Could a dietary no-no be the one thing that soothes dry, sensitive skin? We dive in to find out!
Short of entering a NASA simulation machine, the experience of swimming in the Dead Sea must be the closest anyone can get to spacewalking without leaving Earth. The water—8.6 times saltier than any ocean—is crystal clear, so you can see the craggy white topography of the sea floor beneath you as you float, weightless, like a buoy, even when you drift out and over deeper water. The sensation is supremely calming—not only because you're bobbing about in bath-warm water like a rubber duck, with no risk of drowning or becoming a shark's snack, but also because both the water and air are rich with minerals—including bromine, a popular nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century sedative—that have a relaxing effect on muscles and nerves. But what impressed me most when I reluctantly emerged from a long, blissful soak was how my skin looked and felt—springy, soft, and ultramoisturized—even several un-showered hours after I returned to my hotel in Israel's Ein Gedi, on the sea's western shore.
The therapeutic effects of bathing in mineral-rich waters have been known since time immemorial—or at least since ancient Greeks Herodotus and Hippocrates proclaimed the curative powers of relaxing in natural hot springs, forming the basis for balneotherapy, or "taking the waters," which is still practiced everywhere from Calistoga, California, to Iceland's Blue Lagoon. Cleopatra—that oft-cited bellwether of most things beauty—so greatly valued the youth-bestowing qualities of the Dead Sea's mud and water that she purportedly urged her lover Mark Antony to conquer the region so that she might have an unlimited supply. The compound of magnesium sulfate known as Epsom salt—named after the English town where it was first identified in 1695—has been clinically proven to ease muscle pain and speed the healing of wounds. The Japanese have customarily dipped into mineral springs, or onsen, for centuries, to alleviate a host of complaints ranging from acne to wrinkles. Even now, alternative health blogs are buzzing about so-called transdermal magnesium therapy: Because the mineral can be absorbed through the skin and into the cells, devotees allege that a bath containing a few cups of sea-salt-derived magnesium chloride can deliver health-boosting results (such as lowering high blood pressure, a proven benefit of upping dietary intake of magnesium sulfate) more effectively than oral supplements.
Most of us tend to have somewhat negative associations with salt, however—from the dehydrating discomfort (thirst, bloating) we experience after we've eaten too much of it, to the long-term health dangers of a sodium-heavy diet, to the filmy, sticky feeling that inevitably punctuates long days at the beach. It's certainly not something that springs to mind when thinking about hydration—even though certain salts have a unique ability to attract and hold water, making them a valuable ingredient in moisturizer formulation. Sodium hyaluron, the form of hyaluronic acid used in many face creams, is technically a salt. "Sodium hyaluron is a very viscous substance that increases the water-holding capacity of skin," says New York dermatologist Francesca Fusco, MD, "so it has an almost immediate plumping effect." (Reps for the brand Kinerase, for instance, claim that its presence in the company's new C8 Intensive Treatment multiplies the skin's water content by 1,000.) Whether or not a salt is drying, Fusco explains, comes down to its composition: "Ordinary salt is largely sodium chloride, which is very dehydrating," she says, "but mineral salt, such as Dead Sea salt, is rich in magnesium and calcium, which improve hydration by strengthening the barrier function of the skin." Indeed, those minerals—in addition to zinc and potassium, other components of unrefined salt—are classified by scientists as "natural moisturization factors" for the way they support the skin's water balance. "An example I give my patients is that when you sit in a non-salt bath, your skin wrinkles and prunes," Fusco says. "But that doesn't happen in salt water because salt reproduces an environment in balance with your skin in which your skin doesn't leak out moisture."
At Ananda Dead Sea Laboratories in Israel, salt is everywhere—there are even statues made from the stuff, like Lot's wife, standing in the building's entryway—which isn't surprising considering that this is the only cosmetics company in the world with direct access to Earth's saltiest body of water. Perched on a mountainside with a breath-catching view of the Dead Sea (and Jordan, visible on the opposite shore), the facility houses an extensive research and development department in addition to a factory floor and enormous shop; the latter two are open to tourists. Scientists here have been studying the effects of Dead Sea salts and mud on skin since the company was founded in 1988, finding that the mineral compounds improve cellular metabolism (that is, the efficiency with which cells convert nutrients into energy, as well as the speed at which old skin cells are replaced by new ones), stimulate circulation, and even protect against UVB radiation. The lab's key breakthrough, however, was discovering the way in which the salts moisturize the skin through osmosis. "The minerals of the Dead Sea are hydroscopic, meaning they attract water," explains ananda research and development manager Isabelle Afriat, PhD, "so when you put them on the skin, they act like a pump, drawing moisture and nutrients from the deeper levels of the skin up to the epidermis." Every Ahava face and body product contains a sample of Dead Sea water, patented as the "Osmoter," which, the company maintains, increases the skin's hydration both on the top and dermal levels by effectively rebalancing the distribution of naturally occurring minerals in the cells. A number of independent studies also show that the Dead Sea minerals reduce roughness and inflammation, improving overall skin health.