Does salt therapy actually work? I tried it to help ease my summer allergies

A visit to a salt cave was an effective method of self-care. But a cure for seasonal allergies? I’m not quite convinced.
Image: Young woman at sauna
An hour-long session in a salt cave will cost you between $20 and $40.miljko / Getty Images
Get the Better newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Sarah Watts

Unless you've been living in a cave (not made of salt) for three years, you've no doubt noticed that Himalayan sea salt — those peachy-pink, jagged slabs — are everywhere. Whether it's in a local metaphysical center, a farmer's market or a big box store, Himalayan sea salt is sold in every form imaginable, from lamps to tea light holders to gigantic slabs. They're beautiful, and mostly used for decoration. But increasingly, people (including medical practitioners) have been recognizing Himalayan sea salt as a mechanism for purifying and healing the body.

Halotherapy — from the Greek “halos,” which means “salt" — uses dry aerosol micro-particles of salt or minerals inside of a large, arid space to simulate the microclimate of salt mines, says Dr. Niket Sonpal, assistant professor at Touro College of Medicine. Salt exposure as a therapeutic treatment developed after 1843, when Polish physician Feliks Boczowski noticed that his patients, who worked in salt mines, had no respiratory or lung problems compared to other miners. When other physicians started to notice the same, salt caves began popping up around Europe up as a therapy for lung ailments like pneumonia or bronchitis. As halotherapy gains popularity (an estimated 300 salt caves exist in the United States alone) some claim the treatment can improve acne, seasonal allergies, arthritis and even depression, although there has been no peer-reviewed research to support most of these claims.

Can Halotherapy heal respiratory ailments?

“Halotherapy may be a relaxing spa treatment, but there's little evidence about how well it works,” Sonpal says. “Most doctors are still skeptical, including myself. The effect that [salt caves have] on anxiety and depression is considered to be a placebo effect.”

But that's not to say there's no promising research on it's effectiveness. One 2007 study published in the journal Pneumologia showed that dry salt inhalers, used up to 30 minutes each day, five days per week for three months, showed significantly improved symptoms in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Of course, using an inhaler daily for months is different than sitting for an hour in a "salt cave" — but it does raise the question, does salt have the power to heal? And if it does, can we reap the benefits by buying into this wellness tend?

The scientific community isn't quite sure why salt therapy purportedly helps improve lung conditions, says Dr. Payel Gupta, a spokesperson for the American Lung Association. “There are a lot of theories on why this therapy might be helpful, which could be that the salt particles are killing off microorganisms in the lungs, or that the salt is reducing inflammation and decreasing mucus,” she says. “We do know that salt has anti-inflammatory properties and we have seen this in patients who do nasal salt water rinses with a clean salt solution; there have been anti-inflammatory benefits.”

Get the better newsletter.

One popular theory as to why halotherapy might work, according to the American Lung Association, is that salt particles, when inhaled, draw water into the airway and lungs and thin out mucus, making coughs more productive and less stressful for patients with diseases that cause thick sputum, like COPD or cystic fibrosis. How much therapy is required in order to see an effect, however, remains unclear.

I'm a skeptic when it comes to salt therapy – particularly salt caves — since there haven't been studies to determine how effective they are (or whether they're effective at all), or how much exposure someone needs to start seeing any benefit. But I'm also someone with chronic allergies and sinusitis, so I decided to try a few sessions at my local salt cave to see if it had any benefit at all. Even a little bit of relief is preferable to sniffing, sneezing and blowing my nose the entire summer, I figured.

On my first trip to the local salt cave, I'm greeted at the door by the receptionist who asks me to take off my shoes and silence my phone before entering the cave. Inside, the floor of the cave is lined with tiny chunks of pink Himalayan sea salt that crunches underfoot, while the walls are lined with large slabs of the same. Dimly lit by a handful of Himalayan salt lamps, I head past the zero-gravity chairs flanked in the middle of the room and grab a bed near the wall in the back. In this cave, every seat and bed is outfitted with plush pillows and blankets, and guests are given a set of noise-cancelling headphones and a heated massage stone (also made of Himalayan sea salt). I take both.

The verdict: salt caves are great for mental health

It's immediately clear to me why salt caves have been said to alleviate anxiety and depression: Spending an hour in a warm, dimly lit room with the soft sounds of ocean waves piped in through the walls feels amazing. Nothing is required of guests during a salt cave session except to relax and breathe deeply – and essentially, you're taking an hour-long nap. When I left the salt cave (having fallen asleep midway through the hour-long session), I felt much more relaxed and peaceful than I had been when I entered – but likely because of my nap, not the salt. My sinuses, on the other hand, weren't feeling much better.

About a day after the session, I noticed that even though my sinuses were still plugged up, I was coughing more and my coughs were actually more phlegmy and productive — but it's still unclear whether it was the salt that did the trick. Participants are asked to drink lots of water before, during and after the session, as they claim the salt has a slightly dehydrating effect, so there's no way to tell whether salt exposure truly helped loosen up my chest, or whether it had something to do with all the water that I guzzled.

… but I’m still on the fence about it helping my allergies

In order to further test the salt cave's effectiveness on clearing up mucus, I went back a few days later for another hour-long session — my last, since they're pretty prohibitively expensive, somewhere between $20 and $40 for a single session, depending on where you're located. Whether it was a placebo effect or the sea salt actually did something, I noticed a few days later that I wasn't as stuffy as I had been before. I could smell and taste food again, and the throbbing ache in my sinus cavity had dulled. The trade-off, however, was an empty wallet (my local salt cave costs $30 for a 60-minute session) and watery, slightly stinging eyes, probably from the salt exposure.

In the end, I decided to make “salt therapy” a very occasional practice, like a manicure or some other fun splurge. Aside from the temporarily stinging eyes, I did find that salt therapy provides a noticeable health benefit — not because sea salt has healing properties necessarily, but because an hour-long technology detox in a dark room under a warm blanket is maybe my favorite method of self-care yet. Research has shown that a consistent self-care practice leads to better health outcomes both physically and mentally, but as far as I'm concerned, more research is needed to say the same for Himalayan salt. Next time I need some quiet time, the local salt cave will definitely be my first stop. For allergies, however? I'll probably just stick to Zyrtec.

MORE I TRIED ITS

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.