(Feel The Heat)

Sand Bathing Is As Extreme As It Sounds — That’s Why It Really Works

Discover the buried benefits.

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Heat therapy is far from a new idea. For years, nay, centuries individuals have been reaping the benefits of various treatments that range from saunas and hot stone massages to steamy, mineral-rich pools of water. For those unfamiliar with the rewards of applying heat to the body — and allowing it to absorb — they can include everything from relieving pain and stiff muscle to increasing blood circulation in the body. And while the aforementioned methods are arguably the most well-known and popular among cutting-edge spas and health resorts around the world, there’s another wellness treatment that brings the heat that’s been flying under the radar for far too long: sand bathing or psammotherapy.

An ancient ritual, the somewhat intimidating practice — which literally involves being buried from the neck down in hot sand — can be found in some desert regions in the Middle East and Africa as well as some beaches in Japan. In the West, however, the treatment has remained relatively unknown.

The first records of the ritual date back to Ancient Egypt, where hot sand baths were employed to treat inflammatory ailments like arthritis. It eventually would make its way around to parts of Greece, Morocco, and Turkey. In present day, the practice is prominent “in several countries, recognized especially in North Africa — Morocco, Egypt, Libya, Algeria — as well as China, and Japan,” says physician Dr. Abdeltif Hanaoui, who assists with sand bathing services in the Moroccan village of Merzouga. The medical expert notes a distinction between dry sand baths, common in North Africa and China, and wet, volcanic or coastal sand baths, common in Japan (most specifically, Ibusuki).

The former consists of burying an individual’s body (under the close supervision of an onsite physician) in hot sand during the summer months for a period of 10 to 15 minutes, between the hours of 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. or in the afternoon between 4 and 5 p.m. (to ensure the sand is not at peak heat and at risk of burning the body upon contact). According to Hanaoui, water is offered “as needed” to the participant to prevent dehydration. After exiting their burial treatment, bodies are wrapped in a blanket for approximately 30 minutes, to allow for necessary “abundant perspiration of the entire skin service.” Individuals are invited to drink water tea or juice at this time to replenish the body, and then the treatment is concluded with a lukewarm shower.

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While intense, the ritual’s rewards are robust, says Hanaoui. He details a list of benefits that includes: improvement in blood circulation and cardiac and circulatory activity, extreme relaxation of the nervous system, better sleep, and relief from joint and muscle pain. That said, the fiery treatment and climate conditions comes with some risks, including heat stroke. So, it goes without saying that pregnant individuals should avoid sand bathing. Also, certain chronic diseases can be complicated by the practice like diabetes, heart rhythm disorders, and kidney and heart diseases, so Hanaoui says a “fitness consultation and medical assistance throughout the session” are both equally vital to avoid issues.

In Ibusuki, Japan, the practice is similar in execution, with the major differentiator being the type of sand being used on the body. Instead of dry, desert particles, a damp, mineral-rich variety is used, and has been for as far back as the 16th century. “Ibusuki is an area of Japan that is completely covered in volcanic sand,” says Esther Cha, marketing manager at SoJo Spa Club in Edgewater, New Jersey. “They have active lava, or rather, magma activity underground, so their beaches are dark sandy beaches and the water there is hot. There’s a resort there called Hakusuikan where they bury people right on the beach.” The volcanic sand, Cha explains, creates an alkaline effect which makes the body very “happy,” thanks to its detoxifying and anti-inflammatory properties.

The shores of New Jersey where SoJo spa is located may be rife with crowds, sun, and surf-friendly waves, but they are far from a well spring of volcanic sand. In an effort to bring the century’s old treatment to the West, the spa imported some 200 tons of sand to offer it to visitors. For the facility’s Volcanic Sand Bath treatment, staff engineered a “two-bath system” in which one sand-filled area is being pumped with heated water to sanitize. The clean sand is then filtered to the treatment area where visitors are covered in the warm substance and reaping its benefits. “So we alternate back and forth,” explains Cha. “We really make sure it’s a sanitary experience, first and foremost. And we really try to truly replicate that sand bathing experience as if you were on a beach in Ibusuki.”

This includes the traditional robe coverings used during treatment in Japan, which the spa has specially imported for an especially authentic experience. “It’s a cotton robe and the wet sand soaks through, so you’re getting the benefits without having to be fully in contact with it,” she explains.

Amid the Himalayan salt saunas and ice room services, Cha notes the sand therapy treatment as the more intense on the roster at SoJo. “While not going so far as to say it’s a polarizing experience, we do try to teach people beforehand that, hey, if you don’t do great with the feeling of heaviness on your body or you’re sensitive to heat, this might not be the right experience for you,” she says. Like its drier counterpart, a volcanic sand bath comes with its own contraindications, including pregnancy, open wounds, low blood pressure, heart disease, or existing skin injuries like sunburns.

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While there are some rare additional sand bathing spas and treatments offered in the United States, Cha says they’re mostly done “on top of manmade beds.” SoJo’s service is in a semi-open area and aims to truly replicate what one might experience on a beach in Ibusuki. “You don’t have to fly to Japan to experience something so fully unique,” Cha says.

For those who are willing to put their passports to use and book a trip to Ibusuki or the deserts of Morocco, you will be in good company. Hanaoui explains that sand bathing has definitely experienced an uptick in popularity over the past decade because of its therapeutic effectiveness in treating physical and psychological ailments. In fact, National Geographic ranked the sand baths of Merzouga fourth in the world for “Blissful Escapes.”

SoJo Spa has also seen success with its sand bathing service since adding it to the menu some few years ago. Cha says the spa does some 400 to 500 treatments a week. “I think it speaks to a more adventurous crowd, people who want to try new things for the sake of having new experiences,” she muses. “It’s not necessarily something like, ‘Oh, yes, I’m going to do this every week.’ It’s truly, ‘Let’s experience something new. Let’s get out of our comfort zone, and let’s have this really fun memory together of doing something so unique.’”