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Originally published Friday, August 6, 2010 at 10:21 AM

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Salt room therapy on shifty ground

Halotherapy is an alternative therapy for chronic respiratory and skin problems that is modeled after the salt caves and spas that originated more than 200 years ago.

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Heidi Kling is reading in an all-white room. She's shoeless, but socks protect her feet from the 6 inches of salt that cake the floor. The only objects in the windowless room are four chaises and hand-molded plaster icicles that hang from the ceiling. .

Normally, at 1 o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon, Kling would be at work or running errands, but today her allergies, which cause her ears to ring, have brought her to this monochrome sanctuary.

Basking in salt rooms, also known as halotherapy, is an alternative therapy for people with chronic respiratory and skin problems that is modeled after the salt caves and spas that originated in Eastern Europe more than 200 years ago. In the last decade, the trend has caught on, and facilities have opened up in Israel, Canada, New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Florida and, most recently, Encino, Calif., home of the Salt Chalet, the first salt room treatment center on the West Coast.

But though salt rooms may be garnering fans, health experts are leery of the medicinal benefits that these rooms are purported to provide. Stories about miraculous recoveries and unprecedented health improvements are all over the Web, said Dr. Dean Schraufnagel, professor of medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago. That doesn't guarantee they're true. "There haven't been any clinical studies that research this particular therapy method," he says.

Tucked away in a shady corner on the second floor of Encino Commons, an outdoor shopping center most notable for cameos in the movie "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," the Salt Chalet is hardly noticeable in the shadow of a Bed, Bath & Beyond and a Bally Total Fitness center.

For $55 a pop, clients relax in rooms with salt-caked walls and floors. A small hole in the wall hides the piece de resistance of the whole shebang — a generator spewing out 1/2 cup of Dead Sea salt for every 45-minute session. As customers sit, relax and breathe, they are presumably inhaling and coming into contact with this supposedly therapeutic salt.

The Salt Chalet consists of three salt rooms — two for adults and one for children. Brightly colored shovels, buckets and toy trucks litter the salt-strewn floor of the children's room, while adults have the option to watch television, listen to music, read a book, talk to other clients in the rooms or dim the blue-hued lights and sleep.

"Everybody does their own thing when they're in the room," says proprietor Dikla Kadosh, who opened the facility nine months ago with her husband, David Mashiah.

Schraufnagel says though it's true that inhaling salt solutions can help treat common dust and seasonal allergies and reduce congestion in patients with cystic fibrosis by clearing up mucus, "this does not mean that salt rooms can do the same thing."

Saline solutions administer salt to the body in a more direct way than salt rooms do, Schraufnagel notes. The solution is squirted into the nostrils, quickly and efficiently transporting salt of a specific particle size to the lungs and chest cavity.

What's more, the particle size of the salt in the solution is probably more predictable and uniform, as well as smaller, than those emitted from a salt room generator. Though the size of the particles in the air of the salt rooms is unknown, they're probably too large to be easily inhaled, Schraufnagel says — as evidenced by the fact that some customers say the particles are large enough to be seen as they shoot out of the machine.

"To get into your lungs, the particles need to be very small," he says, "between 1 to 5 microns in diameter.... A salt room wouldn't be as effective as the mist from an inhaler for people with asthma or a saline solution for people with sinus or allergy problems."

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Dr. Mark Lebwohl, chairman of the dermatology department at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, agrees that the benefits of salt room therapy are as yet unproved, but adds that he understands how halotherapy has become popular.

Many salt rooms, including the Salt Chalet, use salt imported from the Dead Sea. Because of the sea's unique properties — it is the lowest point on Earth and has the highest concentration of minerals in a body of water — many people swear that its components (salt, mud and water) can treat a variety of ailments, Lebwohl says, especially skin conditions.

That hype is probably undeserved, he says: In truth, it may mostly be the sunlight that makes the Dead Sea experience therapeutic. The spot is more than a quarter mile below sea level, and as sunlight travels through this extra depth of air, many of the sun's damaging short-wavelength UV rays are filtered out.

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