The history of spas and spa treatments

Today, spas are at the forefront of a holistic health and wellness movement that is taking over the world, as individuals learn that the most effective approach to health is maintaining a balanced body and lifestyle. Spas are now regarded as being home to some of the most modern and pioneering treatments and research into nutrition, mindfulness and wellbeing, from the nourishing treats experienced during luxury spa breaks to the bespoke plans provided on health retreats. However, the modern-day spa has deep roots, having grown from some of the most long-standing health practices in the world. Whether you are interested in learning about the origins of the treatments you experience on your next visit, or are simply intrigued to find out about how spas and spa treatments have changed over time, the history of spas and spa treatments is sure to fascinate.

The origins of the spa

While many of us associate traditional spas with Roman baths, the origins of spa-type therapies extends to prehistoric times with the belief in the curative powers of mineral waters. Paul Joseph, co-founder of Health and Fitness Travel, the leading experts in tailor-made wellness holidays worldwide explains: “Spas, healing waters, thalassotherapy, hydrotherapy and hot springs date back to thousands of years - an ancient practice conducted long before the Greeks and Romans!”

One of the first accounts of bathing used as a curative process rather than a simple hygiene ritual was written by ancient Greek philosopher Hippocrates, who was active between 460 and 370 B.C. Hippocrates proposed that the cause of all ailments was an imbalance of bodily fluids, and advocated that: “The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day.” This principle is known as balneotherapy, and is the founding principle of spa-going, influencing everything from mineral-infused treatments to thalassotherapy - swimming in seawater to heal the skin.

Thalassotherapy pool

As Swim University explains, no-one knows exactly when the word ‘spa’ began to be associated with these healing practices. However, there are two main theories on the term’s etymology. One is that the word spa in Latin is an acronym of “salus per aquae”, meaning “health from water.” Others believe the word spa comes from a small Belgian village called Spa, where hot mineral springs were used by Roman soldiers to treat aching muscles and wounds from a battle. Whatever the true origin, the oldest Roman spa still in existence today can be found in Merano, Italy.

In their early history, the primary use of curative baths was indeed to heal the wounds of Roman soldiers during the reign of Caesar Augustus from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. At this time, there were approximately 170 baths in Rome, but by 43 A.D. citizens of Rome began to view baths as form of rest and relaxation for all. In 70 A.D. the Romans built a spa around the hot springs at Bath, the first of its kind in Britain.

It was around the year 1300 that natural springs began to be called ‘spas’. In 1326, Collin le Loup, an ironmaster from Liège, Belgium, discovered the chalybeate springs in the town of Spa, Belgium. Around these springs, a famous health resort eventually grew and the term “spa” came to refer to any health resort located near natural springs, with individual springs being associated with the disease they were thought to benefit.

However, it was not only in Greece and Rome that rituals associated with spa-going were developing. From Japanese “Ryoken” to Turkish Hammams and saunas in Finland, different healing facilities were growing, many of which are now mainstays of any spa. By the Elizabethan era, the hot springs at Bath were incredibly popular, and spas attracted many visitors searching for cures to various illnesses.

The Spa’s Renaissance: an exercise in luxury

An exercise in luxury

Before long, the enthusiasm for spa treatments was taken across to North America, which is where the first truly mass-audience spa was established in Saratoga Springs. By 1815, the area boasted two huge Greek revival hotels, with up to 500 rooms of accommodation for visitors eager to take solace from the rapidly modernising world.

The first ever day spa was introduced by Elizabeth Arden in 1910, known as Manhattan’s Red Door Salon. This spa offered manicures, facials and more, bringing it much closer to the modern-day spa. As Beth Mcgroarty, Research Director at the Global Wellness Institute explains: “The modern concept of the spa really started to take off in the 1980s.” Over the next 20 years, spa days would be regarded as a treat for primarily wealthy women, who visited spas in groups to celebrate birthdays, hen dos, and other social occasions. Beth points out that “the big, recent story is one of explosive growth: the global spa industry grew from $60 billion USD in 2007 to $98.6 billion USD in 2015 – while spa locations jumped from 71,762 to 121,595 in those same short eight years.

