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Under the sea

It’s easy to buy and use body products without considering the source, but with all of the recent hype surrounding the benefits of natural products, perhaps it’s time to take a deeper look at their origins.

July 4, 2014  By Jules Torti

It’s easy to buy and use body products without considering the source, but with all of the recent hype surrounding the benefits of natural products, perhaps it’s time to take a deeper look at their origins.

Two major products that massage therapists use – coconut oil and Dead Sea salts – rely on a geographically limited bounty. And then there’s seaweed, a recent tonic that is making big waves in different parts of the world.

Seaweed farming is a huge industry for the women of Zanzibar. Photo credit: Jules Torti


Bottoms up
When visiting Placencia, Belize, our daily routine involved stacks of banana pancakes and thick Irish moss shakes offered at The Shak, a local beach café.


After a chance encounter at a gas station off the Hummingbird Highway where I opted for the most radical choice in the cooler – a peanut sea moss drink – I was hooked. I expected a woodsy-chalky, peanut butter concoction but was pleasantly surprised with the pleasing soy overtones and eggnog viscosity. The moss shakes are derived from carrageenan, a red, edible seaweed extract used as a thickening and gelling agent in dairy products like ice cream.

Wherever I travel, the itinerary is not just about landmarks and scenic vistas but also a carefully researched list of things to sip and eat. This summer, in Quebec’s Magdalen Islands, I’ll be able to add to my seaweed aficionado repertoire by sampling “sea tea.” The Magdalen sea tea is the leftover liquid slop from seafood cooked in seaweed-lined pots.

For an extra hit of sea serendipity, La Fille de la Mer on Magdalen makes handmade sea soaps and a Sea Kelp massage oil with ylang ylang – an essential oil known to stimulate relaxing and calming sensations.

At Algaran Organic Irish Seaweed Products for Health and Beauty in Ireland, one can find the likes of Irish seaweed spaghetti harvested from the island’s west coast. Their skin rescue balms, for calming itch and serving as a protectant, are made from seaweed, organic sunflower oil and pure organic beeswax; and for kissy-cool lips, they make a seaweed lip balm too.

Yes, there is a name and science behind seaweed. It’s a shake, it’s a moisturizer, it’s spaghetti, it’s trending now. Fresh brown seaweed and warm salt water are the authentic ingredients of thalassotherapy (“therapy with seawater”) elixirs. The presence of copper, zinc and iron gang up as a task force for anti-inflammatory battles, anti-infection and speedy healing. The vitamin compounds stimulate cell growth and act as antioxidants, and the amino acids boost protein synthesis and skin elasticity.  

Seaweed products have also been linked to the longest-living populations in Okinawa, Japan, and Nova Scotia. Sea vegetables were among the seven to 10 servings of fruit and vegetables eaten on a daily basis. For east coast centurions, a dulse-dense diet could be the underwater miracle.

Gurney’s Montauk Resort & Seawater Spa in Montauk, New York, is the only authentic thalasso centre in the United States. The spa menu is delicious: a spruce and pine-scented soak in a 94-degree sea water hydro massage thalasso tub after an invigorating coffee bean, frankincense, salt and almond oil scrub. There are also algae body polishes with pine oil, warm seaweed wraps, maple sugar scrubs and detox seaweed foot baths, if you can’t get enough dulse.

Canada’s largest thalassotherapy spa, Aqua Mer Thalassotherapie, is in Carleton-sur-Mer, Quebec. The marine-focused spa offers niche treatments for nasal hygiene, cellulite and anti-tobacco management. There are algae-based cryotherapy sessions, seawater hydrotherapy baths, seawater rain massages and an intense itinerary for a five-day rehab requiring a commitment to 34 treatments in that time span.

