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Water: Friend or Foe?

Ask, “What is the definition of spa?” and most replies will have something to do with water. Many historians consider the origin of the word spa to define a place where water is applied therapeutically. The most common image used to identify spas in logos or advertising is water; and in a true wellness spa, water is an iatrical (healing) component at the soul of the spa business.
We all recognize the calming sounds of water. We know we should drink eight glasses of water a day. Soaking in hot, moving water is recognized widely as therapeutic.

Millions enjoy the healing properties of steam, and for centuries, men, women, and children have sought out mineral baths for their purported curative properties.
Yet today, most of these uses of water actually do more harm than good for the body and, unless you understand how to analyze, interpret, and counteract the effects of your water supply on skin and hair, you probably are using water inappropriately – even harmfully – in your spa and at home.

When Good Water Goes Bad
The potential harmful effects of water can be summed up in one word: oxidation. Understanding how water causes oxidation can open your eyes to new wellness-oriented ways of caring for clients, developing services, and recommending products.
Oxidation of skin and hair always involves oxygen, an element essential to our existence. Oxygen overexposure, however, is a prime example of the old saying, “Too much of a good thing can kill you.” In fact, I am confident that oxidation is at the root of every disease. Oxidation is the primary reason we wrinkle. Oxidation is the cause of skin cancer. Oxidation is the reason most of us will die.
Oxidation occurs when oxygen overexposure, or its combination with oxidizing agents, begins a destructive cascade that leads to the formation of free radicals, resulting in an unbalancing of electrons and finally damage to cells that were otherwise healthy and productive contributors to a well body. These damaged cells can themselves become aggressors and form more free radicals.
It should be the responsibility and the goal of every wellness spa professional to influence each client to analyze their lifestyle and minimize oxidation. Practicing this philosophy would make the spa a place of sanctuary and knowledge that embraces longevity, rather than a place that contributes to the acceleration of aging and disease, as many spas inadvertently do.

Oxidation from the Air
Air is an oxidizer but a relatively harmless one by itself. However, when the air is combined with heat, sun, and/or water, oxidation ramps up and begins to accelerate inflammation and the signs of aging.
Heat alone is not an oxidizer, but heat does cause oxidizers to be more aggressive. Hot water, hot air, and forced (moving) air all increase oxidation on our skin. Services that include the use of hot water, hot air, or light energy increase oxidation of cells in the skin, changing healthy cells into damaging free radicals.
Sun by itself is not an oxidizer, but the sun is the single most dangerous catalyst for oxidation. Solar radiation acts first on the water and then on the lipids in skin cells, accelerating oxidation inside the skin layers and within specific cells. Nature attempts to protect these delicate cells by providing melanin and other natural defenders inside the skin, yet it takes very little sun exposure to see an increase in erythema – the inflammation that results from oxidation of water and lipids in the skin cells.

Oxidation from Elements in Water
Pure water is a combination of one atom of oxygen combined with two atoms of hydrogen (i.e. H2O). The single atom of oxygen in water represents a relatively low concentration, and has a negligible affect on the body; however, there are ways even pure water can become harmful. For instance, as water is being removed from the hair and skin, it mixes with air (O2), which adds two more atoms of oxygen. Oxidation is initiated and allowed to begin its potentially damaging cascade.
Of course, today’s water is rarely what we would call “pure.” Because of this, the more significant causes of oxidation on the body are the result, not of the water itself, but what is in the water. The most insidious oxidative agents in the spa come right out of the tap. Tap water is purposefully chocked full of oxidizers including chlorine, chloramines, and bromine.
While gathering statistics on water quality for more than 200 U.S. cities and towns, I discovered that, since 100 people died in Milwaukee from bacteria in drinking water, it has become common to find over three times the chlorine in tap water than is legally required in swimming pools! You literally could be using “pool water” to cleanse a face throughout a facial, to relax a client in the hot tub, or to finish a service with a shower.
In addition, today’s water is high in minerals such as calcium, iron, and copper – perhaps good on the inside, but potentially devastating to hair and skin. Just over a decade ago, a study in the U.K. linked hard water (high concentrations of minerals) with eczema, and the problems posed by oxidized hair and scalp are well known to hairstylists and colorists.

