The Magic of Thermal Water and What It Does for Our Skin

The Magic of Thermal Water and What It Does for Our Skin featured image
This article first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of New Beauty. Click here to subscribe

In certain parts of the world, natural thermal waters possess remarkable healing properties thanks to their rich mineral content. And though you can still pay a visit to many of these springs and baths for some relaxation and rejuvenation, a handful of skin-care companies have found ways to bottle the benefits so everyone can experience them, everywhere.

Wonder Water

I remember the first time I used a thermal water face mist: I mistakenly used an expired sunscreen during a day-long boat trip and my face was the color of a tomato. The next day, not only did I spritz some mist every few minutes to keep the instant relief coming—I kept it in the fridge for extra cooling—but I also noticed my sunburn healed faster than any of the burns I’d had as a kid. From then on, I was a believer. But what makes these waters so magical? “Thermal water comes from hot springs that run deep into the ground, where the water is heated by geothermal activity, the earth’s natural heat,” says cosmetic chemist Michelle Wong, PhD. “As the water passes through rocks and soil, it picks up minerals, like sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, selenium, copper, and zinc that are known to have numerous skin benefits.”

Two benefits New York dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD points to are anti-inflammatory effects and acting as a simple calming solution to irritated skin. “It can be especially beneficial for those who suffer from skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema or rosacea because of how the mineral properties within the water have been shown to balance the microbiomes within the skin and help neutralize free radicals that cause skin damage.”

French Connection

France is a hot spot for thermal water—there are more than 1,200 springs in the country—and skin-care products featuring the ingredient have become pharmacy staples. Vichy is one fan favorite, named after the town of Vichy, France that became a notable spa destination once ancient Romans realized the soothing effect of the mineral-rich water on their skin after bathing. “Millions of years following volcanoes in the area, water originated in rainwaters that infiltrated volcanic rocks,” says Jasteena Gill, head of Vichy Laboratories USA. “It’s a pure volcanic water—the only of French origin—that is supercharged with 15 minerals, and in 1861, it was recognized by the French Academy of Medicine as a spring of public interest. In 1931, Dr. Haller, a medical director at the Thermal Treatment Center in Vichy, discovered its skin health properties and founded Vichy Laboratories.” Since then, the water has undergone extensive clinical testing, and “only fresh water—no more than seven days old—is used. Before it’s added to a skin-care formula, it undergoes double sterilization filtration,” adds Gill.

Avène is another French crowd-pleaser—its cult-classic Thermal Spring Water spray ($19) has won our NewBeauty Award four times—and the story of how the water was discovered is a unique one. “Nearly three centuries ago, the therapeutic properties of Avène Thermal Spring Water were first realized when a horse suffering from alopecia rolled in the water regularly to soothe its itching skin,” says Jacqueline Flam, chief marketing officer of the brand’s parent company Pierre Fabre. “It’s been told that the horse’s coat was restored to its original shiny and healthy condition, which led its owner to open one of the earliest Water Baths, now known as the Avène Hydrotherapy Center.” At the Center, the water is still used today to treat skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis, post-chemotherapy radiation, and burns. “We welcome 2,800 patients each year from around the world seeking curative treatments for their skin ailments,” adds Flam. “The water is very gentle and proven to soothe and soften skin while helping to visibly reduce the appearance of redness, itching sensations and post-procedure irritation, like that from aesthetic lasers or peels.”

La Roche-Posay’s thermal water stems from the village of La Roche-Posay, France where the brand’s Thermal Center (a dermatological center for serious skin conditions) stands above a unique aquifer abundant in minerals and antioxidants. “Our water is the result of rainwater flowing over vast expanses of limestone rocks, natural reserves of selenium and deep water more than 20,000 years old,” says Laetitia Toupet, global brand president. “Selenium is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from oxidative stress—a cause of skin aging—and plays a fundamental role in cellular preservation. The water is of the highest purity, and with an almost-neutral pH, it’s used to treat numerous skin problems.”