Inclusive indulgence

Inclusive indulgence

As the demand for spas increased, establishments proliferated and with their presence came a widened accessibility to spa services, along with more niche offerings for individuals’ needs. Beth notes that, in the past decade, “the focus of spas has shifted from a narrow association with wealthy women and “pampering” to include all demographics: men, teens, children, and experiences at more price-points.”

Chris Perrett from Spa Guide agrees, pointing out that, although back in the Roman era and even later in the 17th century, gentlemen were the main patrons of spas. He said:  “Up until relatively recently there's been a stigma surrounding men going to spas in the UK. While our friends in Scandinavia, Germany and Italy continued to embrace the health benefits, public perception made them a no-go zone for British men due to constrictive notions of traditional masculinity”.

Male guest at Champneys

However, as society at large has begun to understand the flaws in gender stereotypes, spas and wellness in general have become open to men again. Chris says: “Luckily with the popularity of male grooming products, this has led to men actively seeking spas and targeted treatments, which in turn has given rise to many health spas now providing men's treatment lists. The most popular treatments range from men's facials to deep tissue massages, showing men are just as keen to look good as to aiding their sports recovery.”

The contemporary spa: a focus on wellness

A focus on wellness

It may be that the expansion of the modern-day spa’s demographic is largely due to a redefinition that has slowly been developing over the last 10 years. Whereas the majority of spas of the 1980s to early 2000s were luxury establishments offering lavish service to simply make the customer feel great, today’s leading spas instead focus on intrinsic health. Wellness is now the ultimate goal, whether this be deep tissue massages, balancing steam rooms, or more carefully-tailored spa breaks aimed at achieving certain benefits such as weight loss or detoxifying.


Beth Mcgroarty defines this process as the development of spas as “wellness centres”. This growing trend involves changes such as “adding everything from yoga, fitness or meditation classes – to having healthy food and “spa cafes” - to more alternative medicine approaches from Ayurveda to TCM to reiki. We’ve even seen spas partnering with medical professionals to offer medical services to accomplish more integrative lifestyle change.”

What was once “luxury pampering” has now become a holistic approach to health which Beth argues has resulted in a serious perceptual shift in what a “spa" is, to become “a far more mainstream, serious and widely attractive concept where real prevention and stress-reduction take place.” She comments that the core of this progression is the integration of “evidenced-based modalities, those approaches that have the clinical evidence behind them, so there are real results, which consumers increasingly demand.”

Champneys owner Stephen Purdew adds: “Our healthy eating options, for example, are carefully considered down to the very last detail. I think our guests really appreciate and understand that we are a wellbeing destination spa – this is where our energies are focused. Our wellbeing values are not a token gesture; it is our ethos across all of our spa resorts, and we constantly research worldwide to evolve.”

Global spa trends

Global spa trends

As spas seek to develop new, exciting and effective treatments for visitors, the industry has begun searching for new global influences from spas in various parts of the world. Paul Joseph comments on this phenomenon, saying: “More spas around the world now enable you to dip your toes in another country's culture and experience your destination on a holistic level.”


As Beth Mcgroarty points out, this is a stark contrast from the spas of the 80s and 90s, which “looked very much the same - a generic, beige, vaguely Asian space with a few massages.” Now, she says, “globalization has made consumers more keenly aware of indigenous spa and wellness practices from around the world. So we have every kind of massage imaginable from Thai to Indian varietals, the quest for healing traditions from all over the world like Ayurveda and TCM, and excitement around so many global experiences, whether it be the Turkish/Moroccan hammam, Mexican temezcal or Russian banya.”

