“Go play in the mud” was not in my mother’s lexicon. So as I prepare to enter the mud pool at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa in northern New Mexico, I check to see if anyone is watching. The coast is clear, so first I shower. Second, I reach into a stone urn and scoop up handfuls of wet earth, smearing it over every part of my body not covered by my swimsuit. Then I lie down on a brown towel to let the sun bake me like a brick.
“Mud relaxes you and improves your skin texture, but it does much more than that,” says Anne Williams, a spa consultant and author of Spa Bodywork (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006). “Some types of mud can help relieve pain from arthritis or soft-tissue injuries and support the body’s natural detoxification processes.”
For millennia, people have been using mud, clay and peat for healing purposes. Traditionally, this has meant submerging in natural mud pools, typically found in regions with geothermal hot springs, like Ojo Caliente or the famed spas of Calistoga, Calif., where soaking in tubs of volcanic ash and peat has been popular for decades.
Many European doctors take mud so seriously they send patients to physician-monitored health spas, says Williams. A treatment called “fangotherapy” (fango is the Italian word for mud) is used to address conditions such as acne, dermatitis, psoriasis, chronic dry skin, muscle pain, even immune disorders and fibromyalgia. “The patient’s body is covered with warm fango for about 20 minutes, followed by a therapeutic soak in the spa’s thermal mineral waters,” Williams explains. Treatments end with a massage and a long nap.
There’s no mud Rx in the United States, but fangotherapy protocols are replicated (with a few adaptations) at spas and mineral-springs resorts nationwide. While whole-body mud treatments aren’t for everybody (there are a few conditions that preclude high-heat treatments, like pregnancy, diabetes, and heart or circulatory conditions), for most they offer a very relaxing, and decidedly novel, experience.
Good, Clean Fun
Under the high-desert sun at Ojo Caliente, the mud on my skin tightens as it dries. When I sit up, I crinkle. To rinse, I wade back into the warm waters of the mud pool, where mineral water, high in iron and soda, flows from the natural hot springs.
After a final shower — it takes five minutes until the water runs clear — my skin feels as velvety as a newborn’s.
Despite the breeze that chills my damp suit, I’m enjoying the fresh-air bath, which connects me with an indigenous tradition. True, my experience is more cushy than that of native peoples a thousand years ago: This contemporary pool is smooth concrete instead of rock, and the mud (harvested in northern New Mexico) contains no grit. But I do get to experience the irresistible feeling that I’m somehow breaking the rules.
“Who doesn’t love playing in mud?” asks Danny Silva, executive spa director at Glen Ivy Hot Springs in Southern California. At Glen Ivy, like Ojo, the pool is full of natural mineral water. The red-clay mud is lumped on a circular pedestal, guests giggle like kids, and couples re-create that romantic mud-pottery scene from the movie Ghost. After everyone is slathered in earth, they lie in the sun or in the Wafa, a special drying chamber that eliminates the threat of chill.
Distinct advantages are conferred on outdoor mud pools like Ojo and Glen Ivy Hot Springs. Smearing on one’s own mud outside avoids the potentially claustrophobic feeling of being wrapped or submerged in a tub. The air is fresh, you can always move your limbs, and you control the timing of the experience.
The social experience at outdoor pools can also be therapeutic. “You get to share the fun with others, yet your skin is as smooth as if you’d had a mud wrap,” Silva says, before adding his one caution, which sounds like something Mom would say: “Don’t forget to wear an old or dark-colored swimsuit, because the mud can stain the fabric.”
The Mude Pool Experience: Daily entrance fee into most mineral springs with mud pools starts at about $18.
Mud in a Tub
With slices of cucumber over his eyelids and a cool cloth on his forehead, Tommie Mercer, of Paradise, Calif., relaxes in a tub of 104-degree, chocolate-brown mud. An attendant applies cream to his face and massages away any last vestiges of stress.
After 15 minutes, Mercer gets up, showers, soaks 15 more minutes in a hot mineral-water whirlpool, and then spends some time in a steam room. Finally, he’s wrapped in a blanket and treated to a half-hour massage.
“I feel a floating kind of euphoria,” says Mercer, a 65-year-old water researcher who schedules regular baths at Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort in Calistoga, Calif. “A mud bath is like receiving life force from the belly of the earth.”