Omaha, NE dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, MD admits that before he visited Avène’s spa in Avene, France, he had his doubts about the benefits of these skin-care waters and the likelihood of any sustained benefit. “However, after experiencing them firsthand, I can say there is something quite remarkable about them and their healing properties,” he says. “Products such as Avène, La Roche-Posay and Vichy are their very own branded fountain of health. While it is unlikely that one or two sprays of these moisture- and mineral-packed products will turn your skin around, the ongoing use of them is probably akin to the benefits of protecting yourself from dirty tap water in your home. For me, it is a daily pleasure to spray with these products and remember the beautiful, serene experiences of ‘taking the waters.’”

According to Wong, an in-vitro clinical trial found that Avène thermal water reduces the severity of eczema when added to a cream, as well as the severe peeling that’s usually a side effect of using tretinoin as an acne treatment. “It also decreases the number of inflammation-causing bacteria on the skin,” she adds. “For psoriasis, La Roche-Posay’s formula managed to help 50 percent of a clinical trial group suffering from the condition, although that study involved both drinking the water and applying it to the skin.”

Hungarian Ritual

The first baths in Hungary were built 2,000 years ago by a Roman emperor after observing that soldiers’ wounds would heal faster after being washed with thermal water. “Over time, people kept building more baths, and now there are more than 1,000,” says Stephen de Heinrich de Omorovicza, cofounder of Omorovicza. The brand’s story began in the 1800s when de Heinrich’s ancestors built a thermal bath called Racz Furdo on the site of a medieval healing spring. “In the Carpathian Basin, which corresponds to Greater Hungary, the crust of the earth is much thinner than elsewhere. As a result, the rocks that hold the water—the aquifers—are much closer to the earth’s molten core, much hotter and more brittle. Hence, when waters journey to the surface of the earth, they gather more minerals from the dissolved rocks.”

Omorovicza’s patented Healing Concentrate contains 26 minerals found in the waters, and is made using a fermentation process that transforms the minerals into complex compounds the skin can recognize and absorb. “At the baths, the skin is able to absorb the mineral water through prolonged soaking, which means that the thermal waters are no longer effective once you leave the baths and the water evaporates off your skin,” Dr. Engelman says. “Thus, these products are a good intro to the benefits of thermal water because of the long-lasting nature of the Concentrate itself, ensuring that the minerals settle deep into the skin.”

DID YOU KNOW? Hungary’s bath culture differs from other countries in that the baths are everywhere and many people visit them daily as part of their normal routine. “What you’ll find is that there is a line for people with prescriptions because they’ve been sent by their doctors as part of their therapy, and a line for ordinary folk who just enjoy going to the baths,” says de Heinrich. “Doctors typically suggest a specific bath for each condition based on the minerals it contains: If your joints are a problem, you’ll probably be sent to a bath out east where there’s lots of iron. If it’s your skin that’s troubling you, you’ll be heading to the south where the baths contain more copper and zinc, which calms and soothes the skin.”

Another fun fact: You can stay in a thermal bath for hours and it won’t make your skin look like a prune. “It’s actually the other way around,” de Heinrich explains. “Your skin feels baby-soft and looks smoother and firmer. People will go in with beers in the evening and just sit around. There’s floating chess everywhere and loud families. It’s not meant to be relaxing—it’s chaotic, but also wonderful and energizing.”

Icelandic Elixir

Named a “Wonder of the World” by National Geographic, Iceland’s Blue Lagoon has become an international spa and wellness destination. Situated in a lava field formed in 1976 by geothermal water originating 2,000 meters deep, the Blue Lagoon contains a unique mix of geothermal freshwater and seawater that is flush with minerals—it’s highly saturated with silica (the mud on the bottom) and microalgae—and interacts with surrounding rocks. “Shortly after the Lagoon had formed, people from neighboring communities found the warm, milky-blue water very intriguing and started to bathe in it,” explains Ása Brynjólfsdóttir, director of R&D for BL+, part of the Blue Lagoon Skincare family. “Some people had ailments such as psoriasis or eczema, and found that the bioactive water felt healing and made their condition better. Through the years, we’ve conducted multiple studies on the water, which have shown it positively impacts proteins that are important in the structure of our skin barrier and induce and preserve collagen production in the skin.”

In 1994, Blue Lagoon Iceland opened a Medical Clinic, where it offers a natural psoriasis treatment that has been approved by Icelandic Health Authorities as an alternative treatment for psoriasis. Since then, the company has launched a full skin-care range featuring sustainably harvested Lagoon water, silica and microalgae.

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