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Skin Destination: Iceland

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The Icelandic countryside is not the ideal location to get a flat tire. Assuming, of course, that there is an ideal location to get a flat, two hours north of Reykjavík in late October is certainly not it. Pulled to the side of Highway 1 – known commonly to tourists and European road trippers as the “Ring Road,” an 800+ mile loop that circles, in its entirety, one of the most hauntingly gorgeous specks of land in all of the North Atlantic – we began the arduous task of unloading all of our gear out of the trunk of our rented Volkswagen Polo. Two of us were packed for six days of travel around the exterior of the island, hoping to camp for as many nights as the weather would allow, and the spare tire was tucked securely beneath everything we had brought.

Before our flat, the steady hiss of wind while driving was broken periodically by sudden jarring thumps of larger gusts that jolted the tiny auto as though one of the country’s ubiquitous Icelandic horses ran headlong into one of the side panels. It was there, by the side of the road where long stretches of open fields and tall grass run unbroken from the bays and fjords of the Atlantic in the west to the foothills of the country’s mountainous interior to the east, subject to strong winds and dropping temperatures, that I looked down at my cracked and bleeding knuckles wrapped ineffectually around a tire iron, and in addition to suddenly being very grateful that I had completed my education entirely outside of Catholic school, it became clear that the Nordic elements would certainly make short work of any square of exposed skin. Certain provisions would have to be made.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until we returned to Reykjavík, having successfully navigated the Ring Road that we got the answer as to how, while we walked around with our cheeks chapped and raw, protected by two weeks of what could only under the most gracious of terms be referred to as “beards,” the locals that we encountered, by and large, had beautiful, clear complexions. As though their faces weren’t wind burned so much as airbrushed. The answer was, quite literally, in the water.

To understand anything Icelandic, from the country’s vivid folklore to its very infrastructure, one must first try to understand the incredibly unique environment in which those things came to be. A tiny island nation sitting directly atop the convergence of two tectonic plates, Iceland possesses an excess of two things: heat (very much of the underground variety) and water. Volcanoes (at least 25 active as estimated by National Geographic), glaciers, hot springs, aquifers, and seemingly every manner of geological curiosity known to man all exist in abundance on a piece of land only slightly larger than the state of Indiana.

It’s no surprise then, since the entire country essentially sits above an ever-boiling tea kettle, that the opportunity for easily accessible, renewable energy exists below every Icelander’s feet. In fact, in 1976, an energy company tapped a super-heated aquifer comprised of a unique blend of brackish water in order to open the Svartsengi geothermal power plant.

The plant not only generated electricity and heat for the Reykjanes peninsula but it also inadvertently created the hot spring that would become the crown jewel in a country that already boasted some of the most renowned springs and spas in the world The Blue Lagoon.

So what do renewable energy and geology have to do with healthy, even skin tones? Well, unknown to the operators of Svatsengi at the time, the seawater that had seeped deep into the porous, volcanic, rock below the plant had interacted with the mineral content of the stone, and after the piping hot water was through being used to spin turbines and heat homes, it was exhausted into a neighboring lava field where plant designers assumed it would seep down through the rock and eventually back into the aquifer.  Of course, this would have been the case had it not been for the water’s exceptionally elevated levels of silica, a mineral long coveted for its ability to assuage a wide range of skin irritations: most notably, acne, psoriasis, and eczema.

Stopped up by the silica, which appears in the lagoon at levels 100 times higher than normal as reported in Elsevier by Dr. Jon Hjaltalin Ólafsson from the University of Iceland’s Department of Dermatology, the lava fields retain enough of the brine from Svatsengi that bathers can enjoy a soak in crystal blue baths containing mineral content not found anywhere else on earth.  And while no one is sure who first discovered the therapeutic effects of the lagoon (Ólafsson suggests it was a worker at the plant who suffered from psoriasis himself), visitors today are free to avail themselves of the revitalizing waters and naturally forming silica mud provided they adhere to the lagoon’s strict pre-dip protocol: full on-premises shower before entering the water, keeping noise to a minimum and effectively checking any tension and stress at the door.

In fact, the healing effects of the lagoon and the silica-rich mud that lines it has proven so advantageous to sufferers of eczema and psoriasis that, according to the BBC, the operators of the Blue Lagoon spa began covering the cost of patients’ treatment in 2016 in full so as to shift the burden off of the state and allow the government to reinvest the savings in funding other treatments that utilize the healing effects of the country’s vast natural resources.  Icelandic health authorities had already recognized the benefits of the lagoon and approved patients seeking relief there since as far back as 1994, but it doesn’t take a doctor to recognize the immediate sense of calm one feels submerged in the lagoon or the inescapable feeling that you are doing something good for yourself – and for your skin.

There is a problem in trying to describe Iceland to anyone who hasn’t seen it.  The problem is that there are no readily available analogs.  Its mountains don’t look like the Dolomites or the Rockies.  Its black-sand beaches?  Malibu doesn’t have those.  So to sit in an ancient lava field, steam rising from cyan water so vibrant and even it looks like it was filled with the MS paint tool, it becomes a measure in the fantastic to try to transport a reader to the Blue Lagoon.  Perhaps with the clean, modern lines of Svatsengi in the background, quietly bathing in the pits and craters of volcanic rock, this might have been what an artist in the early 20th century imagined some sort of distant-future moon colony to look like - Jules Verne’s private lunar bathhouse.  It’s incredibly difficult to say.

That’s potentially the most useful comparison, though. To sit in the Blue Lagoon is to sit in a moonscape. Dip your shoulders beneath the surface, find the right pocket of steam, and you really do disappear to somewhere celestial.  You leave the trappings and minor annoyances of everyday life behind, and if your flight out of Keflavik International just up the road is among them, no one could blame you for leaving that back on Earth too.