Seaweed 101
Diane Bernard, known as the seaweed lady of Sooke Harbour, B.C., suggests a skeptical and informed approach to seaweed spa treatments. Sometimes the seaweed is harvested in fresh water tanks or lakes, making it void of the inherent benefits found in naturally sourced seaweed. It should smell like the ocean but not fishy (since this indicates that it may have been harvested from the shore in a washed-up composting clump), and should not be perfumed.

As president of Outer Coast Seaweeds, Bernard is picky for good reason: she supplies high-end restaurant kitchens across Canada and her product is served within 24 hours. Her seaweed body products are hand-harvested and free of dyes, animal by-products, animal testing and artificial fragrances. As massage therapists, we have an underlying commitment to provide safe, hypoallergenic products and services to our clients. In terms of our own health and well-being, we must also consider the products that we are exposing ourselves to on a daily basis.

Road trip to Zanzibar
Reading about the entrepreneurial spirit of the seaweed ladies of Zanzibar was definitely part of the lure of visiting the archipelago off the coast of Tanzania, Africa. My partner and I were staying on the east coast of the island, in the Michamvi peninsula of the Indian Ocean. There, we had front-row seats to the tide tables.

Like clockwork, we would see the seaweed ladies pass by, striding with buckets on their heads, around 1:30 in the afternoon. Most of them were barefoot, which was remarkable because the coral rock underfoot was sharp, uneven rubble.

Seaweed farming in Zanzibar is a huge industry for women – over 12,000 residents find steady employment harvesting seaweed. The Seaweed Centre is the hotbed for drying and processing collected seaweed for juice, soap and moisturizing creams. Two years after initial training and recipe development began in 2006, a seaweed grinder was acquired to enable the women to produce and sell their first soaps.

Local women from Paje have found a lucrative enterprise that allows for learning transferable skills, negotiation, English exchange and cost-planning. Zanzibar produces 5,000 metric tonnes of seaweed a year – all picked by hand.

Seaweed can grow rapidly, much like bamboo, in ideal conditions. Viable pieces are tied to rope strung across the low-tide fields. Work hours are dictated by the tide: when the tide is low, work is full force; and high tide signals the day’s end. On the east coast, the tide levels can change rapidly – by nine meters.

Many women carry buckets or sacks weighing in at 10 kilograms – not an easy feat especially if you add a broiling 48-degrees Celsius to that weight, uneven footing and a four-kilometre picking route. Some of these women are single and struggling to support a family, many have only elementary school education. They know hardship all too well, but seaweed harvesting has unexpectedly offered them hope, an income and a social network.

The seaweed women are engaged in the grassroots movement of their industry. They interact with travellers, farmers, producers, buyers and packers and visualize their soaps and spa products on a larger scale. They understand supply and demand and how networking can attribute to distribution.

In 1973, plans to introduce seaweed to Tanzania to create a diversion from fragile fish stocks flopped. Low world prices made for an unsustainable market, and heavy monsoon rains destroyed the sensitive seaweed environment (salinity is critical for survival and fresh water is a fast and efficient destroyer). Two new species of seaweed were introduced, which were more resilient and gained better market prices for world consumption in toothpaste, agar, antibiotics, furniture polish, medicinal capsules and a bevy of spa indulgences.

Seeing the women pass by daily as the tide came in and engaging in conversation with them made the tangible final product a true work of art, worthy of appreciation. It certainly made me think about the origins of our body products at home and work.

Next time you warm that oil in your hands and “suds up” post-treatment with soap, consider these products’ path and origin, prior to ending up in your treatment room. Whether it’s a clove bar from Zanzibar, Irish seaweed lip balm or the ambitions of the seaweed lady of B.C. that entice you, each has an admirable story of perseverance.

Maybe you are already tuned in to the local scene and have found a responsible product source. If anything, find yourself an Irish moss shake and contemplate how you can elevate your client’s massage experience to a new and educated level, locally and globally.

Jules Torti has been a RMT since 1999 and a freelance writer since age six. In between massage engagements, she travels to Africa to be with chimpanzees and writes about her zany travels for Matador Network.

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