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Spas: The Risks and Benefits

Can spa treatments deliver on their promises – and are there health risks you should know? WebMD investigates.

Spas: Are They Safe? continued...

And while he says some germs will succumb to chlorine, others, like those with a "biofilm" (a kind of molecular adhesive that binds several organisms together including those which cause Legionnaires' disease), it won't do a thing.

"You would need 1,500 times the amount normally used to kill it -- you would kill people before you would kill the organism," says Tierno.

And that, he says, means many spas can put you at risk. "It's not just heated pools and warm baths that are problem -- and it's not just Legionnaires' disease about which you should be concerned," he says. Other bacteria can also thrive in these conditions.

"These organisms love hot, wet environments -- spas are heated and steamy, and when you inhale vaporized water in this atmosphere you are potentially inhaling whatever organisms are present," he says.

Dermatologist Ellen Marmur, MD, says she's most concerned about risks to spa users seeking relief for skin problems, such as dermatitis or psoriasis. She says any break in the skin can increase the risk of germ transmission from surface areas like tables, baths, and even hot rocks or other items placed on the surface of the body during treatment.

"Even a bad sunburn can leave the skin compromised so that picking up an organism is easier," says Marmur. Moreover, she reminds us that some spa treatments such as full body exfoliation might actually increase risks further by creating microscopic tears in the skin that act as an invitation for germs to enter the body.

"When spa attendants don't wear gloves -- and most of them don't -- the risk of disease transmission is even greater," says Marmur.

Tierno says other risky spa treatments include manicures and pedicures, particularly if the cuticles are cut and especially if the instruments are not properly cleaned. Indeed, in the recent past an outbreak of a nasty bacterial infection causing skin boils was traced to unsanitary conditions in a manicure-pedicure salon.

"I always suggest bringing your own instruments. It's much safer than being treated with anything they supply," he says.

Spas: Can They Deliver Their Promises?

Among the biggest spa draws are the exotic treatment offerings -- and the equally exotic promises. From body rubs that attack cellulite, to lymphatic massages that promise to cleanse your body of toxins, to mud baths and anti-aging seaweed wraps guaranteed to soothe your skin and your psyche, the promises can go from the simple to the outrageous.

Assuming the spas take steps to prevent germ transmission, do any of the treatments themselves have risks? And do they even work? Experts say some do, and some clearly do not.

"As a dermatologist and a spa owner, I think that there is a place for some of the more exotic spa treatments. But does that mean that a caviar wrap from head to toe is going to transform you? No, just your wallet," says Ken Beer, MD, director of Palm Beach Aesthetics in Palm Beach, Fla.

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