Space-age light capsules, sake baths, and flesh-nibbling fish: today's health and beauty services are wackier than ever.

Courtesy of Orient-Express Hotels (UK) Ltd. Courtesy of Orient-Express Hotels (UK) Ltd.
| Credit: Courtesy of Orient-Express Hotels (UK) Ltd.

Once you've changed into a disposable paper robe, an attendant leads you to a room containing a futuristic, egg-shaped pod. Opening the lid, she motions for you to climb into the molded foam interior; then, after pressing some buttons on a Battlestar Galactica–looking console, she closes you inside. Suddenly, the glass lamps surrounding you start to glow with white light…steam pumps from hidden jets, and the entire capsule starts to vibrate. You can't help but wonder: are you about to be blasted into hyperspace?

Hopefully, the only parts of you being blitzed into the stratosphere are your fat cells. As space-age as it may seem, the function of this Oxy-LED light capsule, found at the Med-Spa Clinic at Tunbridge Wells, England, is simply (and allegedly) to help you lose weight. Welcome to the weird new world of health and beauty treatments.

If you hadn't noticed, spas are just about ubiquitous these days. In pretty much every developed country in the world, even small-town beauty salons and mom-and-pop hotels are opening up treatment rooms to offer patrons special pampering services. The proliferation has meant a push for spa owners to differentiate themselves, and one of the best ways they can do this is by providing new and different treatments—sometimes, ones that make traditional massages and facials look quaint.

"The menu of treatments at most spas has exploded in the last decade or so," says Melisse Gelula, editor in chief of SpaFinder Lifestyle, a new Web site launching this fall as part of SpaFinder. "There used to be a couple of massages or a handful of body, skin, and wellness treatments on a typical spa menu, and now there are dozens and dozens."

Modern-day spa-goers also have a much higher level of sophistication than they once had, according to International SPA Association (ISPA) President Lynne McNees. "One size no longer fits all," she says. "Clients are now demanding experiences that are tailored to their personal needs and desires." A person who wants to lose weight but doesn't have the time or inclination to exercise, for instance, might seek out the Oxy-LED capsule; clients wanting skin rejuvenation beyond what they can get from traditional skin care often gravitate toward fringier treatments—like immersing themselves in sake baths, painting themselves with chocolate, or submitting to the ministrations of skin-nibbling fish.

While such treatments may seem beyond the pale, Gelula points out that many of them actually rely on venerable, even ancient, practices. Having wooden pegs tapped with a hammer along your body may sound bizarre to North Americans, but it wouldn't raise an eyebrow in Japan, where such "manaka treatments" have been performed for centuries. "It's important to remember that things we may deem far-out in our culture are actually deeply embedded traditions in other cultures," Gelula says. "One person's 'strange' is another person's ritual."

As with any spa treatments, there may not be a whole lot of evidence that these off-the-wall-seeming services actually work. But in the end, there's a lot to be said for the health and beauty benefits of being adventurous and having plain-old fun. After all, at the very least, being nibbled by fish will likely make you giggle—and don't they say that laughter is the best medicine?