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.

Minus signs
 

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.

Tokyu Hands
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.

Loft
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.

Bic Camera
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, Mary King

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