However, it’s not just a taste of different cultures that spa customers desire, they are also increasingly attracted to hyper-local offerings. Beth notes: “The biggest trend in travel in the last few years is people’s seemingly insatiable quest to experience the authentic and indigenous ("I can’t get this anywhere else") - and it extends to what they want in spa experiences. So spas are using local ingredients (even grown on-site) and practices - for what you could call a farm-to-massage-table movement.”

Champneys owner Stephen Purdew comments: “Our Detox and Wellbeing Centre at our Tring was the first of its kind in the UK. The size alone - 400 square metres – provides an amazing offering for our residents and day guests. It’s a development that underlines our position as a leading wellness destination in Europe.”

Tailored treatments

Tailored treatments

As spas have looked further afield for influence, they have also focused on providing more tailored treatments for different conditions and demographics. Chris explains: “Spas are now becoming much better at offering tailored treatments to guests who can't always enjoy the more traditional spa treatments. It's rare not to find pregnancy related treatments on the list at your local spa, and some venues are training staff specifically to assist cancer patients after it being a real taboo subject for a number of years.”

Tailored treatments 2

Beth Mcgroarty predicts that this tailoring of day spa packages will not only cater for specific individuals’ needs, but will also foster a holistic community impact. This is as much a return to the spa’s roots as it is a development. Even in the Roman era, spas, or ‘thermaes, were more than just bathing areas, they were all-encompassing recreational centres. As The Spa Association explain, like in modern-day spa and health clubs, “Mikkel Aaland suggests in 1997’s Sweat that “Most thermae walls enclosed sports centres, swimming pools, parks, libraries, little theatres for poetry readings and music, and great halls for parties–a city within a city.” Today, Beth anticipates “more social and fun aspects to spas, from more art, music and creativity programming at spas to things like the sauna as a social event.”

Broadening Horizons

Broadening horizons

The most inventive of spas are not only widening their offerings and influences, but are broadening their horizons outside of the building and into nature itself. Beth Mcgroarty comments “If spas used to typically be locked up in the basement, a big trend is to move the spa experiences and treatments outside and deeper in nature: whether they're played out in treehouses, gardens, by the ocean or in the forest – while also bringing more nature inside the spa.” This encapsulates everything from outdoor guided exercise sessions to natural décor, botanicals in treatments and superfood facials. Paul Joseph suggests that this recent movement is premised on fostering a connection with the local environment as a means to balance the individual. He says: “More innovative spas have created treatments based on their local culture and customs and turning back to nature.”

Champneys Fitness Director Louise Day explains: “Our selection of outdoor classes is one of the best. Our countryside resorts are perfectly positioned, so we like to incorporate our natural environment as much as possible. We’re very reactive to trends; quite often we’re the first to introduce programmes – as in today’s day and age, it’s important to offer something different. Our boot camps, for example, have really taken off. Led by top fitness and nutrition experts, our team motivate and guide participants through an intensive weight loss package that includes fun indoor and outdoor activities, team games, health and weight monitoring and healthy food options. We inspire them to make positive lifestyle change.”

What’s in store?

The future of spa treatments

With the modern-day spa having come so far from the thermaes and baths of ancient history, what is in store for spas and spa treatments in the coming years? Beth Mcgroarty predicts that, in the future, “the wellness programming in a hotel or resort will continue to move out of the confined walls of the "spa" and get incorporated throughout the entire resort, whether baked into the physical building (wellness architecture), or in healthy food, sleep, classes – everything – infused throughout the property.” A holistic approach is the key to the spa’s future, from health management retreats to life coaching. Whatever the future of the spa brings, it is sure to be an exciting and inspirational journey founded on a rich history of nature, healing and exploration.


Integrating Complementary and Conventional Medicine by Myra Coyle-Demetriou and Andrew J. Demetriou

Images created with

Image credits: is am are (Shutterstock) / GN (Shutterstock) / Antoniu (Shutterstock)