A Breath of Fresh Air

Your spa is a place where clients come to breathe deeply, relax, detox, destress, and become more healthy, peaceful, and beautiful. The trouble is that your spa's air quality probably makes this impossible. Remarkably, the air quality inside most structures is up to 90 percent worse than the air outdoors. The Environmental Protection Agency's Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) studies has found levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be two to five times higher inside than outside, regardless of whether the structures were located in rural or industrial areas.

Beauty Blunders

America's desire for scented products is not good news in terms of air quality. Products laced with the chemical toluene have become pervasive in the last 10 years; it is used not only in perfumes but also in furniture wax, plastic garbage bags, inks, hair gel, hairspray, and other items that are part of every spa. Many spas may have even greater air-hygiene concerns, as particulates and fumes associated with beauty services are constantly being released.

A phenomenon called cacosmia, a component of so-called "sick-building syndrome," is related to breathing fumes and particulates commonly associated with chemical odors. The main symptom of cacosmia is daytime tiredness—sound familiar? In his study, "Indoor Air Odorants," James Cone, M.D., M.P.H., a Berkeley, CA-based indoor air quality consultant and former chief of the Occupational Health Clinic at San Francisco General Hospital, recommends that regulations be adopted to govern indoor air quality where specific point sources can be identified. Fragrance can provoke various symptoms, including dry or watery eyes, double vision, fatigue, headaches, nasal congestion, and sneezing.

In terms of interior air quality, the beauty industry itself is problematic. For example, consider professional nailcare. The maintenance of acrylic nails requires powders, drilling, and filing, all of which fill the air with particulates. Lisa Richardson, owner of Whole Body Studio (Austin, TX) won't offer many services on account of the fumes they generate. "One drop of acetone just permeates our entire environment," she says. She's willing to pay the difference for a scent-free, acetone-free nail polish remover, even though it is slower to remove enamel from nails. "It's a trade off, and our customers understand," she says. "We are trying to create a total, integrated environment where health and beauty are not at odds. It's not always easy."

Where to Begin

Most of us work in environments where the windows do not open, and we spend a great deal of time breathing recycled air similar to what is found inside an airplane cabin. This wouldn't be such a bad thing if our environments were built with proper heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems. A correctly functioning, efficiently operating HVAC system really is a synthesis of good design, quality materials, qualified installation, and skilled and regular maintenance—all absent from most commercial structures and residences.

In many cases, your HVAC system may simply need to be professionally cleaned or repaired. In other cases, an HVAC system simply cannot be sustained or salvaged, which involves a substantial redesign and replacement process. These simple steps can dramatically change life in your spa, starting with your energy bills. When your system is operating efficiently, it takes far less power to run. Of course, in "green" terms, this is also good news for the planet. Better air-hygiene in your place of business often means that your employees are less prone to respiratory problems, headaches, chronic fatigue, and eye irritation. They may also feel more productive and, as a result, take fewer sick days, thereby boosting your bottom line.

All too often, people either purchase pricey freestanding air-purifiers, which are, for the most part, useless, or they contact a so-called specialist who offers to clean their air ducts. Unfortunately, this process is almost never enough to significantly improve interior air-hygiene—cleaning the HVAC system involves much more than the ducts. Both of these steps are a waste of time and money. An effective remediation strategy should include a thorough cleaning of the entire HVAC system. You'll probably need to look at air filtration improvements, as well as ensure there is sufficient fresh air intake from outside the building.

From the Ground Up

When building from scratch, it's ideal to integrate green design elements, including your HVAC system configuration, into the initial planning. For instance, the Aveda Experience Center at Grand Central Terminal in New York City features zero Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) paints, and zero adhesives and PVC (both of which produce fumes). Materials used include reclaimed oak salvaged from barn beams, as well as 95 percent post-consumer recycled stainless steel and high-impact Fiberock sheet rock made of 95 percent post-consumer recycled gypsum. All fixtures were designed for disassembly, and the material components can be recycled, reused, or decomposed.

The Pratima Ayurvedic Skin Care Clinic was the first spa in New York City and second in the United States to be certified "eco-friendly" by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED), setting an alternative standard for natural luxury. The floors are made of cork, bamboo, and flaxseed; the walls are covered in non-toxic paint; all linens are made from organic natural fibers; and the ink used on all printed materials is eco-sensitive. Each of the five treatment rooms is equipped with water-efficient faucets and formaldehyde-free insulation.

As a green-thinking business owner, there are many ways you can do your part. For instance, radiant floor heating usually uses very little electricity. Halogen lighting is generally considered desirable because it's low voltage. It also helps to get creative. "Ultra-Touch Recycled Denim" is a form of wall insulation literally made from old blue jeans, which are typically made of natural cotton fiber. This material promises to deliver R19 value insulation, meaning that it is an effective barrier in terms of trapping heated or cooled air. It also muffles sound as well as traditional fiberglass. These eco-friendly options cost about 15 to 20 percent more than their mass-market counterparts. However, long-term energy savings will often even out the initial expense, and the benefits to your employees and customers are immeasurable.

Be the Change

While you may not have the luxury of building your "green dream" from scratch, you can definitely begin to introduce a green mindfulness just by reading labels and making green decisions. Starting with your HVAC system, consider drawing up a five-year timeline about what can be done incrementally to make your work environment greener.

A phased approach to the greening process makes the prospect less daunting than a total, all-at-once makeover—and the process will literally be a "breath of fresh air" for your employees and clients. Be sure to document your progress, including photos of every step, and share this information with your team and your customers via email and newsletters. Your commitment to the process is a powerful affirmation of your concern for their well-being, and the example you set may inspire other merchants and area businesses to do the same.

Deon De Wet is a Los Angeles-based Thai yoga instructor who also teaches Thai yoga massage through the International Dermal Institute. De Wet runs a ventilation systems hygiene restoration company with a specific interest in indoor air quality. Contact him at [email protected].