Oxidation from Spa Services
If your wellness spa specializes in water-based treatments, you must become knowledgeable about the effects of water and how to get the best results from treatments while stopping and preventing oxidation. Each spa service should be examined for its use of water and how to alleviate those negative effects.
Facials – Most facials begin with drawing water from the tap into a bowl to be used in the treatment room. Before this water touches your client’s skin, it is critical that you treat it to neutralize oxidizers and remove minerals so you do not exacerbate existing problems or injure delicate tissue during your procedure.
Oxygen Facials – The simple theory behind this controversial service alone should cause a wellness spa to severely limit its frequency for any one client, if not leave it off the menu entirely. Serious long-term damage could be created by the increased oxygen on the surface of the skin, combined with water and often with one of the worst oxidizing chemicals around, Hydrogen Peroxide. This potent oxidizer, H2O2, has one more atom of oxygen than water, yet produces some of the most aggressive oxidation seen in studies.
Hot Tubs – High heat combined with bacteria, sweat, and debris from the body requires the use of high concentrations of oxidizers to sanitize the water in common-use hot tubs. Wellness spas should not use community hot tubs, but rather individual baths that can be filled with fresh, filtered, vitamin-treated water for each new guest.
Vichy Shower – The relaxation and wellness potential of table showers can be utterly eviscerated by the chlorine in the water used on the client. It is imperative that this water be filtered or infused with antioxidant vitamins to remove chlorine and/or that topical vitamins be applied to neutralize and demineralize skin exposed to the water.
Capsules – These up and coming, easy to use services employ water, heat, light energy, and steam to provide relaxation while claiming therapeutic benefits; however, too many of these units do not require, and do not include, filters that treat the water before use. Chlorinated and/or hard water from the tap not only will aggravate problematic skin, but also can lead to costly maintenance by clogging the tiny water/steam tubes and outlets. In this case, pre-treatment can save you money as well as saving your client’s skin!
Mineral Baths – Natural mineral baths that originate from underground springs and flow directly into the tub contain no chemical oxidizers such as chlorine, unless your spa has chosen to treat the water for bacteria content. Assuming it is left untreated, mineral water is only a concern if the minerals are left to dry. Vitamins and natural chelators can be used to remove these elements from the skin.
Swimming Pools – Any spa facility that has a swimming pool, or that has clients who swim frequently, has a responsibility to educate its clients about special care for their skin. Pool chemicals are oxidizing agents that can cause problems ranging from subtle itching and irritation to skin disease and apparent aging. New antibacterial filters are growing in popularity because they treat water with ultraviolet radiation and ozone without exposing the client to residual chemicals or radiation.
Sauna – Compared to a hot tub or swimming pool, a dry sauna, by itself, causes low levels of oxidation. Unfortunately, a scenario that is all too familiar in the spa is the client who goes from the chlorinated hot tub – or even the shower – directly into a dry sauna. This exposure to heat, which rapidly dries oxygen onto the skin, creates significant oxidation.
Steam – Hot steam should not include any oxidizers, only heat and water. Since the water condenses but does not dry on the skin, it is not exposed directly to hot air, making steam treatments one of the lesser oxidizing spa services.
Showers – The first and/or last phase of many spa services includes the traditional shower. If you are going to recommend a shower, you need to know what is in the water to which you are exposing your clients. If the water cannot be “purified” prior to use, you will need to treat and protect your clients’ skin from water’s negative and oxidizing effects before you can feel good about the benefits they receive from their “relaxing” shower.

Total Oxidation Management in Your Wellness Spa
To truly be a wellness spa – offering all the benefits with none of the drawbacks of spa services – you must root out the many hidden oxidizers that might be causing you to inadvertently initiate or accelerate oxidation on your clients’ skin and hair. It is your responsibility to test the water you use in every aspect of your business and work to counteract the effects of chemical and mineral oxidizers and oxidizing agents. Knowing how much chlorine is in your water (and it changes with the seasons and even the time of day) can give you the power to literally change lives.

Test Your Water
Testing your water is easy and should be done regularly. Two simple tests will tell you everything you need to know about your incoming water source: A chlorine test with OTO (orthotolodine) and a hard water test strip. You can obtain a chlorine test kit at your local pool and spa store, but you do not need the entire kit to assess chlorine content. Simply purchase the OTO and dispense five to 10 drops into a small glass of water to see if the water turns yellow. If it does, it contains chlorine in sufficient quantity to potentially damage hair and skin as well as to facilitate oxidation.

Treat Your Client
If you have a pool or hot tub in your spa, a large percentage of your clients could be experiencing oxidation to the point of developing eczema, itching and, without question, accelerated signs of aging. The best way to minimize the level of oxidation is to follow every client’s water exposure with an application of an antioxidant that you know for a fact is stopping all of the resulting oxidation.
Professionals should not simply trust any chemical that claims to be an antioxidant because form and percentage also are critical to proper function. An active form of antioxidant, such as fresh-dried ascorbic acid at 10 percent concentration or higher, actually stops oxidation, and should be employed extensively throughout services in the spa. It can be used in the water itself and within every service protocol to prevent oxidation from persisting on the skin. Vitamin E, an oil soluble antioxidant, has less impact in water, but is very effective on the skin as oxidation affects the lipids in and around skin cells.
A wonderful benefit of testing your water is that you can test your antioxidant products at the same time to see whether they are, in fact, neutralizing oxidative agents and thus providing the promised benefits to your clients’ skin. When you test your water and it turns yellow from the chlorine oxidation, apply one drop of your commonly used antioxidant serum or cream to the water. If it is truly an antioxidant, or if the antioxidant is still active, the color will instantly disappear.
Knowledge is your best tool when it comes to your clients’ health and wellness. Know what is in your water and help your clients understand what is in theirs. Use that knowledge to center your spa a true wellness spa that counteracts the negatives, accentuates the positives, and gives your clients the full, healing benefits of water for long-term health and well-being.

Tom Porter is the founder and CEO of Malibu Wellness, and manufacturer of EC Mode (Esthetician Cosmeceuticals skin care). He is the author of the book, You’re Not Aging, You’re Just Oxidizing and developer of the Total Oxidation Management system. He has been researching the action of ascorbic acid and other antioxidants as they apply to skin, scalp, and hair since the early 1980s when a serious car accident allowed him to experience first hand the healing qualities of these powerful nutrients. For more information, contact Malibu Wellness at 800-622-7332, or visit www.malibuwellness.com. For more information on how to test your water, interpret your results, or help in determining ingredients to use in your spa, forward your questions to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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