Do Slimming Spa Treatments Work?
Health takes a hard look at popular procedures that promise to firm up your mushy spots.
Getty ImagesYou've seen them in spa brochures and on websites: those wraps, massages, and high-tech gizmos designed to shrink inches, reduce cellulite, and blast pounds while you lie there in a lavender-scented room. No knives, no drugs—just seemingly quick fixes, with a price tag. While you're dubious, a part of you has wondered, Could they help me? So we investigated trendy newfangled treatments, asking doctors to weigh in. Read this before you drop a bundle to lose an inch.
The claim: Jolt away flab!
The deal: A technician attaches electrodes to your wobbly bits (sometimes covered in a mineral-rich clay) and flicks a switch, sending a mild current that feels like tingling. The revved-up circulation and muscle contraction supposedly reshape your belly, whittle inches and smooth cellulite. Typically, you'd get several 30- to 90-minute treatments (at $100 to $300 a session) over a few weeks. Kate Upton is reportedly a fan.
So does it work? Not for weight loss (though it is effective for rehab after an injury). If you lose any inches, it's only because you sweat like a pig, so don't expect results to last more than a day or two. "There is no scientifically supported reason why electrostimulation would contribute to weight or inch loss," says Anthony Youn, MD, a board-certified plastic surgeon in Troy, Michigan. "It would be much more effective to stimulate muscles the old-fashioned way and work out." The FDA's stance on electrostimulation treatments for dropping pounds: "Muscle stimulators are misbranded when any of the following claims are made: girth reduction, loss of inches, weight reduction, cellulite removal, bust development, body shaping and contouring, and spot reducing." Yeah, not exactly a ringing endorsement.
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Slimming body wrap
The claim: Squeeze out inches!
The deal: You lie on a heated table or in a heated room. First you're scrubbed with an exfoliant. Next, you're slathered with creams and wrapped in elastic bandages, mummy-style. In some cases, you do light exercise while wrapped. The reasoning behind the $150-ish procedure: Exfoliation opens pores, and the heat and creams containing dehydrators like algae, salt, and caffeine produce sweat, helping excess fluid make a hasty exit. Tight bandage wrapping supposedly reduces swelling too.
So does it work? Yes, but blink and you'll miss it: You sweat off water weight. "That's why wraps are so popular before big Hollywood events and weddings," Dr. Youn says. "By the time the effects wear off, the event is over and no one is the wiser!" Tyra Banks got one on camera—and was measured to have lost 9 inches overall in her arms, midsection, butt, and legs. If your goal is fat loss, however, don't bother. As Ronald Sha, MD, medical director at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, North Carolina, says, "Wraps are a complete waste of money—you'll lose water and electrolytes, but not fat."
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The claim: Suck and zap away flab!
The deal: A technician runs a suction device with rollers over bulges; this is often combined with heat from lasers, infrared light or radiofrequency. (VelaShape, SmoothShapes and Endermologie are popular brands.) How spas bill it: The heat melts subcutaneous fat, the suction increases circulation to flush away fluid and liberated fat and the rollers stretch out fibrous tissue and smooth dimples. You'll pay $100 to $200 per 30- to 60-minute session. Kim Kardashian famously got her rear sucked on Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
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So does it work? Yes, if done right. "The suction and rollers temporarily smooth fat and overlying skin," Dr. Youn says, "but unless they're combined with heat from a laser or radiofrequency, which can be uncomfortable, fat volume will stay the same."
Lymphatic drainage massage
The claim: Rub off inches!
The deal: A trained therapist uses wavelike strokes on your entire body or specific trouble spots, for $80 to $120 an hour. It promises to be a Roto-Rooter for clogged lymph nodes. Once fluid starts flowing, it purportedly sweeps up cellular waste, toxins and excess fluid trapped between cells, moving them into the bloodstream and ultimately the toilet. Once the swelling goes down, you're trimmer.
So does it work? Nope, unless it's done to alleviate post-op swelling. "It's totally ineffective for weight loss and completely useless for fat loss," Dr. Sha says.
Bottom (and belly and thigh) line: If spending $200 to temporarily lose a bit of water weight sounds like a bargain, go for it. Just don't bank on a miracle. "By and large, quick fixes overpromise and underdeliver," says Mark Hyman, MD, founder and medical director of The UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. Why not spend your spa cash on an always sublime hot stone massage?
Jacuzzi vs. Sauna
Does one give a bigger calorie burn? We boil it down for you.
Wet heat: Doing a hard-boiled egg impression in a Jacuzzi will raise your core temperature and improve circulation, but it actually melts only a few extra calories. A 150-pound person hanging out in a hot tub burns about 36 calories in 20 minutes. That same person will burn about 31 calories in 20 minutes sitting on her butt watching TV.
Dry heat: A sauna will make you sweaty, all right—just don't be fooled. It may yield a slightly larger calorie burn than a Jacuzzi, depending on how high the temperature is, but the amount is negligible, says Pamela Peeke, MD, author of The Hunger Fix. In a nutshell: "Both saunas and Jacuzzis are great for relaxing. You can melt away stress, just not pounds."
3 Ways to Avoid a Medi-Spa Mishap
Show up in good health: If you're suffering from a cold, fever or chronic medical condition, don't get a treatment. Given that your body is in defense mode, you want to avoid putting it under any extra pressure.
Skip the pre-spa cocktail: Beg off the Bloody Mary at brunch if you're heading to an appointment. Says Youn, "These treatments are dehydrating, and alcohol can make you even more light-headed."
Be nosy: When you book your reser-vation, ask three questions: "How many times has the technician perfomed this procedure?," "How much training has she had?" and "Are there any potential risks?"