Just How Healthy are Spas?

Just How Healthy are Spas?
Credit: Reto Guntli





Many of us flock to hotel spas to relax, regroup and recharge in the name of wellbeing – but just how ‘well’ are these spas themselves, and are their practices at odds with a sustainable future for both people and planet? If we want to move beyond eco friendly hotels and green travel to embrace sustainable travel practices that are altogether more benign, it’s a subject we just cannot ignore.

The word SPA stands for Sanus Per Aquum, or health through water, and traditionally referred to a simple healing place that had a natural source of mineral water. Though its definition has been joyfully stretched over the years to refer to any kinds of wellness offering, a place should only really use the word if it has a bona fide ‘wet area’ with facilities such as a steam room, a hammam, various types of sauna, a jacuzzi, whirlpools or hot tubs, a swimming pool, rain showers and so on.

Recycling of grey water from laundry and showers
Credit: Reto Guntli

Clearly, such spas use supreme amounts of water and energy to function on a daily basis, yet they are often the last department in a hotel to become sustainable. The planet needs spas that use solar, water or wind-powered alternatives to electricity, that have effective waste management programmes, that embrace water conservation initiatives such as recycling of grey water from laundry and showers. It needs spas to use energy efficient light bulbs, low-flow shower heads, sustainable materials such as bamboo and toxic free paints – even to create green roofs or on-site sustainable gardens. Yet too many hotels are not embracing these exciting opportunities for their spas, despite the fact that by reducing importing, waste and energy costs they will help to save a spa money in the long term – and offer their guests a more enriching, health-giving experience.

Unsustainable spas affect our own wellbeing as well as the planet’s, and whilst we might go into a steam room to sweat out our toxins, many spa wet areas are actually swimming in them. By their very nature facilities such as steam rooms or swimming pools can grow moulds quickly and breed all sorts of germs, yet they are often not cleaned as thoroughly on a daily basis as they should be – to save money, or simply because of staff or management incompetence. Jocelyn Pedersen, a Spa and Wellness Advisor with over 25 years of experience in the world of spa and wellness in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, says because of this situation it’s important to ask a spa questions before you book a session. ‘How can you know if a spa is not so healthy? The most important places to look at are the wet areas,’ says Pedersen. ‘Hygiene, sanitation and ventilation are crucial, since heat and poor water quality can be a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi, which also can be inhaled via contaminated mist. Sometimes the mould is actually visible, and you can smell a pungent odour. Check if there is a spa attendant present who is responsible for disinfecting and cleaning everything, and who checks the facilities at least every hour’.

The Alpina Gstaad
Credit: Reto Guntli / The Alpina Gstaad

Similarly, salt caves that need medical grade salt, and flotation pools that need vast quantities of sea or mined salt, often recycle the salts several times or never renew it at all to reduce costs. ‘Flotation pools and salt caves also cost a lot to operate,’ says Pedersen. ‘Does the spa recycle the salt in the flotation pool, and how do they clean the salt room? Ask before you book your treatment.’

When cleanliness is taken seriously, the choice is more often than not a chemically-loaded solution rather than a more natural, planet-and-skin-friendly alternative. Chlorine continues to be used as a default cleaner for most spa swimming pools, even though there are so many other affordable and far more sustainable and healthy alternative choices for people and planet, such as reed-filtered pools.

Other areas of the spa experience can also be highly unsustainable, from the expensive glossy treatment menus that could have been printed on recycled paper or offered as a digital version, to the spa slippers, towels and robes made of unsustainably-sourced cheap cottons that guests are offered in the changing rooms. Biodegradable and ethical versions of these amenities are available, but not taken up by spas as they should be because they are deemed too expensive.

One of the most prevalent, non-sustainable practices in spas I find the most shocking is the provision of water in plastic bottles for guests to drink – where it could be so easy to provide large glass urns filled with filtered water and sustainably made cups or drinking bottles to drink it from instead. Too often too, spa products, amenity items in the changing rooms and ‘healthy’ spa snacks come packaged in non-biodegradable plastic.

