— -- The health conscious are embracing the latest trend in pampering -- salt spas.
Rather than ingesting salt, spa patrons relax in rooms made of it, breathing in misty salty vapors in hopes of clearing their lungs and purifying their skin. It's a treatment known as halotherapy after the Greek word halo, meaning salt.
Besides the thousands of years of use throughout Europe and the Middle East, there's some science to back up these claims.
A New England Journal of Medicine study in 2006 found that inhaling salt-infused vapor improved breathing for 24 patients with the chronic endocrine and lung condition, cystic fibrosis. In another small 2006 study, in the European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, subjects with asthma reported breathing easier after several weeks of regular halotherapy treatments.
Spas like the Salt Sanctuary in Johnson City, New York, feature two salt rooms. One is fabricated entirely from pink, Himalayan salt to resemble a cave. The other, a smaller space lined with salt bricks, was specifically built for children, according to co-owner Matt Walsh.
"Breathing in salt can help cure a lot of modern ailments that come from pollution and stress," Walsh said. "It is especially good for helping chronic respiratory illnesses like asthma, allergies and bronchitis."
Janine Narayadu, owner of the Bethesda Salt Cave in Maryland, explained why many people believe in salt's healing properties.
"If [someone] has sinus issues, sinus headaches, the best way to get the sinuses clear is to put salt in, because salt draws out water," Narayadu told ABC affiliate, WJLA-TV. "So, if there's fluid in the nose or the sinus cavity, the salt is going to draw it out, dry it up; it's going to crystallize, and you're going to be able to get rid of it. And when the fluid comes out, it reduces pressure on the sinuses."
Narayadu added that salt also has antimicrobial properties, suppressing bacteria and fungus.
However, some doctors remain skeptical about some of the health claims of halotherapy.
Dr. Neil Kao, an allergist with the Allergic Disease and Asthma Center in Greenville, South Carolina, noted that the existing studies on the health benefits of halotherapy were too small to draw any solid conclusions.
"There is no proof that salt has any benefit for someone with allergies, asthma or other breathing condition," Kao said.
Kao explained that in order for sodium chloride -- the chemical name for salt -- to work, it would have to draw out toxins from the body. The toxins would then have to travel outward from the skin.
"There is nothing magnetic, spiritual or magical going on here," he said.
That said, Kao said he thought spending time in a salt therapy room could have a therapeutic effect.
"It's relaxing and quiet. The air is clean. There's definitely something to be said for that," Kao said.
Dr. Andy Nish, the president of the Allergy and Asthma Care Center in Gainesville, Georgia, said medications do a much better job treating the symptoms of allergies and asthma but he also isn't opposed to his patients trying salt therapies.
"If it's cheap and easy and you think it makes you feel better, there's no harm," he said.
Walsh said his clients do believe salt therapy makes them feel better. Some drive up to three hours to experience the $45, 45-minute spa treatments. Many wind up buying $1,000 unlimited, yearly memberships.
"Even people who don't have respiratory concerns come for the sensual experience," he said. "It's a total escape."