Here in the western world, we tend to think of ginger in terms of sweet treats: ginger snap cookies, gingerbread men, ginger ale. Doing so, though, denies the plant (it is actually the root of the zingiber officinale plant) its more piquant side, which has spiced up savory dishes served around the world for centuries. Ginger was first produced in China, where the zingiber plant originated, and it then spread to Southeast Asia, West Africa, the Caribbean, and even Hawaii. While there are limitless culinary uses for the root, it is the skin benefits it offers that have led to its being used in spa services.
Ginger is one of the few medicinal herbs that has been embraced by both Eastern and Western cultures. In the East, it has been used for thousands of years to treat a variety of illnesses, while in the West, it has been the subject of scientific studies, illustrating its perceived potency. Though researchers haven't fully identified the compounds that give ginger its versatile benefits, it's believed that several volatile oils and pungent phenol compounds (including gingerol and shogaol) are to thank for these effects. So just how is ginger used medicinally? In India, a paste with ginger is applied to the temples to relieve headaches; ginger teas and tinctures are often used to treat colds; researchers have found that ginger helps ease the pain of those suffering from osteoarthritis in the knee; it has been recommended as a stomach settler that can quell pregnancy- and chemotherapy-related nausea; and there are preliminary studies suggesting ginger may lower cholesterol and prevent blood clotting.
And its healing powers aren't limited to the internal, either. Skincare experts have begun to recognize that it offers external body benefits when applied topically, making it the perfect ingredient to include in your spa's menu. For starters, ginger's anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties are an advantage in facials aimed at anti-aging. Because of its antiseptic characteristics, it can also guard against breakouts. At Spa Resort Casino (Palm Springs, CA), ginger is used in several treatments, including the seasonal Magic of Marrakech ($110, 50 minutes) facial, in which a blend containing ginger essential oil is massaged into the skin. "The clients leave the room with a rosy glow," says Linda Richey, director of spa operations, who attributes the effect to ginger's warming abilities. Richey also adds that ginger seems to appeal to everyone, regardless of age or sex. "Ginger has a unique quality of being able to both stimulate and relax at the same time."
Ginger's stimulating nature is definitely one of its draws. Its spicy side can boost circulation to really warm up the body, making it ideal for energizing treatments. Guests at The Spa at Island Hotel (Newport Beach, CA) can try the Island "Boreh" Bali Spice Remedy ($300, 2 hours), which includes a blend of cloves, ginger, and other spices that are applied to the body. "This stimulating and warming therapy increases relaxation and really calms the soul," says spa director Jim Croghan, who adds that the service is great for relieving jet lag and stress.
Ginger's warming powers also give the plant a purifying property. It has been used for centuries to induce sweating, which is thought to help the body fight a cold or the flu. Revving up the circulation and provoking a sweat can also help the body eliminate toxins, which is why the ingredient works well in detoxifying treatments. At Skyline Spa in the Hilton Americas–Houston, it's the detoxifying capacity of ginger that led to its inclusion in the Inner Beauty Glow ($110, 50 minutes) treatment, says spa director Simone Doudna. During the service, the guest's skin is first dry brushed and then scrubbed with a blend of Dead Sea salts combined with ingredients from the spa's "pantry," including dried ginger root powder and honey powder. To extend the service's stimulating and detoxifying effects, guests sip a warm mug of White Lion Orange Ginger Mint tea before leaving the spa.
Beyond all of the benefits ginger offers for the physical are those that it presents for the mental. The sweet and spicy fragrance of ginger is one many associate with the holidays. Smelling it in a spa setting can invoke positive memories, relaxing and calming guests. "I think spa-goers connect with ginger in the spa because it is refreshing, approachable, and the fragrance is familiar to them," says Travis Anderson, spa director at The Spa at Four Seasons (Austin, TX), which offers a seasonal Peppermint-Ginger Pedicure ($75, 60 minutes). Feet are soaked in ginger salt, sloughed with a ginger scrub, and smoothed with a ginger lotion before polish is applied. Anderson points out that though the pedicure was created to tie into the spa's holiday theme of 'Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice,' he enjoys using ginger year-round because of its many skin benefits.
Ginger treatments do seem to work well during the holidays, making them easy to market either as gifts or personal stress relief. Last year at Oasis Day Spa (New York City), spa director Kate Weinberg offered clients the Brown Sugar Scrub (30 minutes), which included ginger, with the spa's Pumpkin Body Wrap (60 minutes) for $180. "It was a huge hit," says Weinberg, who plans to serve up the combo of services again this year. "It was really reminiscent of grandma's pumpkin pie." And because ginger can be seen as an exotic ingredient, some spas have chosen to create a seasonal, global theme around the ingredient. For example, through the end of the month, the Spa Resort Casino is offering a "Touch of Tangiers" menu, with services like the Hair-em Hair and Scalp ($55, 25 minutes) treatment and the Sahara Spice Body Scrub ($65, 25 minutes), all of which contain ginger. Whether you choose to make your spa's ginger treatments sugary, spicy, or somewhere in between, there's one thing you can guarantee—they'll certainly be nice. —Megan O'Neill