Large glass urns filled with filtered water
Credit: Reto Guntli

It’s obvious that what we breathe in, see and use on our skin in a spa should be conducive to our wellbeing, yet this is too often not the case. Most of us are now aware why we need to use naturally-derived products on our skin, yet not enough hotel spas make the effort to seek out companies who are committed to producing products without sulphates, phosphates and other pollutants, or to using local, sustainably sourced, organic and seasonal ingredients wherever possible – in both spa products and spa cuisine.

Part of the pleasure of entering a wet area can be the fragrances you smell – sometimes, these can be organically sourced essential oils that have been used to infuse the air, when they smell divine – but any regular spa goer with a sensitive nose will know that, too often, synthetic, artificial scents are used instead, making us wrinkle up with suspicion. They contain a lot of preservatives, emulsifiers and alcohol – and though pure organic essential oils are a better healthier option, they can be expensive if a busy spa is running its steam room from 6 am in the morning until 10 pm at night.

It’s also a very curious thing that, rather than being shining examples of wellness architecture built from breathable materials, with plenty of views of the natural world, lots of natural light and clean air, many spas in hotels are built of unsustainable materials, use artificial light to create an atmosphere and are located in the basement, where guests and staff don’t see any natural light for hours at a time. It’s a little like state hospitals that offer unhealthy meals, strip lighting and clinical atmospheres when they should be offering the opposite to help ill people heal. Surely spas of all places should be beacons of wellness?

‘The most exciting trend in spas is wellness architecture, which is finally going mainstream’, says Pedersen. ‘This will raise the benchmark for future spas and hotels. Architects will have to take responsibility for providing the healthiest designs possible using proper sustainable materials and methods.’ Pedersen adds that, from an operational point of view, sometimes the spa design, though very beautiful, is not practical or conducive to running efficient and profitable operations. ‘Building materials might not have been chosen to reduce noise in the spa area, there might be inadequate storage facilities, lack of logical planning for operational procedures and workplace wellbeing. All aspects of the guest journey and back of house have to taken into consideration when designing the spa – to create a great experience, but also to save money and make money’.

Healthy spa, Hotel Spas
Credit: Reto Guntli / The Alpina Gstaad

Using local staff and paying them appropriately is also key to a healthy spa, and sometimes you have to question how well the people are who are touching you and giving you their energy. ‘Touching another human being is a sacred act, so it’s important companies invest in appropriate training and care for their staff,’ says Denise Leicester, founder of UK-based skincare company ila, which works with hotel spas around the world. ‘Too often a spa will opt for only a few days training, where we advise much longer to ensure therapists truly understand what they are doing and deliver it well’.

Healthy Spas

We as travellers and spa-goers should have the confidence to ask about staff before we choose to book a treatment or a spa session. Are they being treated and paid properly, and do they walk their healthy talk? There’s a huge disparity between the benign, healthy and happy therapist with wonderfully strong hands dressed in a comfortable, cotton uniform who is clearly enjoying their work and getting enough of their own rest and rejuvenation, and the stressed employee wearing an itchy, synthetic uniform who has just done six hour-long back to back massages and has that weary, hunted look of a person who just cannot wait to get to the end of the working day.

If a spa is not sustainable, it’s highly likely that the hotel it is based at isn’t sustainable either – after all, the spa is just one area of the complex or building. As ever, when it comes to hotels and sustainablity, we as travellers and spa goers need to vote with our wallets, ask lots of questions before we book and aim to only visit spas that are making every conceivable effort to be sustainable for both people and planet. Alternatively, we could consider bathing only in nature’s pools until they do.

Message from NOW: The Alpina Gstaad is committed to achieving best practice environmental and social sustainability and has partnered with EarthCheck, the world’s leading benchmarking and certification provider. The Alpina Gstaad is EarthCheck benchmarked bronze.


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For Wellbeing – Super Tough NOW Questions You Should Ask a Spa Before Booking

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