For a long time in North America, the notion of bathing in mineral waters for health and beauty held about as much appeal as vibrating electric belts and exercise corsets. The 1994 film The Road to Wellville, which parodied breakfast-cereal tycoon Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s attempts to introduce early-20th-century Americans to spa culture, pretty much summed up the overriding Protestant sense of propriety governing our ablutions. With the growing number of skin-care products made exclusively with mineral waters, claiming to soften and calm mildly to severely irritated skin, cosmetics companies are hoping to change all that.

Rise up
Mineral waters start as rain. When runoff seeps below the surface of the earth, it can remain there for up to 40 years, picking up beneficial trace elements from layers of ancient rock before journeying back up to the surface at temperatures as high as 45°C. Most cosmetics are made with demineralized tap water, but thermal water for products is collected directly at the source — without being artificially processed — maintaining its original beneficial properties. The waters from different regions can be as complex and varied as wines, their mineral compositions directly reflecting the geological makeup of the site. For example, in Vichy, France, the waters are particularly high in sodium bicarbonate, while the springs at La Roche-Posay — more than 300 kilometres away — are rich in selenium.

What your skin says about you
“Our skin tends to get irritable, losing its ability to protect itself and maintain moisture for a number of reasons,” says Nella Arangio, a spa specialist and consultant at Aveda and Civello Salon-Spa. Stress, diet, lifestyle and weather all play a role. “The body is constantly using water for cellular metabolism, maturation and function, but that rate slows down if you’re highly stressed,” says Arangio. “Also, if you’re eating high-sodium foods, your body dehydrates even more, just as it does from too much caffeine and alcohol consumption. And when you look at people’s lifestyles today — you’re in your car with the heat on, then in the office — the hot and cold extremes of going to and from home and work further dehydrate skin.” While Europeans have been using mineral waters for skin healing for centuries, many Canadians remain skeptical of their benefits. “I still find that a lot of North Americans don’t believe in the waters because they like to see fast results,” says Faouzi Berradia, medical relations and national training manager for Vichy Laboratoires in Canada. “In France, people suffering from skin irritation and sensitivity can spend several weeks at a time at the Vichy springs.” Donna Cook, marketing coordinator for the Canadian Rockies Hot Springs in Banff, Alta., agrees. “I occasionally get calls from Europeans asking to book an appointment with the spa doctor, but we don’t have one,” she says. “They still subscribe to the therapeutic benefits of soaking in mineral waters — not just for the muscles but for the skin, too. European spas also cater to a broader range of health concerns. I guess it comes down to cultural differences in how we look at health and well-being.”

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Spring into action
Since the Renaissance, doctors have been documenting the health benefits of thermal waters, recognizing the effect of each mineral on the skin and recommending treatments for patients suffering from serious dermatoses. An online PubMed search turns up scores of articles by French and Italian dermatologists documenting the benefits of thermal waters as a natural, therapeutic alternative in the treatment of eczema, psoriasis and rosacea. Ingredients like selenium, abundant in the thermal waters of La Roche-Posay, boost the immune system, helping to fight off infection and suppress the skin eruptions that are associated with these inflammatory conditions. And the high concentration of mineral salts in Vichy waters can help with the regeneration of skin cells after reconstructive or plastic surgery. In serious cases like these, however, the products alone are not enough; full immersion in a non-chlorinated mineral pool is recommended.

Calm down
Multiple factors — anything from stress to pollution — can break down the skin’s barrier function, undermining its ability to fulfill a protective role. When the skin’s permeability and surface micro-circulation are compromised, redness and sensitivity set in. “The magnesium, calcium and potassium in many thermal-water products have positively charged molecules that exchange with enzymes in the skin to help reduce inflammation and sensitivity,” says Berradia. Thermal spa water also reduces heat and inflammation, creating a cooling sensation in the body. “When your body becomes inflamed internally from high stress levels, it starts to show up on the skin as blotchiness, acne, hives, eczema or psoriasis,” says Arangio.

Dry spell
Studies have shown that dry skin is not only short on fatty acids and nutrients, but it also has an imbalance of minerals. Copper, zinc and magnesium — present in every skin layer and essential to skin’s hydration — are depleted in the natural process of cell renewal. Thermal-water products return these moisture-binding minerals to the skin, slowing down the natural evaporation process and helping to hold water in the deeper layers of the epidermis. The neutral pH of mineral waters helps to improve exchanges between the cells by strengthening their membranes so the skin’s balance is restored.

Tone down
If you get afternoon shine, it’s likely that your lifestyle, diet or stress has created an imbalance. “This is where toners and misting sprays come into play,” says Arangio. “A spritz of remineralizing mist or a dab or two of mattifying toner can quickly absorb the oil. And you can do this throughout the day without having to wash off your makeup.” The zinc content in sprays and toners has a seboregulating effect, while mineral salts soothe, soften and protect against bacteria. (Salt is a natural antibacterial.)

Free-radical fighters
Thermal waters reinforce our skin’s natural defence system. Studies have shown that Vichy waters can significantly raise the activity of catalase, a powerful detoxifier and cutaneous enzyme in the body that defends against free radicals — the main cause of skin aging. The waters have a protective effect, helping to defend the body from ultraviolet radiation, as well as the environmental and internal oxidizing agents responsible for free-radical formation.

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