Ashley O’Neal wasn’t sure she could do it.
Her first time in a salt room would likely be her last. It would be stuffy. She would feel claustrophobic.
But O’Neal gave it a try. She walked across a bed of salt crystals and claimed a reclining chair.
A light fog settled over O’Neal and three other spa-goers within minutes. She breathed in the salt and let it settle on her skin.
It was nothing like she expected.
“It was very zen. It was so peaceful and calming,” said O’Neal, 25.
And in the days after, she said she noticed clearer skin. She was coughing mucus out of her lungs, then breathing a little easier. Her runny nose, caused by allergies, disappeared.
The metro area is home to a handful of salt rooms.
It sounds simple — and it is. Spa-goers breathe in finely ground salt that’s blown through the air. At some facilities, the treatment is nearly an hour, others 10 minutes.
The salt, a medical-grade sodium chloride, starts off looking like common table salt. The dry salt is scooped into a machine, called a halogenerator, that grinds it into a fine powder. Then it’s blown through the ventilation system. It drifts through the room and slowly builds. The fine particles get into the lungs and sinuses, and settle on any exposed skin.
Proponents say the therapy can clear the lungs of bacteria, allergens and other irritants, as well as improve lung capacity. They also suggest it might help with asthma, allergies and cystic fibrosis, among other respiratory conditions. Some also say it can help improve skin conditions, such as psoriasis, eczema and acne.
But few controlled studies exist to back up those claims, so evidence it works is anecdotal. Because the practice lacks research and isn’t regulated, some medical experts urge caution and suggest instead what they consider safer alternatives.
The concept behind salt therapy is said to have originated in the salt mines and caves of eastern Europe, according to the Salt Therapy Association. As workers mined salt in the 1800s — by grinding, chiseling and hammering away at it — the tiny particles went airborne. The miners seemed to be in good health, rarely having any respiratory issues.
Fast forward 200 years: The Omaha area has at least four businesses that offer salt therapy, opening within the past three years. Sessions cost between $20 and $40.
Erin Jenkins spent about two years researching salt therapy, or halotherapy, before opening a salt room at Canvas Salon and Day Spa in Bellevue.
Her 15-year-old son Tyler has cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that causes lung infections and limits his ability to breathe. While researching solutions to help relieve inflammation in his lungs, she stumbled upon salt rooms.
Jenkins and her husband attended a salt conference in Florida to learn more about the process.
“I still, at that point, thought it was maybe a little bit hokey,” Jenkins said. “It’s hard as Americans to believe in something holistic, outside of a doctor or medical situation. For me, that was a really hard transition.”
In the hours after sitting in a salt room there, Jenkins started coughing to clear her lungs, her nasal passages felt clear and so did her ear canals.
Jenkins decided to add the offering to her Bellevue salon and day spa. It opened in early April.
Spa-goers swap their shoes for booties or socks and stash away any electronics, like cellphones and smartwatches. That’s because the salt could sneak into crevices of the devices and cause corrosion. Being phone-free also helps create a relaxing environment. They have the option of grabbing water, tissues and a blanket before heading into the room, which is kept at 69 degrees.
Once they’ve claimed one of four lounge chairs inside the narrow room, the session starts. The floor is carpeted with large Himalayan sea salt crystals. And the room glows a dim pink from a backlit wall of Himalayan sea salt blocks. A light whirring from the halogenerator hums intermittently, and within minutes a light fog settles over the room.
Most people fall asleep.
Dr. Heather Thomas, a pediatric pulmonologist with Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, said that there is not medical evidence to support salt therapy or to call it harmful.
“I don’t think the science people are quoting has, No. 1, been proven, but on the other hand, No. 2, it’s not unreasonable,” she said. “We do use salt rinses for the sinuses and inhaled (saline solutions).”
Thomas, who treats Jenkins’ son, said there is a risk of cross-infection in cystic fibrosis patients, who are susceptible to bacteria that is not problematic to healthy people. Jenkins talked to Thomas before her son started the therapy in April.
In those with asthma, it’s possible salt therapy could aggravate airways, similar to being around a bonfire. “We don’t know if it would be a trigger,” Thomas said.
She emphasized that those considering salt therapy should not use it in place of traditional medicine.
Because salt therapy isn’t regulated, each room can vary, said Dr. Payel Gupta, an allergy and asthma specialist who practices in New York City.
The lack of regulation raises some concerns for Gupta, who is also a volunteer spokeswoman for the American Lung Association. Some of those concerns include how much salt is in the air, how large the salt particles are and how far into the lungs the particles are ingested.
Because of those unknowns, Gupta said she wouldn’t recommend the practice for patients with lung conditions like asthma, cystic fibrosis or COPD.
There’s also a concern of mold or bacteria, she said, if rooms are warm or humid and not cleaned properly.
Studies do show that salt has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties, Gupta said. That’s why doctors sometimes recommend saline rinses for individuals with sinus or allergy issues.
Individuals suffering from allergies, but without other medical issues, might find relief through the salt room practices, Gupta said.
“If you’re spending a limited time in there, and you don’t have any other major medical issues, I think you would probably do fine,” she said.
TJ Matgen of Omaha didn’t have any reservations about the Bellevue salt room, except for having to sit still for nearly an hour. But the 28-year-old was hooked after one session.
For a few days after, he coughed up gunk. But he said he could breathe more deeply, his skin appeared a little clearer and he was more relaxed.
“If you just go in there, sit back and relax, it’s a wonderful atmosphere and comfortable experience,” Matgen said .
Salt and Spa, near 78th and Cass Streets, opened its doors about three years ago. Yesenia Goldstrom got into the business because she thought it would help allergy sufferers like her son and husband.
Traditional spa offerings, like massages and facials, are more popular there. But over the past few months, Goldstrom has seen an uptick in spa-goers seeking salt therapy treatments.
About five months after opening, the business’ salt therapy practice was briefly shut down by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services for practicing medicine without credentials. An order from the department defined practicing medicine by “persons who suggest, recommend or prescribe any form of treatment for the intended palliation, relief, or cure of any physical or mental ailment of any persons.”
The wording can’t recommend or suggest salt therapy as a form of treatment for relief or cures of any ailments. Now, Salt and Spa is able to do business by changing verbiage on its website. Instead, it offers testimonials.
The location has two salt rooms, one for adults and one for children that comes equipped with toys.
Goldstrom said they usually see 20 to 25 people a week in the salt room.
“Our clients come if they want to,” Goldstrom said. “We don’t tell you, ‘Oh, because you have this condition, you have to be there this many times.’ I say, ‘Try it. Check it out.’ ”