Whether it takes the form of a purifying sauna or relaxing Turkish bath, hydrotherapy is an ancient ritual that has health benefits for the whole body. A frequent sauna often also improves the barrier function of the epidermis, as it helps block germs and increases hydration.
The atmosphere in the dry sauna of the northern hemisphere or in the Turkish bath of the Mediterranean region, whether used for quiet repose or animated conversation, fosters deep relaxation of the body. Saunas have been used in Scandinavia and Russia since 2500 years ago and Turkish baths have witnessed the passing of numerous civilizations. Their potential for repairing skin cells are only beginning to be known.
Heat and humidity
Inside a Finnish sauna the thermometer is set to over 80°C, but the relative humidity remains very low (no more than 15%). The body defends itself by creating an artificial state of fever (its temperature rises to over 40°C) and this stimulates the immune system and opens the blood vessels in the skin.
In a Turkish bath (hammam) the temperature is maintained at about 46°C and humidity soars to 100%. The steam combined with skin exfoliation opens the pores and removes impurities from the skin. In both types of hydrotherapy, the body’s tissues are oxygenated by sweating and by the switch between heat and cold. The outcome is that our most visible organ, the skin, becomes smoother and more elastic.
Water for the skin
A study by the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena (Germany), published in Dermatology, demonstrated that frequently taking a sauna increases the water-retention capacity of the stratum corneum (the outermost layer of the epidermis). Frequent saunas, as well as improving skin hydration, also regulate the skin’s pH, thereby blocking germs from entering the body.
Hydrotherapy and skin disorders
The protective effects of hydrotherapy centres, spas and similar establishments have also been reported for individuals with chronic skin disorders such as atopic dermatitis and psoriasis.
A number of studies have demonstrated that balneotherapy strengthens the skin’s immune system. One study concluded that three weeks of spa hydrotherapy may reduce colonization by Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium that inflames the skin in patients with atopic dermatitis. Another study showed that hot springs prevented keratin-producing cells from releasing chemicals that stimulate skin inflammation.
Visiting a spa or a hot spring for the simple pleasure of relaxing the muscles and the mind is undoubtedly a source of lasting health for our skin.
By Núria Estapé, science journalist