The spa trend claims to reduce cellulite and give you a flat stomach, but some experts think the beauty treatment is too good to be true

By Jenna Birch
Updated: May 25, 2015
Corbis Images

If you know your way around a spa menu, you've probably seen body wraps listed as a treatment offering.

But in case you're unfamiliar, body wraps are generally plastic or thermal blankets wrapped around various body parts for a range of effects. Some of these wraps are touted as simply relaxing or moisturizing, but others claim they'll shave off inches in minutes, detoxify your system, and minimize cellulite.

How do they work, exactly? "The claims are that you can lose inches in a matter of minutes to hours," says celebrity dermatologist Dendy Engelman, M.D. But "the effect, if any, is transient and all due to loss of water-you are literally dehydrating the skin."

So, perhaps these treatments aren't worth the spa menu price tag. But then there's the growing trend of low-cost, DIY body wraps. Women are applying a little lotion, wrapping their midsections in Saran wrap (snugly, but not so tight that you can't breathe), and covering that with an ACE bandage overnight in the hopes of losing one to two inches.

Camille Hugh, author of The Thigh Gap Hack, is a DIY-wrapping advocate. "It works just as well as paying a professional to wrap you in a bit fancier cloth that has been pre-soaked in a mysterious concoction or applying a green detoxifying cream beforehand-but it comes at a fraction of the cost," she says. (That makes it sound like one of these 5 Indulgent Ways to Have a Spa Day at Home.)

Hugh thinks wrapping works best on arms and abdomen, not thighs-even though it's only a temporary, water-shifting effect. "For someone who just wants a slightly flatter stomach or a more defined shape, wrapping can provide that," she says. "I recommend wrapping the day before or day of a special event, when you need a little help getting the zipper all the way up."

But not everybody's a fan. Kate MacHugh, a social worker from Beachwood, NJ, saw a DIY wrap on Pinterest and ran out to Target to buy the needed supplies. "I felt my internal organs being pushed up my throat," she says. "After deciding that I could no longer breathe, I unwrapped my miracle wrap. I looked the same except for the strange bruising around my torso from the wrap cutting off my circulation."

Engelman says the average person might be able to get away with a DIY wrap every once in a while-but there are certain people who should totally skip wraps altogether. "If you are prone to dehydration or have had kidney dysfunction, there is potential for harm," she says." (Is Wearing a Corset the Secret to Weight Loss?)

What's the bottom line? Mixed results that don't last, and potential for harm if continued. "I think it can be done safely once or twice, but I certainly wouldn't make a practice out of it," Engelman says. "Not only can it lead to total body dehydration, but if repeated, the fluid shifts can't be good for your skin quality."

We all know that well-hydrated skin looks healthy and best, so dehydrating it with these wraps can lead to premature wrinkling of the skin-and may show more cellulite," Engelman continues. (Instead, try 4 Foam Roller Exercises to Burn Fat and Reduce Cellulite.)

Our advice? Skip the wrap, simply flush bloat with lots of H2O, and follow the basic laws of good health with proper diet and exercise. Because, let's be honest: If you could really wrap your way thin, spas would have lines down the block.

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