Are spas worth it?

I recently visited a spa where a facial cost a cool £350.  An exfoliation and massage would set you back £175 and £200 would buy you a couple of hours of an exotic steam ‘ritual’.  Unless you were seriously rich, would you really be able to relax or would you end up lying there doing the cost-per-minute math in your head?

The pampering industry is big business.  There is no precise data for the UK but a recent report estimated that the European spa industry is worth $18.4 billion. There are approximately 600 spas in the UK, including day spas, ‘destination’ spas (large dedicated spas such as Champneys) and hotel spas.  The figure however is really the tip of the iceberg as it doesn’t include the huge number of old-style ‘beauty salons’ or hotels which have the odd treatment room.

All this pampering is very lovely but are we getting a fair deal?  You read about some exotic facial or bathing ‘ritual’ in a glossy magazine and it sounds nigh-on miraculous.  But can you really trust the report?  Beauty treatments are often a perk for magazine staff and the ‘tester’ might just as likely be the office junior (with perfect youthful skin) or the gardening editor (whose idea of pampering is hand cream) as a well-seasoned health and beauty hack.  Of course it feels lovely – but is it lovely enough to shell out two hundred quid?

I adore being cosseted – who doesn’t?  But I want treatments that really work and I want value for money.  One woman recently went to a well-known London day spa for a facial.  Throughout the treatment, the therapist offered extra bits and pieces – ‘I think your skin could do with a vitamin spray,’ she said. ‘Ooh and I think a collagen ampoule would be a good idea.’  The woman happily agreed – who wouldn’t?  After all, you trust the therapist knows her job.  But the bill came to nearly twice the cost of her original facial – every extra had cost a further £30 or so apiece.  ‘I really felt ripped off,’ she said.  ‘It spoilt the whole experience.’

I asked Sarah Ward, publisher of business magazine European Spa if she thinks spas are getting cheeky.  ‘The average rate for a spa treatment in 2008 was £68 within Europe,’ she points out. ‘And many spas have introduced low entry price spa day packages which generally include use of the facilities, a treatment and lunch.’   £68 is a still a lot of money, I reckon and it really does pay to look around.  For example the website http://www.wahanda.comhas recently introduced a daily ‘MobDeal’ where, if enough people book, you get cut price deals (for example a £100 spa day for £35).  At present it’s only available in London but will soon roll out across the UK.

Do your homework and don’t fall for the flowery language.  Ask what a treatment really involves and check the therapist’s qualifications.  For example, as Carole Preen of the Aromatherapy Council points out, ‘Many spas employ beauty therapists who use pre-blended products, which is not how a trained aromatherapist will work.’

However Sarah Ward reckons that we are already becoming far more spa-savvy. ‘Authenticity is the watchword for 2010,’ she says. ‘Clued up spa goers are growing weary of overdone, overpriced, time-consuming rituals and will seek out authentic, results-driven treatments designed to optimise health and combat stress.’

Sarah Stacey, co-author of the bestselling Beauty Bible series ( tends to agree.  ‘The only treatments I would pay for are ones that in some way transform my day – or preferably a bit of my life.  It’s usually something to do with ironing out the wrinkles in my mind, which then smooths out those on the outside.  If you feel better inside, you look incredibly much better.’

I’ve tried countless treatments in countless spas around the world.  Can I remember the hugely expensive fancy ‘rituals’?  Nope.  In fact, the most memorable treatments were often the simplest – just given by superlative therapists who really knew their stuff.  Question everything, go on personal recommendation if you can (rather than puffs on beauty pages) and, above all, don’t fall for the flannel.

What the mumbo-jumbo really means

  • Visibly more radiant:  shiny
  • Exotic: generally contains coconut
  • Holistic approach:  bit of everything
  • Ritual: overpriced and overlong
  • Experience: as for ritual
  • Ancient wisdom:  chanting may be involved
  • Envelopment:  being slathered in something

What’s really worth it?

  • Floatation:  serious stressbuster but not for everyone. Check how large the tank is (larger is better).
  • MLD (manual lymphatic drainage) – check it’s Vodder technique (the gold standard)
  • Real aromatherapy (ie by a qualified aromatherapist)
  • A seriously good basic massage.  Qualified sports therapists are often fabulous.  Thai massage and Tui Na are usually good.
  • Facial acupuncture: a serious Botox alternative in the right hands.  try Annee de Mamiel

Only if you’ve got money to burn

  • Chocotherapy – being slathered in warm chocolate makes you feel sick or hungry (depending on your relationship to chocolate)
  • Hot stones – lovely but stick with pure massage to iron out the kinks
  • Rasul – chakra muds?  Ahem.  You could do this at home in the shower.
  • Body wraps or ‘envelopments’ – generally boring and squelchy
  • Vinotherapy – being massaged with grape pips doesn’t rock my boat.

For more information on the therapies described here, check out my book Wellbeing & Mindfulness (Carlton)

First appeared in The Telegraph Weekend section.


Photo by CRYSTALWEED cannabis on Unsplash



  1. “Can I remember the hugely expensive fancy ‘rituals’? Nope. In fact, the most memorable treatments were often the simplest – just given by superlative therapists who really knew their stuff.” – You are exactly right about this. It always comes down to the therapists when rating spas. Have you ever been to an Orlando day spa and salon before?

  2. Hi Sarah…no, I haven’t been to an Orlando day spa….I’m based in the UK though did check out some treatments at the spa at the Grand Floridian hotel at Disney last year.

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