I slept through my visit to the head spa. This, when you stop and think about it, sounds quite nice. It was the hottest day in summer and I had found refuge from the New York City streets that were steaming me like broccoli in Masa Kanai’s back room. I was in Taurus Sun’s perfect spot: Ritsuko Borges gave my scalp one of the most amazing massages I have ever had.
Borges is a hairdresser and trichologist who is sought after by many people. In Japan, head spas are a common practice. She moved to New York after completing her training in Japan, where head spas (a.k.a. scalp massages) are commonplace.
After listening to clients asking for advice about scalp issues such as hair loss and dermatitis, she decided to offer the Japanese service to her New York clients. She tells me that there are many different problems people face but they all want to find the right solution. Even if they don’t know what a headspa is, they want to feel relaxed and happier.
This is what brought me to Borges’s head spa. Given my nap, I can see that she has mastered relaxation. TikTok is another force that has attracted westerners to this practice. The hashtag “headspa” has been viewed over 21 million times on the app. Many videos deliver an ASMR effect, where scalps are steam-dried and product is applied by gentle hands that knead into pressure points. This allows for deep-cleansing of hair and scalp. These videos may only last for a few minutes, but my visit lasted over an hour on TikTok.
Sandra Chiu, a Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner and owner of Lanshin in Brooklyn, says that head spas and similar services are very popular. She also believes that watching one being performed makes it more appealing. Lanshin also sells tools to help you take care of yourself at home. It has an ASMR quality that is instantly appealing on social media and YouTube. It’s almost like the thing you didn’t know you had, or that you didn’t even know existed.
Head spas exist and have existed for a while. However, it has not been accepted as a mainstream beauty practice by the Eurocentric beauty culture. Chiu explains that while the term “head spa” refers to a particular style of scalp treatment in Japan, scalp massage is widespread throughout Asia, from India to Japan. For example, in China or Taiwan, any hairstyling service includes a scalp, neck, shoulder and scalp massage that is incorporated into the shampoo and conditioning steps. This can take as long as 30 minutes and is considered a treatment.
A trip to the spa can be done by anyone, but Chiu says that only a select few people might benefit. I recommend this treatment to anyone who has experienced stress that has affected their hair growth and strength, is looking for supportive practices for their scalp, and is dedicated to natural and holistic ways of well-aging, with a focus on hair vitality.
Chiu says that the popularity of the head spa on TikTok or Instagram is due to westerners seeing it as an “intriguing foreign novelty”.
She explains that many Asian healing traditions can be attractive and appealing to western audiences who have never seen them. “The way we do things here in Asia is very popular in the West, such as jade rolling and facial Gua Sha. This interest usually leads to appropriation. I am so happy that head spa, an Asian-rooted practice, is getting a lot more attention.”
TikTok might have fallen for the head spa but others in the medical profession aren’t so sure. When I asked her for comment, one dermatologist said, “This sounds like snake-oil.”
Others were not so dismissive. Dhaval G. Banusali, MD, a New York City-based dermatologist, was not familiar with the term “headspa”. However, he did some TikTok research and answered several of my questions. He says that although we scientists and doctors evaluate the science of many of these practices based on scientific evidence, there is still a lot of cultural component to them.
Brendan Camp MD, a dermatologist board-certified based in New York City adds, “A head spa can be a relaxing treatment.” It’s similar to a facial but for hair and scalp. This should not be confused with a medical treatment for hair and scalp diseases. Dr. Bhansuali advised that people avoid the head spa if they experience persistent hair loss, scalp itching, skin growths, or rashes that don’t respond to spa or over-the-counter treatments.
However, I was given the green light by the doctors to proceed with the treatment. That’s how I ended-up in Borges’s backroom oasis. She asked me first if I had any allergies to essential oils. Dr. Camp recommends that potential head spa visitors inform their doctors about this so they don’t get harmed by potentially dangerous treatments. He adds that some patients can develop contact dermatitis from exposure to essential oils. This causes redness, itching and flaking as well as weeping or pain.
Borges then took a close-up photo of my scalp and showed me the excess, goopy sebum. This is how most appointments begin. Borges took a look and said that it was not a lot of oil. She also asked if I had washed my chemically treated (green) hair the day before. She noted that I typically go two weeks between shampoos and that if I came in closer to the two week mark, I would notice a thicker coating on my scalp.
The actual work began. I was able to get in the salon chair (one of my favorite… no neck pain), and was then covered with an eye mask and a blanket. Borges gently cooed each step, even though I couldn’t see the details, so I wasn’t surprised by anything. But I wasn’t worried. The service was a perfect blend of gentleness and delicacy. Borges applied essential oils to my scalp and focusing on pressure points that I didn’t know were there.
I fell asleep somewhere along the journey. Borges continued my treatment but I was dead. Although I don’t really dream much these days, I attribute it to stress and a need for a new mattress — but I was drawn to the service. I dreamed about colors, swirling purples, and forest green fireworks. It was a lot like old-school PC screensavers. I lost myself in endless images and eventually gave up, settling into total tranquility.
My hair was then marinated in a special mask Borges made for me from mahogany wood, organic sage and organic sage. This is a treatment that helps to balance sebum.
My lips were covered in drool when I woke up. My scalp was a completely different story after the treatment. Borges once again showed me the camera-view from my follicles. The sebum that we had just noticed an hour earlier vanished. My head felt fresh and clean, perhaps the best I have ever seen. My scalp felt smoother and I could see my reflection in my hair. It was so shiny! Then we finished the job with a quick blowout and I was on our way.
The service costs $220 and is prohibitive to maintain on my editor’s income. But if I had Upper West Side money, I’d go every month. Borges told me that you can find a Japanese head spa in most Japanese salons. I may shop around to try other treatments. Borges said that just like all salons offer cute, hair color, blowout, and keratin, almost all Japanese salons also have a headspa on their menu. Even if you live far from your TikTok practitioner, it is possible to get a treatment at a J-beauty Spa nearby.
After my service, it was back to the real world. It was filled with concrete, steaming subways, and deadlines. Yet, I felt lighter on my head and my scalp.