How safe are beauty treatments? A spa session reveals a new world

Ireland’s beauty businesses have reopened, but are their customers ready?

Is it safe to go back to the spa? How does pampering work in a pandemic and will it be possible to relax when PPE (personal protective equipment) and hand sanitisers are centre stage, rather than soothing music and flickering tea lights?

Since June 29th, about 4,000 beauty businesses have been allowed to open their doors, with salons adapting their treatment menus to allow for social distancing where possible. More leisurely, 90-minute massages are being replaced in many salons by shorter sessions with reduced touching and increased hygiene routines.

Small salons will likely struggle with the social distancing and cleaning protocols involved and some have yet to reopen for business. For larger salons, and those associated with hotel and leisure groups, reopening has been made a little easier by having, in most cases, the space and the staff to implement company-wide guidelines.

But are customers ready to go back to the spa? After months of avoiding touching friends, strangers and surfaces, the idea of being massaged by a therapist, however masked and gowned, may seem alien. Would one feel safe? Would they feel safe?

I had a chance to find out when an invitation landed from the Marker Hotel in Grand Canal, to try out its spa which is reopening for business on Wednesday (July 15th). Would I come and try a treatment? Would I what?! My knotty neck said yes please, after three months of hunching over a laptop while sitting on a wonky chair.

Having jumped at the invite, I started to have second thoughts. Would there be plastic gloves involved and close facial contact? I’d read about contact-less massages and remember a reiki-esque session some years ago where a masseur had held his hands a foot above my head for the entire session, while telling me that he can work wonders with horses.

From the options available to me at the Marker, a 30-minute back massage with aromatic oils seemed the safest option, and perhaps the kindest for the therapist too.

The Marker had just reopened after lockdown and there was a friendly greeting at the door and a nod towards the sanitiser which packed an alcoholic punch. Inside, the hotel’s lovely light lobby which traditionally is fizzing with the excitement of people going to a show, was quiet, but reassuringly dotted with people. It looked quiet but normal. Then it was a quick stop down a corridor, through a door into an area decorated with all the hotel’s many awards since it opened six years ago, and upstairs to the spa.

Here, you are greeted by a fantastic, misty and beautiful photograph of the Forty Foot that seems to float on the wall. My shoulders dropped a notch or two before I was taken in hand by Blanka Strahonj, the acting spa manager who seemed genuinely happy to be back at work after three months, and even more glad that she is working at the Marker and not at her previous job managing the spa facilities onboard a cruise ship.

Ramona, wearing a Perspex shield and with bare hands, worked in silence and there was no talk of holiday plans

She whisks me off to look at the women’s changing room – only four people allowed at a time – and then the pool area with its shimmering black 23m infinity pool where up to four people can swim at a time. A further six people can enjoy the sauna, jacuzzi and steam room (two at a time). It’s a similar story in the large gym close by where, again, just four guests will be allowed to use the panoply of running, walking and step machines, and expansive weights section.

Restrictions aren’t noticeable at first but Blanka points out that water can be taken from a paper cup only – not a glass – and that the refreshment stand that’s normally free for guests to graze has been replaced by a tea service from behind the reception desk.

The Relaxation Room, where you go to come down to earth after a treatment, has the same wide reclining beds, she says, but the fluffy blankets have had to go and the magazines as well. It and the reception space will get cleaned every half-hour and the changing room likewise.

It's empty as I retrieve a robe and slippers from the locker and head for the treatment room where therapist Ramona Rotariu explains about the massage she will be doing using a range of oils branded Elemental Herbology with oils selected to suit my personality and frame of mind.

Earlier, she had given me a questionnaire to establish this and it didn’t beat around the bush, including a section that asked if I were sometimes temperamental and angry, volatile and impatient, overly giving and passive, uptight and controlling or fearful and a worrier. When I ticked all the options Ramona suggested that I am a water character with some wood in there, and selected an earthly smelling oil that would be used in the massage.

After that, I lay down on the bed, put my head down over a hole in the mattress and focused on a light in the shape of a hydrangea head that sat on the floor and cast off a warm flickering light. This, I decided, was actually very nice. Ramona’s light tough with some hot stones, and firm touch in sweeping movements up and down and around my back, sent me into a semi-trance helped by a soundtrack of choral music with added wind instruments (I think). Ramona, wearing a Perspex shield and with bare hands, worked in silence and there was no talk of holiday plans. My neck began to feel better.

When it was over, I asked if her if she feels safe being back at work, touching strangers. She seemed genuinely positive about the measures put in place by the hotel. “It’s always been a safe place to work,” she says. “And it feels just as safe now that we are back, with the measures that are in place.”

Later Blanka explains that many of the Marker Spa's clients are from the big companies in the area, who take out annual memberships for staff. Membership costs from €990 a year (off-peak), though three- and six-month packages and couples packages are also available. Clients include staff from LinkedIn, Google and Facebook and from local legal firms such as Matheson and McCann FitzGerald.

The only member I meet is a young woman, back to the spa for the first time and saying that it feels so good to have had her swim. She’s a teacher and it’s been stressful, so much so that she is thinking of going part-time in the autumn. Before becoming a full member of the spa, she used to come on Sundays to relax. The spa opens seven days a week and from 6.30am Monday to Friday.

Meanwhile, Blanka has been busy with bookings. The spa slots are filling up, both with members and hotel guests. “People want their treatments. They’re used to coming here, say at lunchtime, or coming in for a while to the pool and steam room. They want to start doing that again.”

A 30-minute Five Element Aroma Massage at The Spa at the Marker costs €85 and is one of a number of facial and body treatments available at prices from about €20 for an eyelash/brow tint up to €260 for a couples package that includes a one-hour treatment each. At present, the spa is not offering its popular pregnancy package. For bookings see

Orna Mulcahy was a guest of The Spa at the Marker