What Is Thalassotherapy? Definition and Examples

The Health Benefits of Seawater, Sea Air, Seaweed, and Algae

Aesthetician peeling off a seaweed mask
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Thalassotherapy is the therapeutic use of the seawater, marine products like algae, seaweed, and marine mud, and even the marine climate to promote health, wellness, and beauty. The name comes from the Greek words Thalassa ("the sea") and therapia ("treat"), coined by Frenchman Dr. Jacques de la Bonnardière in the 1860s. 

It was traditionally a cure for people with joint problems and injuries, and yes, the French health care would pay for a visit. More recently the emphasis has moved to relieving stress, losing weight, and addressing aches and pains, with most clients paying for their own spa visits. 

The Origin of Thalassotherapy

The principle behind thalassotherapy is that repeated immersion in warm seawater, marine mud, and protein-rich algae helps restore the body's natural chemical balance. Seawater and human plasma are very similar in terms of mineral content, a fact that was discovered by another Frenchman, Rene Quinton. When immersed in warm seawater, the body absorbs the minerals it needs -- trace elements of magnesium, potassium, calcium, sodium, and iodide -- through the skin. 

The use of heated seawater for therapeutic benefits dates back to the Romans, who also loved soaking in hot mineral springs. Modern thalassotherapy, however, was pioneered in France, which still has more thalassotherapy spas than any other country. 

Modern thalassotherapy centers are located by the ocean and have complex facilities, including pools of varying sizes and temperatures for various purposes. The seawater comes from a depth of 40 feet so there is no surface pollution. It also comes from some distance from shore.

To be accredited by France Thalasso, a thalassotherapy center must:

  • be located near the ocean in a pristine environment.
  • use natural seawater in swimming pools and refresh it completely every 24 hours.
  • provide medical supervision and a staff of physiotherapists, hydrotherapists, dietitians, sports instructors, and estheticians.

France Thalasso has nearly 40 members overall: more than twenty along the Atlantic Coast; eleven along the Mediterranean coast (or French Riviera), and seven on the Channel Coast. Thalassotherapy spas are also found in other countries, primarily Spain, Tunisia, and Italy.

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Thalassotherapy Treatments

Thalassotherapy treatments include baths with underwater massage; body wraps with alluvial mud, algae (red, blue and brown) or different types of micronized seaweed, which deliver the minerals in more concentrated forms. Different treatments have different effects, including pain relief, slimming and toning, detoxifying, and relief of skin conditions like acne and eczema. 

You also get a benefit from warm seawater that you don't get from swimming in cold seawater. The main component of seawater is sodium chloride (salt), but it is also rich in minerals and trace elements. Immersion in warm seawater allows those minerals to pass through the skin.

In France, the best-known thalassotherapy centers are in French Basque country (Biarritz, Saint-Jean-de-Luz etc) and Brittany (St.Malo, La Baule, Arzon, Quiberon, and Dinard etc). Doctors, dieticians, physiotherapists, hydrotherapy specialists, and estheticians are on hand to find the right protocol for you. Speaking French is a real plus, if not a necessity. 

Finding Thalassotherapy Closer to Home

Thalassotherapy never took off in the United States so you can't find the same complex thalassotherapy facilities of Europe. They have been held back in the United States by laws that require chlorination of water when more than one person bathes in it. The closest thing we have to a European-style thalassotherapy spa is Gurney's Inn in Montauk, which has a seawater swimming pool (with as little chlorine as possible) and underwater massage spa treatments that use pure seawater.

Zoetry Paraiso de la Bonita in Riviera Maya, a half-hour south of Cancun, is a luxury resort on a secluded white sandy beach that has made a specialty of thalassotherapy in its 22,000 square foot Thalasso Center & Spa. It offered a variety of thalassotherapy treatments (baths, shower massages, massages wraps, and facials) and programs aimed at slimming, getting rid of cellulite, beauty, stress-relief, and men. It also has a thalassotherapy seawater pool, with hydro jets to relax muscles.

If you're at a spa by the ocean, you can still get thalassotherapy benefits by walking on the beach, breathing the sea air, or getting a seaside massage. Pathogens are lower the closer you get to the shore. And mud and seaweed wraps are a classic thalassotherapy treatment available at most spas.

There are also many marine-based bodies and skin care lines: Phytomer from France; Osea, a California-based line that uses seaweed that is certified USDA organic and hand harvested in Patagonia; Spa Technologies, which offers a green algae bath powder and hydrating laminaria oil to deliver some of the benefits of the sea no matter where you live; Babor Sea Creation (super-expensive and super-effective, and the classic Creme de la Mer

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