Opinion » Antidote

Shrink Wrap

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I was in Toronto over Christmas and wanted to log a little spa time with my daughter as a treat. The hotel staff described some of the local spas and I was shocked at some of the treatments available, like chocolate manicures and vaginal smokes. But my question is actually about body wraps and how they promise you'll instantly lose inches and cellulite. My daughter insists that they work, but I say you just lose water for a few hours and then it all comes back. Who's right?

—Deborah

Remember how your dad told you not to tease the dog with the Snausages? "Either give it him or don't show it to him," he said. How can you just dangle a vaginal smoking question in front of me and then ask about body wraps? That's just plain cruel. So for everybody who's now going to be Googling "vagina smoke," do yourself a favor and turn on Google SafeSearch. Trust me on this one.

Compared to a good smoke, a body wrap is positively conventional, appearing on nearly every spa menu. Not only available in resorts and day spas, they are now the heart of franchised businesses devoted to the treatment. The majority of wrap styles promise cellulite reduction and inch loss, but newer ones pledge detoxification, increased energy and anti-aging (conveniently difficult to prove). More than that, some wrap jockeys guarantee to sculpt your imperfect body into pleasing balloon animal shapes, with results rivaling the most talented birthday clown.

The typical spa body wrap begins with an exfoliation with a brush or salt scrub, followed by a plaster of clay, minerals, seaweed or trendy shea butter. Next, you are tightly wrapped with either herbal tea infused towels or a plastic-type wrap. Like a Passover brisket, you are then shrouded within a reflective blanket or inserted into a heated humidor. After sufficient braising time, you're extracted, bathed and moisturized.

Innovative variations on the procedure include a dark chocolate/sugar scrub followed by encasement in chocolate fondue, as well as the Dallas specialty, honey barbeque wrap (curiously also available at Subway). Simpler herbal wrap kits found at gift boutiques are meant for the do-it-yourselfer, though a bit of charm is lost as you sit naked, wrapping, on your own toilet seat lid.

In this circumstance at least, I'm pleased to tell you that Mother knows best; no amount of slathering, wrapping and baking will reduce your daughter's cellulite. Not actually a medical term, cellulite is simply regular fat that has stretched out the natural compartments in which it's deposited. An US Magazine cover photo showing lumpy and uneven dimpled areas across thighs and buttocks is the stuff of celebrity nightmares. Unfortunately, the only way to permanently minimize the orange peel look is to lose the extra weight.

Body wraps may temporarily reduce the appearance of cellulite and even slightly decrease the circumference of your body parts for two reasons: dehydration and compression. Wrapping the body, with or without salty seaweed, chocolate or heat, will cause perspiration and water loss from the outer tissues. Similar to the effects of a sauna, this outer dehydration is short-lived. Combine this with tight compressive wrapping and the fleeting illusion will be complete. The ubiquitous guarantees of multiple inch losses are simply the result of combining nearly two-dozen body measurements into a single total.

Just because claims of targeted weight loss and cottage cheese removal are bogus, it doesn't mean that body wraps are worthless. There is a definite and significant relaxation benefit of the process, presuming you are not claustrophobic. For some, there's nothing like a little afternoon mummification (for others, it can be a fetish—hint: SafeSearch off). The peaceful pleasure alone often makes an expensive body wrap a good value but expect to emerge more Maya Angelou than Angelina Jolie.

A vacation trip to a fancy hotel and spa is a reasonable time to indulge yourself in relaxing but therapeutically dubious treatments. And, I hope I wasn't too hard on you for asking the wrong question; it's probably better that I stay away from some topics anyway. Not everyone needs to know the entirety of goings-on behind spa doors, especially easily flustered guys like me. I'd much rather stick to questions that don't make me blush—and I'm not just blowing smoke.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Forward search results and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).