The gold of the sea: why seaweed is the new superfood

Today, VOYA is available in more than 40 countries worldwide, including at Aqua Sana Spas, but their story really begins more than 300 years ago on the west coast of Ireland. Keep reading to find out about the history behind VOYA and to hear from their Managing Director, Mark

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A business rooted in history

In the 1700s, seaweed baths were first introduced in Ireland and saw people flocking to the coast to take advantage of the natural benefits and build up their immune systems. The seaweed baths were Ireland’s answer to the thermal bath houses which had sprung up across Europe and, in a time before the advances of modern medicine, were a huge part of people’s wellbeing. Seaweed was an important commodity, used for food, farming, health benefits and even inspiring Irish folk songs.

However, seaweed bathing was no exception to the advances of time and, as science and medicine improved and people left the coast to live in the cities, seaweed bathing gradually decreased in popularity until, by the mid-20th century, it had all but died out. In 1961, the last remaining bath houses were destroyed by Hurricane Debbie and, for more than 30 years, seaweed bathing became another old tradition that had died out.

As the 20th century merged into the 21st, interest in alternative therapies began to increase and people started making lifestyle choices based on the wellbeing benefits. The Walton family opened a bath house in Sligo and, before long, husband and wife Mark and Kira Walton joined Mark’s father and brother in the family business, reinvigorating seaweed bathing. From there, VOYA was born.

Setting the standards for sustainability

“We wanted to create products for the bath house so that customers could replicate the benefits at home,” says Mark, Managing Director of VOYA. “My whole upbringing was rooted in sustainability and the benefits of organic products – my father was one of the driving forces behind the organic movement in Ireland – so there was never any question of whether these products were going to be organic.”

Mark and Kira had certainly hit onto a good idea – so good, in fact, that no one else was doing it. “There were people making organic cosmetics and people making seaweed-based cosmetics but no one combining the two,” explains Mark. “At that time, making organic cosmetics was seen as ahead of the curve. We had to set up a framework for standards in organic seaweed-based products, working with the Soil Association and the EU.”

However, their efforts weren’t wasted, as the products took off and, over the years, the brand has grown at what Mark calls a ‘phenomenal pace’ whilst still remaining true to their core values and ethos. “Our motto is ‘there has to be a better way’ and we really live by that,” says Mark. “We’re constantly challenging ourselves and each other to do better, whether that’s in our sustainability, the way we package our products or what products we sell. We make decisions that make sense for us as a brand, not necessarily for us as a business.”

Those decisions include using packaging made from recycled, recyclable or biodegradable materials, committing to being a cruelty-free brand and carbon balancing their manufacturing and production output by supporting the World Land Trust. Despite all that, Mark admits he’s still bothered by the fact they need to use some plastics in their products.

“We’re still looking for the answer to that problem,” he says. “Where we have to, we use 100% recycled plastic, which actually has a lower carbon footprint to manufacture and recycle than glass. We’ve always tried to be on the front foot with sustainability – in fact, we were using recycled plastic as early as 2005. But I’m always looking for something more sustainable – we have a Sustainability Officer in the business and their job is to challenge everyone, to make sure none of us get complacent.”

Reaping the benefits

Mark’s passion for protecting the environment directly links to the seaweed forests he and his colleagues harvest. “Seaweed is one of the largest carbon sequesters on the planet,” he says. “Even more so than the rainforests – think about how much of the world is covered in water and how much seaweed is in that! But as well as that, most people don’t think of seaweed as a living entity – in fact, most people don’t like it. I look at seaweed and see all the amazing benefits – for example, it’s incredibly high in vitamins and minerals.”

VOYA have worked with a number of universities on research into the benefits of seaweed and the properties of the different species. Whilst it’s hard to prove the exact benefits, Mark says they do know that the neuro compounds found in seaweed work wonders in facials.

“It’s full of antioxidants, specifically ones to slow down the aging process, so it’s great for rejuvenating, plumping facials and also for reversing the damage to skin that comes with city living,” he explains. “Seaweed bathing isn‘t a gimmick – it has amazing wellbeing benefits and there are still so many discoveries being made, and still to be made, about the potential of seaweed.”

As well as the science behind the benefits of seaweed, there’s also a science to harvesting it. “The fronds of seaweed are like a giant solar panel,” Mark says. “So the more you cut away, the less energy it will have to grow back. We’ve been harvesting the same seaweed for 20 years now and we have a system in place to make sure we’re only harvesting a small area at a time, working our way along a grid layout. We try not to harvest too much, as it’s a violent process for the plant. That’s why we still harvest by hand – machines are too indiscriminate.”

The perfect pairing

“Aqua Sana and VOYA is a match made in heaven,” enthuses Mark. “We both just want to deliver authentic wellness. The experience at Aqua Sana is phenomenal and everyone involved is so invested in our brand – we’re still a family-run business with a small, dedicated and passionate team of people. We’ve never needed to be the biggest business, we just want to continue to make great products, and I feel like Aqua Sana really gets that and believes in us.”

VOYA treatments have been available at Aqua Sana Longford Forest since it opened in 2019 and now a range is on offer at the five UK spas. The treatments are suitable for people who are having or have had, treatment for cancer. Mark explains why this was important for them.

“When we first started looking into the cancer care side of wellness, we found that people were being turned away from treatments because they had cancer or because they had previously had cancer treatment,” he says. “We knew that this was a whole group of people who would benefit hugely from some wellbeing care and even just from the power of touch, so we got our products certified and we’ve not looked back since.”

And Mark’s not slowing down. “The future of seaweed is immense – there’s still so much more we can discover about its properties and the way it can be used,” he concludes. “I firmly believe that there will be a major discovery about seaweed in the next century…so maybe we’re ahead of the curve again!”

If you have a break booked at Center Parcs, schedule some time out at Aqua Sana Spa today and check out how you can experience the power of seaweed for yourself with one of VOYA’s luxurious treatments.

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Lizzie Jackson

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Lizzie Jackson

As PR & Media Relations Officer at Center Parcs, I’m always hearing amazing stories from our teams on the villages. I’ll share as many of these as I can with you, as well as giving you a glimpse behind the scenes to see what goes into running a Center Parcs!