Spa Glossary

A handy guide to spa and beauty treatment terms and techniques

Spa terms A-Z

Don't know your rasul from your reiki? Unsure if you'd prefer a facial or a flotation session? No need to be overwhelmed, our glossary is here to help. There's something here for the spa newbie and the more experienced spa goer - read on to learn more.

Glossary definitions

Acupressure massage

A massage incorporating pressure to specific points on the body, thought to stimulate energy flow in immune and hormone systems (like acupuncture but without needles).

Acupuncture

Chinese treatment dating back more than 2500 years, using fine needles on specific trigger points throughout the body to stimulate the energy flow in immune and hormone systems in specific areas of the body to bring it back into balance.

Afternoon tea

Traditionally this consists of tea (the drink), accompanied by a tiered cake stand holding three courses - sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and cakes. Usually upgradable to include a sparkling wine or cocktails. Sometimes referred to as ‘high tea’. See also: Cream tea.

Aromatherapy

Using essential oils to to help soothe, heal, energise or relax the body.

Aromatherapy massage

As above, but applied to the body in the form of a massage.

Ayurvedic

Traditional Hindu medicine, based on the idea of balance in the bodily systems. In spas, this usually includes massage, shirodhara and other skin treatments, yoga and herbal medicine.

Bamboo massage

Bamboo massage aims to deliver stress relief, strengthen muscles, support lymphatic drainage and improve circulation by using bamboo canes to massage muscles on a deep level, as well as stretch them and target reflexology points.

Bath broom

Also known as a besom, a bath broom is typically made with the branches and leaves of a tree or shrub which secretes aromatic oils (eg pine, birch, fir, eucalyptus). The branches and leaves are then dried and tied to form a handle. The broom is used to massage and stimulate a bather's skin and generate heat in saunas.

Bucket shower

A bucket filled with cold water, with rope attached. Used to cool down swiftly as part of a thermal journey. See also: Plunge pool; Thermal suite.

Caldarium

The definition of caldarium seems to vary from spa to spa. In practice it is comparable to the tepidarium and laconium, ie a warm room to relax in or help the body temperature adjust more gradually as part of a ‘thermal journey’. Sometimes has a warm plunge pool as well. See also: Thermal suite.

Candle massage

A massage using oil warmed over a burning candle.

Chakras

A 4000 year old belief, based in Hinduism, that there are 7 centres of spiritual power in the human body, known as chakras. Each of the chakras has its own unique character and colour. Chakra therapy is about bringing these centres into balance through meditation or massage. See also: Ayurvedic.

Couples massage / Dual room

A massage experience for more than one person at once, in a double treatment room. Each guest is on a separate treatment bed and is massaged by a separate therapist. Sometimes the therapists synchronise their movements so guests feel the same pressures at the same time.

Cupping

Dating back to ancient Egypt in 1500 BC but also seen in China and the Middle East, cupping involves the therapist putting a flammable substance such as alcohol, herbs or paper in a glass cup and holding a flame to it so it catches light. As the flame goes out, they put the cup upside down on your skin. The air inside the cup then cools and creates a vacuum. This causes your skin to rise slightly into the cup, and redden as your blood vessels expand. The cup is generally left in place for up to 3 minutes. Sometimes therapists use silicone cups, which they can move around on your skin for a massage-like effect. It is thought to help with pain, inflammation, blood flow, relaxation and well-being, and as being like a type of deep tissue massage.

Cream tea

Traditionally this is tea (the drink), served with scones, jam and cream. See also: Afternoon tea.

Cryotherapy

Any treatment that involves the use of freezing or near-freezing temperatures. The most popular form of cryotherapy involves sitting in a booth at -110 degrees C for 3-5 minutes. Other treatments use a handheld cryotherapy device to target specific areas, such as the face or a painful joint. It’s thought to improve circulation, speed up healing/ recovery and relieve pain.

Crystal therapy

The spiritual belief that gemstones have healing and energising powers. Most commonly seen in spa treatments are quartz and jade.

Deep tissue massage

Massage that focuses on realigning deeper layers of muscles and connective tissue. It is especially helpful for chronic aches and pains and tight/stiff areas such as neck, back, legs and shoulders. The pressure will generally be more intense than a massage intended primarily for relaxation.

