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Getting Briny in Ireland's seaweed spas

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Inside the clawfoot tub floats enough seaweed to hide a good-sized cod. I hesitantly climb in and pull the briny clumps of seaweed over my chest. After all, seaweed bathing has a long history in Ireland, and the contents of my tub have been sustainably harvested across the street in Sligo Bay. I relax into the tub and wonder if seaweed is really the new superfood of the spa world.

Seaweed Science

Driving around Ireland these days, you can't miss the ads for seaweed spas. From County Kerry to Donegal, locals and visitors flock to bathhouses.

I visited Voya Seaweed Baths at Strandhill in County Sligo. Owner Neil Walton, a surfer and former professional junior triathlete, is a seaweed evangelist. He first became interested from a sports science perspective, and used himself as a guinea pig to test seaweed's results. "Exercise destroys vitamins and minerals in the body," he said, but by bathing in seaweed, "I could change the pH of my blood from acidic to alkaline." He compared it to drinking wheatgrass juice.

Walton cites the work of scientists Michael Guiry at the Martin Ryan Marine Science Institute, and Peter Smyth from the Conway Institute of Biomolecular and Biomedical Research at University College Dublin. Guiry's work has linked the long-chained polysaccharides found in brown algae to moisturizing skin and relieving some skin conditions, and has found strong anecdotal evidence that seaweed bathing can help arthritis and rheumatism. Smyth focuses on mineral uptake, especially of iodine, from seaweed bathing. Iodized salt is uncommon in Ireland, which is probably why so many Irish people are iodine-deficient.

The Spa Experience

The Irish have used seaweed for nourishment and home remedies since at least the 12th century. But the heyday of seaweed bath houses was the early 1900s, when about 300 dotted the west coast. In Walton's native County Sligo, Hurricane Debbie destroyed the bath houses in 1961. In 1996, Walton and his family brought seaweed bathing back to the coastal village of Strandhill.

However, they tweaked the experience to provide something more upscale than the communal bathing of yore. At Voya, I have a private room of about 5 x 10 feet (1.5 x 3 metres). The walls are brown granite squares, one with a Celtic design, for an understated Irish theme. An attendant advises me to spend five minutes in my private steam room before entering the tub. I've also been briefed to soak my hair in the seaweed bath, and not to rinse it afterwards. My entire session will last 50 minutes.

Thoroughly steamed, I climb in the bathtub and pull mats of seaweed over my chest. Fortunately, nothing swims out. The smell is mild, and the concept feels only slightly weird. A shelf by my head holds a lit candle, a pitcher of water and a cup. I entertain myself by taking seaweed selfies and wishing my arms were longer. I spend a few minutes wondering what's wrong with the steam room until I realize I'm hearing recorded sea sounds.

Time drifts by, but once the 10-minute warning knock comes, it speeds up. Outside the tub, I'm sweaty and can't seem to dry off. My bath water has turned a filthy brown, hopefully from the seaweed. I barely have time to plop my used seaweed into the bucket provided before my time is up.

Ireland's Seaweed Industry

Voya sells its seaweed-based cosmetic line in 42 countries, and is planning an expansion of the Sligo bathhouse. But beauty treatments are only a small part of a much greater industry.

In the past, eating seaweed connoted poverty, and was associated with the 1845 Famine. But now that seaweed is gaining notoriety as a trendy superfood, the market is expanding. People are starting to talk about farming seaweed, not just harvesting it.

Since about 40 per cent of Irish food exports are bound for the U.K., Ireland worries about Brexit's economic effects. Now even the Irish government is championing kelp. A recent report from the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine suggested promoting Irish-grown seaweed to a wider market.

Easier Ways?

Rather than seaweed bathing, eating kelp or using iodized salt are easier ways of getting enough iodine to lose your goiter worries. But the bathhouses aren't going away. The global spa industry is worth $99 billion, and wellness tourism tops $563 billion, according to the Global Wellness Institute.

At Voya, baths cost an affordable 28 Euros. In addition to tourists and athletes, Walton says his clientele includes teenagers seeking pre-exam stress relief and students suffering from ADD. He's especially excited about the way seaweed bathing calms people with emotional difficulties and intellectual disabilities. Everybody is welcome to enjoy this wellness gift from Ireland. "This is our traditional spa treatment," Walton says proudly. "You're absorbing the goodness of the sea."

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