Halotherapy might bring angels to mind, but it actually means something much more earthly…salt. “Halo” is Greek for salt, and halotherapy harkens back many centuries to when natural salt caves (mostly in Europe and Asia) were used by people with respiratory problems, allergies and skin conditions. 

Today, salt therapy is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Instead of salt caves, we’re seeing salt rooms and salt booths popping up in spas and wellness centers across the country. But it doesn’t stop there. Salt lamps, along with candles and rubs made with salt from all over the world, are available in shopping malls and trendy boutiques. There’s no question that salt rooms and products are pleasant to use. But do they have medicinal value?  

When my patients ask about halotherapy, here’s what I tell them: Salt-therapy rooms try to mimic natural salt caves. The walls are typically lined with salt blocks, and the floors covered with loose salt. They are often lit with salt lamps, which are globes coated with coarse, colored salt with a low-wattage bulb inside that provides a soft, soothing light. In many salt-therapy rooms, microparticles of finely ground salt are dispersed into the air. Clients relax in reclining chairs in a salt room for a prescribed amount of time, generally no more than an hour.  

Proponents claim that the salt air widens airways, loosens mucus, reduces inflammation and improves breathing. Salt rooms, they say, will heal chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma and allergies. In addition, advocates claim that salt releases negative ions that will improve your health by supporting relaxation and detoxification. But there’s not much reliable scientific evidence to back up these medical claims. 

On the other hand, salt rooms appear to be safe for most people and spending time in one can be soothing. I know patients who have found that their breathing improved while in a salt room and for several hours afterward. But from a medical and scientific perspective, spending time in a salt room is no more beneficial than sitting next to the ocean or in a boat on a saltwater bay. If that is something you love to do and you live far from open, natural saltwater, visiting a salt room for $40 to $150 a session from time to time may be just right for you. When it comes to salt rubs and other such products, they do feel great on the skin—most likely because the pH of most salt preparations, much like seawater, is compatible with human skin. If you’ve got psoriasis or eczema, these topical products can help relieve symptoms—but rarely provide a cure.   

And what about those negative ions? The truth is, negative ions are molecules generated by waterfalls, crashing ocean waves or a spring thunderstorm. Research has shown that negative ions can improve circulation and lift our moods. But it’s possible that a “feel good” reaction to salt therapies may have more to do with peacefulness and quiet time than negative ion generation.

Caution: Asthma patients and people with compromised lung health should consult a doctor before using a salt room.