Most people visit a spa for a massage, pedicure and a facial. But head to Naftalan in Western Azerbaijan, and those looking for a relaxing experience will be in for quite a shock. This small town offers several spas specialising in, of all things, crude oil baths.
Azerbaijan has vast reserves of natural resources including both crude oil and underground gas, giving rise to the country’s nickname ‘The Land of Fire’. Naftalan oil is a particular grade of oil mentioned in the works of famous 12th-century poet Nizami Ganjavi and Marco Polo. Records suggest people in the region bathed in the oil from as early as the 6th century. The treatment became popular again under the Soviet Union. Azerbaijanis today embrace the spas too.
So, the big question is what does it feel like? According to the brave ones willing to give it a go, the consistency feels similar to chocolate, and the oil causes a tingling sensation in the skin. The bath itself is quite warm at around body temperature, and it doesn’t smell as pungent as many expect. Treatment lasts just 10 minutes — spending longer could be detrimental to the heart. A 40-minute cleaning process follows, where the crude oil gets scraped off the body.
According to medical specialist Dr Hashim Hashimov at the Naftalan Health Center ‘Naftalan can cure 70 diseases and kills viruses, bacteria and fungi’. The supposed ailments it helps include neurological and skin disorders, along with offering a cure for impotence. Naftalan crude oil is different from the stuff people put in their cars. It contains approximately 50% of a hydrocarbon called naphthalene that’s used in lower concentrations to treat skin psoriasis.
Not everyone agrees with the supposed health benefits. For a start, Naftalan oil might be carcinogenic, meaning it could promote mutations leading to cancer. Naphthalene is present in car exhausts, cigarette smoke and mothballs and can have adverse side effects on humans. Animal studies suggest the chemical can cause cancer in animals.
Bathing in Naftalan isn’t for everyone. The potential health risks and the fact the oil gets recycled among different users can be off-putting. But at the same time, it’s a unique experience to Azerbaijan that’s better than spending your time in one of Baku’s bars. Where else in the world can one submerge themselves in a bathtub full of warm Naftalan oil?