Health & Beauty: Reverse charges
With an eye on Tokyo's latest health craze, Nick
Coldicott asks what's so positive about negative ions?
|Brace yourself for negative ions
Given the choice, wouldn't you pick positive ions over negative
ones? They just sound better. But appliance giants like Hitachi, National
and Sharp are joining the health salons in touting negative ions as the
latest, greatest natural remedy to treat everything from allergies to
seasonal affective disorder.
But why do we need negative ions any more than deep-sea water or current
beauty bestseller, a "mouth shrinker?" If your mental thesaurus
links "alternative health trend" with "cock-and-bull
story" and you're about to flip the page, hold on. Even
the scientists are on board this time.
Theory of negativity
Research as far back as 1932 labeled negative ions (mainus ee-ons in Japanese;
oxygen particles with an extra electron to scholars) the "vitamins
of the air," capable of reducing stress, lifting depression, relieving
hay fever or soothing migraines by catching microscopic particles in the
air and making them fall to the floor, balancing serotonin levels in the
body, and halting the growth of bacteria. Places with high levels of this
apparent panacea—mountains, beaches, waterfalls—are those
we migrate to for leisure. Low counts are found in smoky rooms and near
computer monitors—places of stress.
Governments have been on the case for decades, with negative ion generators
mandatory in German and Russian hospitals and installed on every US submarine
since 1956. Even Luftwaffe planes were negatively ionized to prevent pilot
fatigue. So how did a decades-old finding become a 21st-century hit?
Mie Sugiura, manager of Keio's relaxation salon in Shinjuku, says
the trend hit Tokyo around six months ago and attributes it to a boom
in health consciousness in a city starved of fresh air. Five years ago
her salon began selling a small range of negative ion T-shirts and socks.
Tokyoites can now rejuvenate their entire lives with Keio's enormous
range, which includes ion-emitting toothbrushes (¥380), cosmetics
(from ¥2,500), necklaces for pets (¥3,300) and, yes, negative-ion
underpants (from ¥1,800).
Sugiura says the salon now moves more than 100 negative-ion rubber bracelets
a week. So what's so special about a rubber loop? The secret, she
says, is tourmaline—an ion-issuing precious gem within all the
products. "Hold the bracelet near a leaf," she says, "and
the leaf will twitch."
Maybe tourmaline can make a leaf flutter, maybe it really does release
negative ions, but can it make us smile on a Monday morning? All clinical
evidence of pain relief, stress relief and anti-depressant effects comes
from inhaling air that has been purified by negative ions. Tourmaline
might set ion detectors whirring, but, stuffed into your socks, it's
a long way from your nostrils.
Sugiura concedes that the biggest health benefits lie with the pricey
machines that seem to have sprouted in every home appliance department
across the city. Her salon carries a range, from a tiny plastic pyramid
for office cubicles (¥14,800) to a beautiful stone fountain (¥150,000)
to a big, ugly plastic generator (¥218,000). Some use water to disperse
electrons, others are purely electric (something about low currents, high
voltages and needles). Sugiura offers an honest appraisal of her products:
The fountain is pretty and the electric pyramid is cheap, but to ionize
a large room, the healthiest, most natural and most effective is that
big, ugly box whose H20 actions most closely imitate nature.
At the nearby Bic Camera megastore, meanwhile, the home appliance floor
resembles a shrine to negative ionism. Perky cartoon ions look not remotely
negative on flags promoting 99 different electron-emitting air conditioners.
Speakers even broadcast a "Daddy, what's a mainus ee-on?"
style infomercial on a perpetual loop. The newest offerings include pint-size
coolers from Sharp (¥47,000-72,000) that claim to freshen your closets,
portable ionized dehumidifiers from Hitachi (¥61,000). and powerful
wall-mounted air conditioners from Sanyo (¥230,000 for an 8- to
11-mat room) that can send out roomfuls of the perky ions.
Bic's staff say the feature first popped up early last year but
customer interest took off after Japanese television shows shone a spotlight
on negative ions. "Now the manufacturers are using the minus ion
buzz to sell everything," says one clerk. National's negative-ion
washing machine (¥128,000) promises fluffier clothes, Sharp's
fridges claim to keep food fresh longer, and Hitachi's ion-care
range includes hair dryers, curlers and styling brushes to blast particles
at you while you groom.
Already given the dubious title "World Dioxin Capital" by
Greenpeace, Tokyo is without doubt the air pollution center of Japan. Combine
the emissions from massive incinerators, millions of idling cars, and countless
more cigarette smokers, and it's no wonder Tokyoites would be drawn
to all manner of air purifiers. But before you splash out next month's
salary on the latest and greatest in ion generators, consider this.
As noted by US manufacturer Berriman Associates, "The primary drawback
to this air cleaning technology is that it usually takes longer to experience
an improvement in air quality after activating the machine (when compared
to other air-filtering technology) and particles not only fall to the
floor but they have a tendency to migrate toward the surfaces of the room
and adhere to them.ÊThis may cause slight discoloration of walls,
ceiling, and accessories over a long period of time."
Another drawback of negative ion generators is that they emit ozone, which
is known to cause respiratory problems, as a byproduct. A Sharp representative
noted that while the company's ionizers do emit ozone, the levels
are well within those mandated by the government as safe for humans.
Adding to the scientific mumbo-jumbo, Sharp was also the first company
to come out with "plasmacluster" techonology earlier this
year. The new range emanates positive and negative ions simultaneously.
Don't they just cancel each other out? "No," says
the Bic Camera clerk, "the positive ions stay separate and attack
mold and bedbugs, while the negative ones work on dust and odors."
The Sharp representative, however, admits that the Plasmacluster machines
are no healthier than negative ion generators, just better equipped to
balance the level of ions needed to purify your living room.
Bic customer Tatsuya Iyoku isn't convinced about the plasmacluster.
Shopping for a new air conditioner, he says negative ions are an important
feature for him since he saw them featured on television earlier this
year: "Minus ions are easy to understand, but I don't get
plasma clusters." Plus, minus, bracelet or behemoth generator,
it's up to you. But with you or without you, it looks like these
idiosyncratic ions are here to stay.
Try on some ions:
Keio Department Store Relaxation Salon
A huge range of negative ion clothes, beauty products and ionizing machines.
Open 10am-8pm daily. 8F Keio Department Store, 1-1-4 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku.
Tel: 03-5321-5973. Nearest stn: Shinjuku, west exit.
Bracelets from ¥1,000 to ¥10,000. Ionizers from ¥7,980.
Open 10am-8pm daily. 12-18 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-5489-5111.
Nearest stn: Shibuya.
Herbal ion spray (5,800) and soap (¥3,500).
Open 10am-8pm Sun-Thu, 10am-9pm Fri-Sat. 21-1 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku.
Tel: 03-3462-3807. Nearest stn: Shibuya.
Negative ionizing air conditioners, fridges, washing machines, fans, air
cleaners, hair dryers and more.
Open 10am-8pm daily. 1-11-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-5221-1111.
Nearest stn: Yurakucho.
Photo credit: Tama Miyake,
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