths might sound, there are a number of ways to integrate marine therapies into a basic massage practice, spa or wellness center. For facilities equipped with Jacuzzis, jetted tubs or soaking baths, micronized algae can be easily added to these hydrotherapy options without damaging the filtration system or jets.

All-over exfoliations with Dead Sea salts, algae or a thalassotherapy body scrub can be performed with a dry brush or with the therapist's hands. After the exfoliation, the client can opt for a hydrotherapy treatment, Vichy shower, traditional shower, or the salts can become a part of the layering of product before a body wrap.

If absolutely no wet services are available, sea products can still be offered with a massage or facial.

"It is very easy to add seaweed extract to your massage oil [or] lotion base if you want to offer the benefits of marine products without the mess. Soaking hot towels in alginates or misting seawater on the client during a service are also options," says Bartok.

Another consideration is your spa's surroundings. The immediate environment sets the tone for the kinds of services that your client will expect, she adds. "A spa located by the ocean will typically do very well with seaweed wraps and marine-based services, [while] a spa in the Midwest or in [another] land-locked area will probably do better with a fresh-water-derived alginate," says Bartok.

Starting out small with seaweed services and then building on the most popular treatment options is a great way to see if the sea will work in your massage practice, clinic or spa.

Know Your Seaweed: A Glossary

  • Algae extract: Gelatinous extracts of seaweed and algae are used to soften, hydrate and smooth skin. These are also used in skin formulations to provide a silky texture.

  • Bladderwrack: This brown seaweed is the number-one ingredient in most cellulite-reducing formulations. Because of its powerful diuretic properties and extraction ability, bladderwrack is thought to both draw toxins out of the body and flush out impurities through water loss.

  • Carrageenan: This red seaweed derivative is extracted from Irish moss and is typically used as a thickener and emulsifier. It helps skin maintain an elevated level of hydration.

  • Kelp: This is often used in massage oils and creams, cellulite formulations and contouring baths. Rich in iodine, kelp is thought to reduce cellulite by reducing pockets of excess water and toxins in the skin.

    —Melinda Minton

    To Learn More ... Seaweed Ecology and Physiology, by Christopher S. Lobban and Paul J. Harrison, 1994, Cambridge University Press.

    Federation Internationale de Thalassotherapie Mer Et Sante 8 rue de l'Isly 75008 Paris, France,p> Search for "thalassotherapy" and "thalassotherapy products" on the Internet.

    Melinda Minton, L.M.T., is an esthetician, cosmetologist and former spa owner. She currently works as a spa and salon consultant, E-business expert and free-lance writer. She calls Fort Collins, Colorado, home.