Made popular in Asia, a treatment that involves lighting the skin on fire to stimulate cell regeneration has made it’s way stateside. Find out what exactly the procedure is and if it works.

A new treatment, based on ancient Asian medicine, requires placing a towel over a person’s body and setting it on fire to stimulate skin cells and help fights signs of aging — but does it really work? And is it safe?

What Exactly Is a Flaming Spa Treatment?

Called Huǒ liáo, the treatment involves soaking a towel in alcohol and a “special elixir,” then placing on problem areas such as the face, legs, back and neck. The towel is then set on fire for several seconds before the practitioner extinguishes it with another cloth.

While the origins of the treatment are unclear, the practice has become popular in China and is said to flatten the stomach, boost metabolism, smooth wrinkles and help combat ailments including insomnia, joint pain, indigestion and the common cold. Stimulating the skin with fire is also said to fight dullness and sagging.

Are Flaming Spa Treatments Safe?

While videos and photos of these fire treatments being performed on people’s backs and faces have been circulating the Internet, there appears to be very little proof that any spas outside of China have begun offering Huǒ liáo or that the treatment has been approved by doctors to remedy aging and health issues.

Salons in Asia say that the treatment is safe when performed by a trained therapist, according to an article in the Daily Mail, and that during the treatment the skin is only warmed, not burned. While this might be the case, there are a multitude of risks to be considered when using open flames, many of which spa-goers would rather not subject themselves to.

Harry Glassman, MD, a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, says he’s never heard of anyone in the United States utilizing these procedures or a spa offering them. “I can’t imagine a mainstream facility in the United States doing this,” says Dr. Glassman. “I’m not even sure what the purpose is, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen something as dangerous as setting people on fire. Imagine the downsides and litigation of doings something like that in a country like ours.”

Alternatives to the Flaming Spa Treatment

Fortunately, there are a variety of alternative treatments that utilize heat to minimize the effects of aging that aren’t as dangerous as setting the skin on fire. The more toned facials muscles are, the younger a person looks, Glassman says, and maintaining tone in the face can be done by stimulating the muscles in several different ways including:

  • Thermage. A non-invasive radiofrequency therapy that helps improve the appearance of sagging or loose skin on the eyes, face and body.
  • Pellevé. A wrinkle reduction system that utilizes heat energy to tighten skin and cause collagen to firm, reducing signs of aging around the eyes and face.
  • Magnets. Some therapies use magnets to stimulate muscles in the face and help them maintain their tone, Glassman says.
  • Surgery. Procedures including facelifts, eye, neck and chin surgery can all help tighten facial muscles and improve signs of aging.
  • Laser Resurfacing. These treatments use heat from a laser to remove dead skin cells and heat the underlying layer of skin, stimulating collagen growth and helping to improve fine lines or wrinkles.

Glassman also recommends hot stone or warm towel treatment in a spa environment as a suitable alternative to decreasing tension and loosening muscles without actually lighting skin on fire.

“It’s true that if you’re heating something, it can relax your muscles for a spa treatment and, when applied to the skin, it can contract or get tighter,” he said. “But there are an infinite number of ways to heat someone’s skin that doesn’t involve setting them on fire.”