Himalayan salt lamps — chunks of pink-orange Himalayan rock salt that have been hollowed out to forge a lightbulb — are popping up on many a desk and nightstand. The campaign of these lamps is that, in addition to creating a calm and cozy atmosphere, they can ease ailments ranging from insomnia and depression to asthma.
Whether or not you can depend on these glowing hunks of salt to improve your respiratory health, though, is up for debate.
Salt lamps did not just become a health trend because they look sweet. They’re born out of a long tradition of using salt to boost health.
“It all began many years ago, mostly in Eastern Europe, with something called speleotherapy,” explains John Mark, MD, clinical professor of pediatric pulmonary medicine at Stanford University in California, referencing a natural treatment that dates back to the mid-1800s. “Persons with everything from pneumonia and chronic bronchitis to asthma would spend time in salt caves, because they believed that the particles the salt emitted into the air had beneficial effects on health.”
Throughout the following generations, researchers and wellness pros sought to recreate the effect of these caves with something called halotherapy, which involves building rooms entirely out of Himalayan salt and using a machine called a halogenerator to disperse tiny salt particles in the air, explains Karina Keogh, MD, a pulmonologist with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
The next step in the evolution of interest in salt’s therapeutic potential: salt lamps.
The purported health-promoting particles people seek from salt caves, halotherapy, and Himalayan salt lamps are called negative ions, electrically charged particles also produced by sunlight and waterfalls.
The theory is that “These ions work to pull pollutants out of the air and help neutralize toxins,” says Dr. Mark. “As a result, they help make the air cleaner, purer, and less irritating for people who have chronic lung diseases, like asthma.”
Some research also suggests that negative ions help fight potentially harmful microorganisms like bacteria.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t approved halotherapy for use as a medical treatment, it is considered a legitimate medical protocol in some countries, including Russia, explains Dr. Keogh.
What Science Says About Asthma and Salt Lamps
Here’s where things get tricky. Researchers and pulmonology experts don’t all agree about the respiratory benefits of negative ions, let alone the usefulness of halotherapy or Himalayan salt lamps.
Two systematic reviews — one published October 2018 in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences and an earlier one published in the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine — analyzed trends across large bodies of research and both concluded that there is insufficient data to clearly understand the influence of negative ions on health.
Studies that look more narrowly at the relationship between halotherapy and asthma are few and far between, with a limited number suggesting some benefit. A small pilot study published May 2017 in Pediatric Pulmonology, for example, linked halotherapy with notable improvements in bronchial constriction in response to a stressor in children with mild asthma. It’s not a perfect study, says Mark, but it certainly warrants more extensive research.
As of this moment,there isn’t enough high-quality evidence to confirm that halotherapy works or to make scientifically backed recommendations for how people with respiratory issues can use it. (Studies have utilized anywhere from 5 to 25 sessions, each spanning from 20 minutes to multiple hours, says Keogh.)
Of course, even if halotherapy can have positive effects in people with asthma, halotherapy and Himalayan salt lamps are not the same thing. Going from halotherapy, in which you’re literally surrounded by salt, to sitting near a single hunk of Himalayan salt is quite the jump, says Mark.
“Salt lamps very well may produce negative ions, but it’s hard to say how significant that production is,” agrees pulmonologist Alan Mensch, MD, medical director of Plainview Hospital in New York.
Showing Your Lungs Some Love With a Salt Lamp
While it’s unlikely that Himalayan salt lamps offer significant benefits, there’s no harm in adorning your desk or bedside table with one. “The only real danger is thinking you can use something like a salt lamp as a substitution for any asthma medication you use,” says Dr. Mensch.
Just because something like a salt lamp doesn’t have scientifically backed benefits doesn’t mean it can’t be helpful. According to Mark, relaxation techniques and stress management can play a huge role in treating asthma, and a Himalayan salt lamp can very well create a soothing mood.
And, yes, there’s normally the placebo effect: “If you believe it helps, it probably does,” says Mensch.