Diamond

Treatments with ground diamond dust in them are thought to provide superior microdermabrasion (diamonds are after all the hardest substance known to man), and of course they have the luxury element that makes them even more attractive to guests looking to really indulge. Diamond can be applied by way of a paste or a handheld device with a diamond tip.

Essential oil

Natural oil distilled from plants (ie their essence), used in aromatherapy. Stored in dark glass bottles as sunlight deteriorates the quality.

Exfoliation

Treating the skin with a granular substance or a rough fabric/brush to remove dead, dry cells and end up with softer, healthier skin. Should be followed with a moisturiser for best results. See also: Microdermabrasion.

Experience showers

A shower with different types of water jet (eg ‘monsoon’, ‘waterfall’) and different temperatures, usually accompanied with changing coloured lights and sometimes aromas and sounds.

Facial

Treatment for the face (sometimes also neck and upper chest) that can include steam, exfoliation, cleansing, masks, moisturising and massage, all with a view to clean and refresh the skin as well as treating any specific areas of concern.

Flotation

Wet flotation involves a private, quiet space where the guest free-floats in water heated to skin temperature. The water is around 30 cm deep and has had Epsom salts added to it which promote muscle relaxation and aid buoyancy. The space can be a pod with a closeable lid, or even a small room. Normally the flotation experience lasts for around an hour, and it is meant to create a feeling of tranquility and restfulness.

Dry flotation creates a similar effect, but you are cocooned in blankets and lie on a mattress filled with water that creates a supportive, floating sensation, without needing to be actually submerged.

Four Senses lounger

A relaxation lounger that stimulates four of the senses - the glowing bed cycles through different colours, its surface is warm and vibrates, soothing music is played and aromas are released.

Gold

Skin treatment, usually a facial, incorporating gold leaf or a gel/cream containing gold particles. Benefits are said to include anti-aging and firming properties. Gold is also thought to contain antioxidants (ie protect against cell damage in the body).

Gommage

A treatment using clay, oils and herbs to exfoliate the body; gommage is a cream, gel or paste that’s allowed to dry before being removed with a gentle rubbing motion to roll it off the skin and remove the outermost dead skin cells.

Halotherapy

Treatments using salt. See: Salt.

Hammam

See: Turkish bath.

Heated lounger

Designed for relaxation or as an in-between stage when using thermal facilities, to adjust the body temperature more gradually. See also: Thermal suite; Tepidarium.

Hot stones

During a hot stone treatment, smooth and flat heated stones are used to massage your body, often in combination with oils. The stones are usually made of basalt, a type of volcanic rock that retains heat. The heat helps to relax muscles and encourage lymphatic drainage. See also: Lava shells.

Hot tub

Wooden tub filled with hot water for the purposes of relaxation, usually seating maximum about 8 people, often with no bubbles or jets. ‘Hot tub’ is often used interchangeably with ‘jacuzzi’. See also: Jacuzzi.

Hydrotherapy

Essentially, this is therapy provided by water. It can involve exercise when incorporated in physiotherapy for specific injuries, but in spas it usually means a pool with different kinds of jets, bubbles and massagers built in. The temperature is normally around 35 degrees C (ie body temperature). Jets and bubbles are often button-activated or on a cycle, as running them constantly can cause the motor to burn out. Also referred to as a vitality pool. See also: Jacuzzi; Hot tub.

Ice fountain

A dispenser of crushed ice for applying to the body, to rapidly cool down as part of a thermal journey. Also helps to improve circulation and cellulite. See also: Snow room; Thermal suite.

Infrared sauna

Heated to a lower temperature of around 60 degrees C than traditional saunas (which are typically around 90 degrees C), but with a similar lack of humidity, an infrared sauna uses infrared energy, which deeply penetrates the muscles and joints. For best effects it’s recommended to sit directly in front of the heater panels.

Infinity pool

A pool whose positioning and edge design gives the impression that it merges into the surrounding landscape, especially the sea.

