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Roger Weller, geology instructor

hot springs
by Jake Max
Physical Geology
Fall 2013


The Wondrous Benefits of Hot Springs

     Who would not enjoy a nice, relaxing day at a hot spring to soak those aches away and alleviate the stresses of the day?  The answer, surprisingly, is a lot of people.  Some people think the water will cause third degree burns or lava will spew forth and kill them while they are bathing in the waters.  Fortunately, this is far from reality.  Indeed, natural hot springs offer a wide range of benefits and therapy’s.  When in their natural state, they provide great aesthetic beauty and also
 provide science with a rare view into the life of early microbial life forms.


Grand Prismatic Spring Yellowstone.  Google images

     Balneotherapy (from Latin: balneum, "bath") is the treatment of disease by bathing, usually practiced at spas. The benefit of bathing in natural hot springs is that high temperature water contains more dissolved solid minerals.   Because of this, many mineral water spas are rich in particular minerals such as silica, sulfur, selenium, calcium, lithium, and radium which can be absorbed through the skin. In addition, certain hot springs provide the materials to produce high quality medicinal clays that are widely used to treat muscle aches or joint pains, clear up skin ailments, and detoxify the body.  The practice of using special clays is known as "fangotherapy."

     Sulfur is a mineral naturally occurring near hot springs and volcanic craters. The "rotten egg" smell of sulfur mineral baths is caused by sulfur dioxide gas escaping into the air. Sulfur has been used medicinally since ancient times, and it is contained in every cell in the body. It is comprised of three different amino acids (the building blocks that make up protein). Approximately 0.25 percent of your total body weight is sulfur. It is most concentrated in keratin, which gives you strong hair, nails, and skin. It is known as "nature's beauty mineral" because your body needs it to manufacture collagen, which keeps your skin elastic and young-looking.


Developed Natural Hot Springs

     While these amazing creations have been around for eons, hot springs have only been a source of revenue for roughly one hundred years.  Many states in the US have areas containing hot springs to include New Mexico, Colorado, California, and even Alaska.  Entrepreneurs purchase land plots and develop the areas into resorts. Cement pools are built to contain the water and the surroundings are nicely landscaped.  Multitudes flock to spas hoping to enjoy the numerous health benefits without worrying about the water being too hot or unsafe.  Commercial and private hot springs are found throughout the world.


Faywood Hot Springs New Mexico.  Google images


     For instance, Wilbur Hot Springs is located in California.   Their website, presents several anonymous testimonies from visitors who have had their lives changed  as a result of using the natural hot springs at Wilbur.  For instance, one individual states, “I wanted to let you know the miracle of Wilbur water. Of course, I'm sure you already know, but you don't know about my experience!, I've been in so much pain due to RA (rheumatoid arthritis) that it's been difficult to walk, cook, dress -- well, LIVE! I hadn't been to Wilbur in a couple of years, I think, so it was heaven to finally get back there. My companion and I stayed two glorious nights. The tubs were the perfect temperature on the second day, and I was able to relax by floating in the cool tub for hours on end. Just defying gravity is a wondrous experience for these painful, swollen, deformed joints of mine. I was so very surprised that on that second day there, I was able to walk down the stairs just like a temporarily abled person!!”.  Another exclaims, “I have visited Wilbur Hot Springs many times, and I believe that the water has a good healing power. After I soak in the pool, I will fall asleep easily. Then, I wake up, and soak in the pool again, then sleep again. After I repeat the cycle a few times, I will feel energetic, and can sleep only a few hours per day when I'm back home."


Hot springs in Turkey. Google images


Dangers and Fears of Natural Hot Springs

     In general, when you ask people about hot springs and mineral springs, most respond that they are worried about the water burning them alive or the lava bursting from the ground or poisonous gases killing them.  In actuality, natural hot springs do not have any lava and are instead heated by the hot rocks in the Earth’s mantle.  According to Ward Cameron, “A mineral spring is defined as one that contains a reading of 400 parts/million of total dissolved solids. In the case of the thermal springs in the Rockies, their formation tends to be quite consistent. As rain falls on the surrounding peaks, it percolated into the rather porous sedimentary rocks. As it descends through the rock, it picks up a variety of materials, everything from radium to sulphur. Also, as it moves further beneath the surface, it heats up from the primal heat of the Earth. Eventually, it encounters a large thrust fault, or crack. As water descends behind it, it forces the now heated water to ascend along the fault-line to surface as a hot or warm spring. Also critical in the creation of a hot spring, is an express route to the surface. If the water moves slowly from depth to the surface, it will cool back down before it bubbles out as a spring. Luckily, since many of these springs occur in limestone formations, the openings allowing the water to the surface may be enlarged by dissolving of the limestone to create a virtual pipeline to the surface. This assures a quick trip and warm waters”.


Hot spring in Yellowstone.  Yahoo images

     Dangerous organisms living in the waters, is another concern. Thermophiles are bacterial organisms that thrive at high temperatures (113 to 225 F).  Several of these are infectious to humans but the vast majority are not.  Many thermophiles are archaea, Thermophilic eubacteria are suggested to have been among the earliest bacteria.   One of the safety precautions taken at the spas and enforced in the United States is a series of tests performed by entry the EPA and National Parks Service before humans are allowed entry.   Another thing that most people do not realize is that hot springs support an abundance of life even long before they reach the surface. For example the sulfur smell is caused by anaerobic bacteria living deep beneath the Earth’s crust. Hydrogen sulphide has a very strong and unpleasant smell, like rotten eggs, caused by sulfur dioxide gas escaping into the air. It is extremely toxic. Inhaling low concentrations can cause headaches, fatigue, dizziness, and irritation of the eyes and upper respiratory tract. It can also aggravate sinus and respiratory systems and contribute to bronchitis. On the other hand, this naturally occurring mineral found  near hot springs and volcanic craters possesses many positive attributes.

Benefits of Sulfur

     According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, as a supplement, sulfur is available in two forms: dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM). DMSO and MSM are purported to be great pain relievers.  Natural sources of MSM are plants, fruits and vegetables, some grains, and milk. This compound form connective tissue such as cartilage, tendons, and ligaments. Evidence indicates it may inhibit the nerve impulses that transmit pain signals, thus reducing pain.  While MSM must be ingested, DMSO is absorbed through the skin. Therefore, it is generally found in creams for aches and pains.

Mud baths containing sulfur, can help treat skin disorders and arthritis. Some people claim these baths are useful for allergies and respiratory problems. People also apply sulfur products to the skin to treat acne and other skin disorders. Studies show that people who took sulfur baths and other spa therapies improved strength, had less morning stiffness, had better walking ability, and less inflammation, swelling, and pain in joints, particularly in the neck and back. (website

Cave and Basin Natural Hot Springs, Alberta | Flickr

     Hot Springs are natural phenomena found on all continents and most countries around the world.  Throughout the centuries, people have enjoyed these natural wonders for their scenic beauty, scientific value and mysterious natural healing powers. The rich colors of these formations draw people to simply admire their natural beauty.  Scientists are attracted to these sites so they may investigate early bacterial life forms detected in the pools.  Many sufferers of such ailments as psoriasis, eczema, dandruff, warts, arthritis, shingles and muscle aches are willing to disregard any potential dangers or ignore their fears to reap the benefits of the warm, therapeutic waters.  These people are also willing to pay the price at private and commercial resorts.  Although there are some potential risks associated with hot springs, the numerous benefits offset these concerns.


Works cited


Cameron, Ward.

University of the West Indies.

University of Maryland Medical Center.

Wilbur hot springs.