Too much salt may be bad for you, but a pair of new spas in Fairfield County are betting that just the right amount can be beneficial to both the body and the mind.
Newtown Salt Spa, which opened in June, and The Salt Cave of Darien, which began operations in October, offer halotherapy, a form of alternative medicine that disperses highly concentrated saline aerosol in a room whose walls and floors are covered with salt.
Along with Saltana Cave in Ridgefield, which opened in 2013, the county’s three salt spas reflect a nationwide trend, according to Leo Tonkin, founder of the Salt Therapy Association trade group.
“There were about a dozen in the country when I got into the business six years ago,” said Tonkin, who is also founder and CEO of Salt Chamber, a supplier of dry salt therapy equipment in Boca Raton, Florida. “Now there are about 350,” including standalones like the three Fairfield County operations and others operating as add-on amenities at hotel chains like the Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton and Marriott.
“There’s more and more awareness of what salt therapy can do,” Tonkin said. “One of the top issues that Americans, if not the world, face is having to deal with respiratory conditions, whether it’s due to poor air quality, pollen or conditions like asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).” Halotherapy can help relieve those conditions, he said.
Tonkin noted that the U.S. has trailed central Europe in developing saline therapy — particularly Poland, where the health resort at the Wieliczka Salt Mine opened in 1839. That still-operating facility began with salt baths and has since progressed to the sort of therapy being offered at the Fairfield County spas.
Salt Cave of Darien owner Arianne O’Donnell Shuck, who also practices law in Stamford, said her trip to Wieliczka convinced her to open her own salt spa.
“My job can be pretty stressful,” she said. “I also have a 10- and a 12-year-old, and my health just wasn’t good.” Following her Poland trip, she began booking sessions at Saltana and the Salt of the Earth Therapeutic Spa in Woodbury and combined that regimen with exercise and more healthy eating. Shuck said she lost 25 pounds over a couple of years. The entrepreneur said her mild eczema has benefited from the salt treatments.
“I decided that it wasn’t just about taking care of the outside, but also about taking care of the inside,” she said.
Earlier this year, the Darien resident began searching for a suitable spot for her new endeavor, ultimately selecting a 950-square-foot space in the commercial complex at 555 Post Road, which also includes a Quest Diagnostics Lab, a physical therapist’s office and an eye care office. The entire process took about six weeks, she said.
The cave itself occupies about 450 square feet, and is lined with blocks of Himalayan pink salt as walls and a couple of inches of salt on the ground. Clients are asked to remove their shoes before entering.
The space can accommodate up to 12 people, though Shuck said usually only a couple of clients are in the cave at a time to promote the relaxation induced by subdued lighting, gentle music, a small fountain and breathing the salt air. Anti-bacterial chairs are placed around the room and blankets are available for customers who find the 67-degree setting too cold.
The salt covering walls and floors is there mainly for aesthetic reasons. The therapeutic salt is actually delivered by a halogenerator, which grinds sodium chloride into a dry aerosol dispersed to simulate the effects of being in an actual salt cave like those found in Europe and Asia.
Newtown Salt Spa owner Katherine Hansen said she stumbled upon the Wieliczka facility during a trip to Poland two years ago.
“My mom and I were on a tour and were given a choice between the salt mine and Auschwitz,” she said. “My mom didn’t want to do Auschwitz, so we thought we’d give the salt mine a try. I felt better within 15 minutes.”
A former forensic analyst with the Fayetteville, North Carolina Police Department, Hansen relocated to Newtown when her husband got a job in Ridgefield and began considering a new line of work.
“I’ve always been interested in trying to do my best to help people,” she said, “and I thought introducing salt therapy to Newtown was a great way to do that.”
Her operation at 43 S. Main St. occupies 625 square feet with a square-shaped salt room taking about 425 square feet.
“I have one client with COPD, and it helps him with his breathing,” Hansen said of the halotherapy. “A couple of others have allergies and it helps with that as well.”
Hansen said she’s seen “hit-or-miss” results with customers seeking relief from topical skin conditions. “It’s supposed to help minimize swelling in rosacea and rashes,” she noted.
The Newtown spa charges $30 for a 45-minute session, while the Darien spa charges $45 for 45 minutes and donates a portion of its proceeds to local charities. Shuck said. In Ridgefield, Saltana Cave charges $40 for a 45-minute session. Saltana’s owner, Anne Pogoda, a native of Poland, was out of the country and unavailable
The health benefits claimed for halotherapy have been disputed by some medical and scientific experts.
“There is no scientific evidence that these things help people with a lung disease to breathe more easily,” said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, a senior science adviser at the American Lung Association.
“This is an old idea that goes back generations to central Europe, that going to sit in an abandoned salt mine would help you breathe more easily,” Edelman said.
The anecdotal evidence of health benefits cited by salt spa owners “could be a placebo effect.”
“My own hypothesis,” said Edelman, “is that inhaling salt deposits can help water down the mucus that sits in the lungs of many of those with respiratory problems. That makes it easier to raise the mucus and get it out, which would make you feel better. But that’s only my guess.”
Tonkin refuted Edelman’s opinion, citing several studies that are linked to on the Salt Therapy Association website. Most were conducted in Russia, Finland, Italy and Poland, though the site also includes a positive 2007 report by a naturopath in Portland, Oregon.
All agree on the relaxation that can be had from sitting in a, cave-like space. “Almost everyone who comes here falls asleep,” Hansen said. “It can sometimes take a little work to wake them up.”
Edelman noted that people suffering from hypertension, kidney disease, heart failure and the like should shun salt spas, at least until consulting with their physician. For others curious about salt caves and halotherapy, “Do it in moderation,” Edelman advised. “Anything in excess is a poison.”