Jacuzzi

The name is the surname of the inventors, the Jacuzzi brothers. It’s become the word that people use to generally refer to a small pool of hot water with bubbles and jets, although technically, only officially branded pools are Jacuzzis. Used for relaxation and typically warmer in temperature than a hydrotherapy pool. Jets and bubbles are often button-activated or on a cycle, as running them constantly can cause the motor to burn out. See also: Hot tub.

Jade mask

An eye mask made from laced together pieces of jade. Jade crystals are meant to provide anti-ageing properties, which include reducing puffiness, wrinkles and dark circles around the eyes. See also: Crystal therapy.

Kneipp

Invented by Sebastian Kneipp, this is a treatment based on hydrotherapy, during which you alternate between hot water and cold, with jets and bubbles massaging the body. This can be full body immersion or just parts of it, such as the feet. The Kneipp walk, as well as alternating hot and cold foot baths, can include walking over pebbles, which pleasantly massage the soles of the feet. The temperature changes and different water pressures stimulate circulation, metabolism and the immune system.

Laconium

The definition of laconium seems to vary from spa to spa. In practice it is comparable to the tepidarium and caldarium, ie a warm room to relax in or help the body temperature adjust more gradually as part of a ‘thermal journey’. See also: Thermal suite.

Lava shells

Similar to a hot stone massage, but with striped clam shells (called ‘lava’ shells because they get hot). The clams have been harvested for food and used to be thrown away, but are now recycled, polished and used in spas. The heat is produced by inserting a single use sachet and activator liquid into the shell, which then emits heat for around an hour, allowing the spa treatment to continue without interruption (in comparison, hot stones must be repeatedly re-heated). Can also be used chilled. Similar benefits to hot stone massage, but the shells also release calcium which can help to firm and regenerate skin.

Liver pack

A cloth soaked in castor oil, heated and applied to the body for at least an hour, to stimulate lymph and liver function. A hot water bottle applied to the liver can also work in a similar way.

Lymphatic drainage

The lymphatic system is part of the body’s immune system. Lymph fluid passes through lymph nodes, which are connected by a network of lymph vessels. The nodes are found throughout the whole body and include the tonsils, the armpits, areas of the stomach and groin. The nodes act as a filter, destroying or trapping anything harmful that the body doesn’t need. Lymph nodes sometimes trap bacteria or viruses that they can’t destroy straight away. When you have an infection, lymph nodes can swell and become tender to touch as they fight infection (eg your tonsils swelling up when you're under the weather). Massage that includes lymphatic drainage encourages the nodes to empty and work harder. Another method is using a dry body brush, in the direction of fluid flow (towards the heart).

Manicure

A treatment for the hands involving shaping and painting of the nails, tidying of cuticles, and softening of skin. There are essentially two kinds of nail polish; the regular kind which takes a while to dry and is easily damaged; and gel, which is dried quickly under a UV lamp and lasts up to 3 weeks without damage. Well known gel polish brands include CND Shellac, Gelish, Jessica and OPI. It’s also possible to have nail overlays or extensions applied. See also: Pedicure.

Massage

Manual manipulation of muscles and tissue to help improve health and wellbeing, relieve stress and tension, and improve circulation.

Microdermabrasion

Exfoliation, but with finer particles for even deeper effects. Usually involving a handheld device. See also: Diamond.

Natura Bissé bubble

A sealed bubble-shaped tent (made by the Natura Bissé skincare company) in which to perform treatments, where the air you breathe will be 99.95% pure, filtering out allergens, bacteria and viruses and leaving your skin cleaner than it would be otherwise.

Naturopathy

Based on the healing power of nature and the body’s ability to heal itself, naturopathy focuses on prevention and causes rather than symptoms, using foods, natural supplements, exercise, herbal medicine and lifestyle change.

Oxygen

Inhaling oxygen helps to restore function to damaged cells and organs, helps prevent signs of ageing and strengthens the immune system. The air we breathe on an everyday basis is 21% oxygen; in spa inhalation treatments it’s around 27% and above.

An oxygen facial includes spraying a highly concentrated stream of oxygen molecules onto the skin, resulting in collagen growth, brighter skin and improved skin conditions over repeat treatments.