Calistoga is home to a handful of legendary hot-spring spas that offer mud in a tub, thanks to the town’s proximity to geothermally heated water that’s high in sulfur and other skin-friendly minerals. The “mud” in the baths is actually local volcanic ash mixed with imported peat and mineralized water, explains Mark Wilkinson, now co-owner of the resort founded by his father in 1952.
“Most people take mud baths for relaxation,” he says. “The secondary reason is relief from arthritis pain or muscle aches.” Wilkinson believes full-immersion baths are effective because being suspended between layers of hot mud “immediately relaxes you and makes you feel more limber.”
www.drwilkinson.com can shorten their soaking times if they’re too hot, and there’s always an attendant offering cool drinking water.
Some people object to the rotten-egg scent of sulfur in mud baths, notes Wilkinson, which is why attendants spritz the surface of the tubs with grapefruit essential oil. But there are good reasons to tolerate the odor. “We believe sulfur reduces oxidative stress on the body,” says spa consultant Anne Williams. In other words, it might slow aging.
While it might seem odd that the mud is reused for a number of guests, it’s actually very clean. “We run boiling-hot water through mud between every bath,” says Wilkinson. And bacteria can’t live in highly acidic. “In 60 years, no one’s gotten anything — besides relaxation — from a mud bath.”
The Mud Tub Experience: Mud bath with mineral-water bath, $77-$85 (massage extra).
Where We Tried It: Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort, www.drwilkinson.com
That’s a Wrap
For those who find the notion of wallowing in mud too untidy, private spa mud applications are an excellent alternative. Tracking down a mud treatment at a local spa also saves on the expense and stress of travel, which itself promotes relaxation.
“People come in with tight muscles,” says Erik Sears, treatment manager for Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, in Scottsdale, Ariz., “but they leave feeling incredibly relaxed and refreshed.”
During one of Willow Stream’s signature treatments, the Stay Active Rx Back Soother, a therapist brushes a mineral-rich moor mud over the client’s back and covers it with heated towels. After the substance remineralizes the skin, the therapist gives a deep-tissue massage using circulation-increasing ginger oil. “After a full day of golf at the TPC Scottsdale, players may come in a bit sore,” says Sears. “This treatment loosens the muscles in their back and upper hips.”
Spa mud wraps can also be purifying. Complexions Spa for Beauty & Wellness in Albany, N.Y., offers an authentic detox ritual where a blend of mud and sea algae is applied all over the client’s body and covered with moistened, warm banana leaves, as well as an outer Mylar blanket to hold in heat and keep the client comfortable. Afterward, the therapist rinses off the mud-algae mix using a Vichy shower while the guest relaxes on the massage table. A detoxifying oil is applied to seal in the treatment’s benefits.
“The detox-wrap experience and massage are better than a lot of vacations,” says Carrie Robertson, 51, of Cohoes, N.Y., who schedules the treatment every four weeks. “As a schoolteacher, I want a quiet environment, a place to escape for two hours,” she says.
Like mud tubs, any type of cozy spa wrap may be less than appealing to claustrophobic types, but you can avoid this by asking the therapist not to wrap your arms. Some people might also feel timid about being naked, although Robertson says her treatment feels very private.
“This is not just a beauty regimen. I do it regularly to care for myself and to keep myself healthy,” says Robertson, who lived for several years in Italy, where hot-springs spas are an acknowledged routine for people interested in wellness. “The relaxation I get from this treatment is priceless.”
The Mud Wrap Experience: Salon mud wraps start around $150, and include application, wrap and massage.
Go to the Source
These famous locations offer mud treatments around the world.
Dead Sea, Israel/Jordan: This mineral-rich lake is so salty that nothing can live in its water. At the Dead Sea’s shore, slather on black mud or get treatments at local spa resorts.
Iceland: A geothermal wonder, Iceland is a hotbed of volcanic geysers and pools. The country’s spas offer a variety of mud baths and pools indoors and out.
Ischia, Italy: Since ancient Greek and Roman times, the island of Ischia has been a popular center for health spas because of its volcanically heated pools and springs.
Rotorua, New Zealand: On New Zealand’s volcanic north island, Hells Gate Geothermal Park and Mud Spa offers mud pools, hot geothermal springs and treatments such mud facials, wraps and masks. www.hellsgate.co.nz/