Spas: How toxic is your 'natural' spa?




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Everyone loves being pampered but are the ingredients as pure as you think?

Going to a spa is all about forgetting your worries and responsibilities, letting your mind float and focusing, instead, on your body. Anyone who has emerged from a spa rejuvenated and ready to take on the world again knows that a good spa offers something genuinely valuable amid all the luxury spa robes and poolside wicker furniture.

Before you let your mind switch off, there is one niggling worry that might be worth investigating. What goes into all those body wraps, scrubs, lifts and refreshers ? Is that fruity facial made from 100 per cent fresh papaya or are there other less natural ingredients in it too?

The short answer to that question is yes. In many cases the products used during spa treatments are not nearly as natural as all those references to algae and rose essence imply. Depending on what the spa skincare products are designed to achieve, they may include detergents, synthetic fragrance, a range of preservatives… the list goes on.

You’re not being lied to about the natural ingredients, you’re simply not being told about everything else that is in that delicious cream now covering you from neck to toe. And you won’t find product ingredients listed on spa websites or even on the websites of manufacturers of spa ranges, such as Elemis, Decléor and Clarins.

There is no question of illegal substances being used, although it is possible that the use of some ingredients that are legal today will be more restricted in a few years’ time. A n overhaul of the way chemicals are regulated across Europe, called Reach (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals), is under way. After years of wrangling, Europe’s political leaders agreed to proceed with Reach in 2006, having realised that the shortcomings in existing chemicals regulation couldn’t be ignored any longer. The key motivation for the project is concern about the absence of safety data for tens of thousands of chemicals that have been on the market for years.

What regulators are increasingly seeking from the skincare and cosmetics industry is better data about the penetrative power of skincare ingredients, plus more information about the possibility that exposure to particular substances could make conception more difficult, or cancer, genetic change or weakened immunity more likely. Our skin is not an impermeable shield that separates us from the world we live in.

Depending on whom you ask, either no one is asking spas what is in the treatment products they use or spas are facing questions from customers on a regular basis. Suki Kalirai, chairman of the Spa Business Association, has not heard of any spa being asked to discuss formulations. He doesn’t think it is a concern and says that if it ever becomes one it will be the job of product manufacturers to provide information. Meanwhile, Fiona Brackenbury, head of UK training and education for spa range manufacturer Decléor, tells a different story. “The situation today is very different from even five years ago,” she says. “Now, when a new spa is opening and all the brands are invited to present their products, we are asked much more technical questions. Spa managers want to know what is in our formulations.”

A few skincare brands won’t face a struggle to reformulate because they already exclude many substances of potential concern. REN Skincare is one such brand and its marketing bumf is crystal clear: “No petrochemicals, sulfates, parabens, synthetic fragrance, synthetic colours, TEA, DEA, glycols, silicones, PEGs et al.”

Rob Calcraft, one of REN’s founders, explains: “It has to be possible to bridge the gap between eco skincare – which so often is heavy, bad?smelling and offers so little pleasure and modernity – and the high-tech, well-packaged mainstream brands. The market has become so polarised, with natural brands focused on high-quality ingredients versus the big, synthetic boys who, at best, are inching towards a more natural approach. Bridging that gap is what we’re trying to do with REN.”

Neal’s Yard Remedies is another skincare manufacturer committed to restricting use of potentially risky substances. “We operate according to the precautionary principle, so we don’t use substances such as parabens,” explains Neal’s Yard medicines director Susan Curtis. However, like many in the business, Curtis acknowledges that completely natural skincare is not a realistic aspiration. “Unless you want to make up a product fresh every day, then some type of preservative is needed, and if you want to make an effective shampoo you do need a mild detergent. There are a lot of questions about potential health risks but not a lot of evidence. Not enough research is being done.” Some of the substances under suspicion may prove benign, but there isn’t enough solid data yet to know one way or another.

Finding a spa that uses fewer chemical-intensive products in its treatments isn’t easy. A few British spas use REN products, including Barnsley House, Bamford Hay Barn, Royal Day Spa and the male-specific treatment rooms at Wholeman, W1. Neal’s Yard has its own treatment rooms. Tucked away in the New Forest, SenSpa is one of the few British spas to ensure that all its treatment products are as natural as possible. Spa director Lina Lotto, who is in the process of developing SenSpa’s own range of organic skin therapies, says: “Everything will be Soil Association-certified, there will be no synthetics, and even some preservative systems approved by the Soil Association are excluded.”

SenSpa’s natural approach is the exception. The British spa sector appears content to stick with conventional brands, at least for now. Champneys spokesperson Sharon Scott is refreshingly honest when she says that product formulations “are not something we worry too much about”. However, she adds that Champneys would “do something if public concern grew”. Time will tell.

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