Pedicure

A treatment for the feet involving shaping and painting of the nails, tidying of cuticles, and softening of skin. See also: Manicure.

Peel

Exfoliation treatment where dead skin cells are removed just by applying a specific product, rather than with physical rubbing.

Pilates

A system of exercises designed to improve physical strength, flexibility, and posture, and enhance mental awareness. Named after its inventor, Joseph Pilates.

Plunge pool

A small pool with enough room for 1 or 2 people. If filled with cold water, it’s used to cool down swiftly as part of a thermal journey. If filled with warm water, it’s a space-saving pool just for relaxation. See also: Thermal suite.

Poultice massage

A poultice is a paste spread on skin or in layers of bound cloth, containing natural ingredients such as muds, herbs and botanicals. Traditional remedy used to relieve swelling and inflammation, often in massage.

Priadara

Thai-style poultice bags with handles, used by massage therapists. See also: Poultice massage.

Quartz

Seen in crystal therapy as well as used ground in exfoliation products because of its abrasive quality. Some treatment beds also feature a surface of ground quartz particles which is claimed to boost circulation, aid detoxification and leave skin glowing.

Rasul, or rhassoul

Arabic in origin, sometimes referred to as a ‘mud room’ or a 'serail', it’s a private steam room, usually for 1-4 people. You apply an exfoliating scrub, then mud, to your own skin, and sit in the steam room. After 10-15 mins, a shower jet starts up and you rinse the mud off, then apply moisturiser. Great for the skin, invigorating and fun.

Reflexology

Chinese pressure-point massage on the feet (and also sometimes the hands and ears), based on the theory that there are points on the feet, hands and head linked to every part of the body, and that massaging them can help alleviate symptoms.

Relaxation room

A quiet place to relax in a spa with comfortable seating/loungers and calming music. A good place to visit straight after a treatment to prolong the effects, or at any time at all.

Reiki

Japanese technique where the therapist lays hands on areas of the body to channel energy and promote deep relaxation, stress reduction and well-being.

Robe

Towelling dressing gown lent to you for wearing in the spa environment over your swimwear.

Salt

Treatments using salt are known as halotherapy. Usually available via a steam room, sauna, salt inhalation room or even a salt cave.

Thought to be excellent for skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema as well as respiratory conditions like colds, asthma and allergies; plus helping with sleep and releasing tension.

Pink/orange himalayan salt (which contains more minerals than ordinary salt) is often used on the walls and floors but this is just for decoration. The salt you inhale is pumped into the room by a dry saline diffuser.

Sanarium

Somewhere in between a steam room and a sauna - a bit humid and heated to around 60 degrees C. See also: Thermal suite.

Sauna

Hot and dry room, normally heated to around 90 degrees C, with wooden seats. Good for improving circulation, kickstarting the immune system and relaxing the muscles.

A Finnish style sauna will also feature hot coals, which the user ladles cool water on, to generate steam.

See also: Steam room; Thermal suite.

Scrub

A treatment for the skin with exfoliating properties.

Seawater

See: Thalassotherapy.

Seaweed

Used in skin treatments or baths. It’s mineral-rich and has a moisturising, soothing effect on skin and hair. Great for problem skin conditions. See also: Thalassotherapy.

Shiatsu

Japanese massage technique in which the therapist applies pressure to specific points on the body to stimulate and unblock pathways through which energy is said to flow.

Shirodhara

Spiritual ayurvedic treatment where a stream of oil is poured onto the centre of your forehead in order to help you focus, concentrate, and relax your mind and body.

Snow room/snow cave

A cold room in a spa containing artificially generated snow. Used to cool down swiftly as part of a thermal journey. See also: Ice fountain; Thermal suite.

Solarium

A room fitted with extensive areas of glass to admit sunlight, usually with plenty of loungers. Can also refer to a suntanning facility.

Sound bath

A relaxation or meditation method where you are ‘bathed’ in sound rather than water. The sound is generated by gongs, or ‘singing bowls’ which make a similar sound. You simply listen and let the sound wash over you.

