Photographer Katie Bailie

Living

Beer Spas Fall Flat

The notion of beer as a health food item has long been a “thing.” Whether lauded as being heart healthy, a recovery drink, or containing vitamins and nutrients, brews are hardly the magic elixir they’re pegged to be. Not only should a balanced diet never include beer, it’s a drink packed with empty calories and that increases your chance of liver disease, among other ailments. Still, that hasn’t prevented people from soaking in hoppy, yeasty baths in beer spas across the world.

A popular attraction throughout Europe, especially in the Czech Republic, beer spas promise the calming benefits of a traditional spa plus the added bonus of dermatological benefits from the nonalcoholic beer mixture visitors bathe in during their treatment. “Beer baths are a proven medical procedure from the Middle Ages known to cleanse the pores, increase pulmonary circulation, regenerate skin and hair and revitalize the nervous system,” says David Pšenička, general manager of Beer Spa Bernard in Prague.

While running a four-star hotel in downtown Prague, Pšenička wanted to provide guests with a wellness alternative that paid homage to the Czech Republic’s rich beer history. He’d been to a handful of beer spas before, but was unimpressed with the service: it was less spa and more unsupervised group bath (with very little drinkable beer). At Beer Spa Bernard, staff are trained in massage therapy, clients—most of whom are tourists—rent out the entire spa, and have unlimited access to Bernard Brewery beer throughout the 30-minute bath. While the mixture in the wooden tub itself is nonalcoholic (and hot—about 97 degrees Fahrenheit), it’s comprised of Czech hops, vitamin B, grain, yeast, and water. When absorbed, this bathing beer is said to make your skin and hair soft and smooth, your muscles relaxed. To get the full effects, it’s recommended that you don’t shower for 12 hours after the session.

Research has shown that compounds found in beer have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory effects and could potentially help relieve the effects of eczema, pigmentary disorders, skin infections, and skin ageing, but Dr. Cameron Rokhsar, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital is skeptical of the effectiveness of the concauctions at beer spas. “I can’t imagine [beer bath visitors are] having any sort of beneficial effects,” Dr. Rokhsar says. “Whatever hydrating that you get from the bath can be attributed to a normal bath without the additives.”

“The benefits I felt were what you would feel after sitting in a hot tub for an hour regardless,” says travel blogger Ashley Smith. In the midst of her Prague travel itinerary planning, Smith realized the slew of beer spas in the city made for more of a worthy tourist attraction than for skin rejuvenation. At her session at Spa Beer Land, Smith and her group sat in two tubs of hot water flavored with hops, brewer’s yeast, and malt. The attendant sprinkling the baths with the beer ingredients explained that the mixture supposedly kick-starts the metabolism, increases immunity, and minimizes stress. For Smith, it just felt like “cooking in a beer broth” for an hour—plus with personal taps of Krušovice beer. At the end of the hour soak, Smith briefly rinsed off the hops and let the beer water soak into her skin. It did feel softer, she noticed.

It’s because of the hops, says Sally Champa, massage therapist, herbalist, and owner of Hop In The Spa, the first beer spa in the U.S., located in Sisters, Oregon. About two-and-a-half years ago, a client who’d recently returned from a European trip suggested Champa include beer into her practice. She’d already been using hops in some of her herbal products and created a beer bath mixture that includes locally-sourced hops. Hop In The Spa offers what Champa calls “Hop Hydrotherapy,” that her proprietary blend of hops, barley, actual beer, herbs, minerals, and oils will soak into the skin for anti-inflammatory, exfoliating, skin calming, and muscle relaxing effects. “Hops is an herb,” Champa says. “It’s a cousin of cannabis—it has all the same properties. So when they’re soaking, there’s probably 150 hop flowers in there. The oils have seeped into the water [and] they are absorbing and getting on their skin the oils from the hops.”

In Iceland, Bjórböðin beer spa advertises similar results: spend half-an-hour in a warm mixture of water, brewer’s yeast, young beer, and hops and the vitamin B, potassium, iron, and other vitamins in the yeast will transform your skin and hair. The key to the nutrient-rich properties is the fact that the bathing beer isn’t the same drink that flows out of the taps. “The beer that we use in the bath is at an early stage of fermentation and therefore not ready for drinking,” say Ragnheiður Gudjonsdottir and Sigurður Ólafsson, the manager and head brewer at Bjórböðin. “It is better that the beer is mostly non-alcoholic. After fully fermenting beer it loses a lot of its healthy compounds that are desirable for the beer bath.”

But how effective is this stuff at permeating the epidermis? Unless a molecule is super small (like those used in topical pharmaceuticals), it’s pretty unlikely that it’ll make its way into your body. “We call it a skin barrier for a reason,” says Dr. Rokhsar. “Just because something sits on top of your skin doesn’t mean it’s getting absorbed. Chances are none of this stuff is getting absorbed past the skin barrier.” Which means beer bathers have unnecessarily been instructed to spend the rest of their days covered in a sticky beer coating by not showering to reap the full benefits. Any skin smoothness can be attributed to a moisturizing effect from the warm bath, Dr. Rokhsar mentions.

Though early research has signified that brewer’s yeast may help treat acne when taken orally, there still isn’t enough data to say for sure. Plus, those who have a history of yeast infections or who are allergic to yeast shouldn’t soak in it. The irony that guests are urged to drink during a service that’s supposedly aiming to detoxify your skin isn’t lost on Smith. But she hasn’t written off the thrill of a beer spa—she’d definitely try another. Because, after all, it’s an experience that isn’t necessarily bad for you, but shouldn’t be used as a therapeutic service. “Honestly, I dont think it’s going to harm you,” Dr. Rokhsar continues, “I think it’s just an extensive bath.”

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