Hot and Healthy! Inside the Spa Treatment Everyone’s Talking About

In case you haven't heard, the hot new thing to do at a spa, is, well…really hot. Specifically, hammams (a.ka. Turkish steam baths; the word hammam derives from the Arabic for "heat") are sweeping the nation.

Just ask SpaFinders magazine, which actually singled out hammams as the hottest trend of the year in late 2010. (With good reason—spas from coast to coast have been ribbon-cutting their newly-built hammams; Trump Soho has a Moroccan-influenced one, and The Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas just began pampering clients at their Turkish hammam, and there are plenty of others at less hefty price points, too.)

Featuring heated stone slabs and intensely exfoliating rub-downs, hammams are a favorite of the worldly and the weary—as well as anyone who likes their indulgent spa-time to do double-duty as a bit of a cleansing experience.

So what exactly IS a hammam? Is it as healthy as some claim? How is it different than the old-style steam sauna your dear old grandpa favored?

I recently got some answers from Caitlin Conn, skin care director at Exhale Spa, which has 18 locations around the country. Besides their cult-favorite Core Fusion classes (I LOVE them!), three lucky Exhale locations (Atlanta, Miami and Boston) just introduced hammam treatments. Conn answered my most burning (ha) questions about the whole experience:

Q. What are the health and beauty benefits of spending time in a Hammam?
A: There are a few health and beauty benefits that result from spending time in a hammam. Hammams are heated between 106 and 110 degrees F. Traditionally there is a thorough, full body exfoliation that sloughs off the skins outer layer of dead, dull skin. This shedding of the outer layer unclogs pores, keeps skin clean, and helps reduce acne breakouts.
    When a person’s body is in contact with the warmed stone slabs inside the hammam, it raises the core temperature of the body. This increased warmth induces perspiration which helps the body cleanse itself as it clears bacteria out of surface layers of the skin and from the sweat ducts. The process of sweating also helps improve circulation from the blood vessels dilating, and gives the skin a fresh look and feel. Although often claimed, it is difficult to pinpoint and scientifically prove that toxins such as heavy metals that we absorb from the environment and foods we eat leave the system through perspiration.

Q. How does this kind of heat differ from the heat in a wet or dry sauna— the places that many people are familiar with from gyms, etc?
A. This could be a very involved and technical answer, but the main distinction is in a Hammam is that it is neither intense dry heat as found in a sauna nor is it overwhelming moist heat as found in a steam room. The hot room of a hammam will feel pleasantly warm but should not overwhelm upon entering the space.
    The main difference is the element of radiant heat that is coming off of the warm stone slabs. When you lay your body down onto the warm stone slabs your body absorbs the heat and your core temperature will slowly rise as a result.

So, are you ready to feel the heat? Or would you rather stick to sweatin' it out in the sauna?