Steam room

Hot and humid tiled room, normally heated to around 45 degrees C. Good for improving circulation and respiratory function, plus kickstarting the immune system and relaxing the muscles.

A 'livello' steam room is a three tier variety, with alcove seating.

See also: Thermal suite.

Sunlight therapy

Sunlight therapy offers safe sun exposure from sunlight simulators that mimic natural sun rays whilst filtering out harmful UV. Benefits include reduced symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, sounder sleep, increase in energy, reduction in aches and pains and a boost in vitamin D production.

Swedish massage

European massage technique manipulating muscles with the use of massage oils and five different movements: long strokes, kneading, tapping, friction and vibration. Used to soothe tense muscles, increase circulation and flexibility, and de-stress.

Swiss shower

Treatment that involves powerful shower jets directed at the body from various heights and at different temperatures to simulate an invigorating massage. See also: Vichy shower; Hydrotherapy; Kneipp.

Tai chi

Chinese martial art using a series of postures and breathing techniques. Used to reduce stress and improve flexibility, strength, energy, agility and well-being.

Thai massage

Full body treatment involving stretching and pressure-point massage along the body’s energy channels, designed to release blocked energy, relieve tension, align the skeletal structure and increase flexibility.

Thalassotherapy

Pronounced ‘tah-lasso-therapy’. A general term used to describe a variety of treatments using seawater, seaweed, and other natural elements from the ocean for therapeutic benefits, generally at heated temperature. Rich in minerals, it’s ideal for aiding the detoxification process, increases metabolism, improves circulation, is great for your skin and helps treat cellulite, arthritis and general muscular problems.

Thermal suite

Invented by the Romans, this is a collection of spaces (eg sauna, steam room, ice fountains, pools etc) designed to heat and cool the body, with a view to stimulating circulation, relaxing the muscles, kickstarting the immune system and improving breathing and skin conditions. It’s often recommended to alternate heat and cool for maximum effects (using the spaces in a recommended order is known as a ‘thermal journey’).

Tepidarium

As the name suggests, it’s a room heated to a warm temperature, often with heated loungers. Designed for relaxation or as an in-between stage when using thermal facilities, to adjust the body temperature more gradually. See also: Thermal suite; Caldarium; Laconium.

Treatment bed

A comfortable surface to lie on specifically while receiving treatments. The best kinds are adjustable to suit the guest (eg raising the legs or head). Some are heated or have a vibration function for extra relaxation, some are extra-wide to allow more space for the arms. Most have a removable section for the face to rest in when the guest is facing downward. See also: Quartz treatment bed.

Turkish bath

Also known as a hammam, a Turkish bath involves a series of steam rooms of increasing temperature, followed by a rubdown and massage and finished off with a cold shower.

Ultrasound

A technique that’s commonly associated with medicine, but can also be used in spa treatments including facials and reduction of cellulite, using low-frequency sound waves to promote healing under the skin.

Vichy shower

A shower spa treatment in which a variety of water jets are used to spray onto the user’s back, often while lying on a cushioned table. The name comes from the French thermal spa city of Vichy. It is designed to reduce stress, hydrate and improve circulation. See also: Experience shower; Swiss shower.

Vinotherapy

Skin treatments that use antioxidant-rich grape skins, seeds and extracts in scrubs, baths and masks.

Watsu

The name is a combination of water and shiatsu. Watsu is a healing massage performed in warm water with floats attached to the body, bringing it together with the powers of hydrotherapy. It includes rhythmic movements, pressure point massage and stretches. Designed to relieve stress and tension and promote relaxation.

Wave stone

An alternative massage tool to hot stones and lava shells (there are separate glossary entries on these). It has a gentle curving shape (the ‘wave’) and is carved from jade, which has the ability to retain heat and cold for up to 15 minutes.

Wrap

A full body treatment where masks and moisturisers are applied to your skin before you are wrapped up in sheets, foil or towels to help the products absorb into the skin.

Yoga

A meditative practice that stems from Ayurveda, an ancient art and philosophy with its roots in India. Designed to support mind and body in its long term wellbeing, it involves performing poses (asanas) and using controlled breathing to stretch, tone, invigorate and relax the body and mind.