Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
18 Jun

How to Take a Better Bath

bathThe act of taking a bath doesn’t necessarily need gussying up. Simply submerging your body in hot water and rubbing yourself with an emulsifying agent will get you clean enough, with the potentially added benefits of wicking away stress and inducing relaxation. But in this age of high-tech shower heads and limited free time, the utilitarian shower has won out over the bath. You don’t have to wait for the tub to fill, you’re not stewing in your own juices, and the added pressure of the shower helps blast dirt, skin cells, and natural oils from your body. The bath just can’t compete with the shower for its cleaning prowess.

Who takes baths for cleanliness, though? Let’s face it: a bath is about relaxation. It’s about treating yourself, soothing sore muscles, catching up on a good book, and letting go and forgetting about the madness of what just transpired that day. It’s a mini-vacation. And there may even be some health benefits. Like anything with those qualities, it can probably be improved upon, or “hacked,” if you will. If we care about our health – and how much we enjoy the little things that make life worth living – we owe it to ourselves to take a better bath.

Here’s how to do it:

Add epsom salts or magnesium chloride flakes.

If you could make just one change to your bath routine, it should be to add a source of magnesium to your water. Epsom salts, available in every drug store I’ve ever entered, contain magnesium sulfate. Magnesium chloride flakes, available online and in aquarium supply shops, contain magnesium chloride (obviously). Both are helpful additions to your bathwater, and both can increase serum levels of magnesium when applied to the skin.

In one study (PDF), subjects took daily epsom salt baths for a week straight. Each bath was 12 minutes in duration and varied between 50 and 55 ºC. When the week was up, magnesium levels were significantly elevated in the majority of the subjects. In a few people whose pre-treatment levels were already replete, urinary excretion of magnesium increased, suggesting that excess magnesium does get absorbed but not retained. As an added bonus, epsom salt baths also provide ample amounts of bioavailable sulfate, a hugely important mineral in mammalian physiology.

Topical magnesium chloride has also been shown to increase serum levels of magnesium in human subjects (PDF). Every day for 12 weeks, subjects were given 20 sprays of magnesium chloride to the body and took a 20-minute foot bath in a magnesium chloride solution. After 12 weeks, hair mineral analysis showed that participants increased magnesium levels by an average of nearly 60%. They also improved their calcium:magnesium ratios.

Because they’re so heavy, epsom salts just aren’t very economical to purchase online. The shipping precludes it, unless you buy 25-50 pounds a time. Even then, most drug stores offer epsom salts for around a dollar a pound.

Magnesium chloride is more expensive than epsom salts, but also more effective. It’s also the form of magnesium found in seawater, the original (and world’s largest) bathtub. A nice compromise would be to add a cup or three of epsom salts to your bath, then spritz yourself with some magnesium chloride oil, which you can either buy or make yourself. I’ve found that this combination reliably helps me sleep and gives me vivid, enjoyable, memorable dreams.

Add other salts.

It’s tough to get real information on actual bath salts, because googling “bath salts” returns page after page of information on the notorious designer drugs masquerading as bath salts. As far as I can tell, the only significant body of bath salt research in existence deals with Dead Sea salts. It seems that bathing in Dead Sea salts, also called Tomesa therapy, improved the skin health of patients with psoriasis and normalized the levels of Langerhans cells (a kind of macrophage that helps with tissue healing and can get out of control in certain skin diseases). A bath in regular sodium chloride (salt) had no effect. Another study found that magnesium-rich Dead Sea water improved skin hydration, skin barrier function, and reduced skin inflammation in atopic dry skin.

Bathing in the Dead Sea had a positive effect on patients with both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis by reducing inflammation. In osteoarthritis of the knee, a two week Dead Sea bath treatment resulted in a 3-month abatement of symptoms. A recent literature review concluded that the Dead Sea makes for an effective resort for patients with various types of joint ailments.

Also interesting is the effect on type 2 diabetics. A single immersion in the waters of the Dead Sea lowered blood glucose levels in type 2 diabetics.

I suspect using other sources of bath salts, like Salt Lake bath salts, will offer similar benefits.

Add carbonation.

A lukewarm (36 ºC) bath full of carbonated water boosted the performance of competitive swimmers when taken before a workout. Subsequent lactic acid threshold was higher, heart rate took longer to become elevated, and muscles were more efficient after a carbonated bath. Swimmers who took a regular bath at the same temperature enjoyed none of the same benefits.

I don’t mean upending cases of San Pellegrino into your bathtub (although that would be extremely effective, albeit prohibitively expensive). Bath bombs should do the trick. Alternatively, you could use the same formula used by American practitioners who were trying to replicate the famous carbonated baths of Europe:

  • Sodium carbonate: 1½ lbs
  • Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda): ½ lb
  • Calcium chloride: 3 lbs
  • Sodium chloride: 2 lbs
  • Sodium bisulphate: 1 lbs

Mixing vinegar and baking soda should also work, as would dumping in some dry ice.

Add essential oils.

First and foremost, essential oils added to a bath improve the sensorial experience. You pick an oil whose scent you enjoy, sprinkle a few drops where the water hits the bottom of the tub to disperse it, and revel in the herbaceous cloud enveloping you. That alone is worth it.

Second, inhaled fumes of essential oils may exert beneficial physiological effects on us:

Add a bit of extra virgin olive oil.

Every so often, I’ll make like the Romans and add a tablespoon or so of really good extra virgin olive oil to the running bath water. When you get out, your skin is covered in a thin layer of EVOO, and toweling off serves to rub it in. This will keep your skin well-moisturized.

Just make sure to wash the bottom of the tub before anyone else uses it. It gets very slick and dangerous.

Use bathing as a warmup before workouts, long walks, or any other physical activity.

Bathing is a good way to passively warmup. It, quite literally, warms up your muscles and prepares your body for movement. Stretching, dynamic warmups, and working out are all more effective and safer after warming up your muscles, whether through movement or through sitting in a hot bath. Hot baths are especially helpful in cold weather.

A hot bath before a workout may even increase fat loss. One recent study found that taking hot baths increased the release of free fatty acids from fat stores. Exercising immediately after a hot bath, then, will burn those free fatty acids and prevent them from being deposited back into adipose tissue.

You don’t have to make it a tough workout, necessarily. Even just a nice long walk after a bath will utilize the liberated fats.

Neutralize the chlorine/chloramine.

Chlorine and/or chloramine are added to most tap water supplies in order to disinfect it, but there’s some evidence that too much can have a negative effect on your health, probably by the same mechanism for which it’s put into our water supply: the antimicrobial activity of chlorine. Chris Kresser goes over the extensive evidence that chlorine/chloramine in our water supply also targets our intestinal bacteria in a previous post, and I’ve already written about the downsides of swimming in a chlorinated pool.

Luckily, adding a single gram of vitamin C in tablet or powder form can neutralize the chlorine/chloramine in most standard bath tubs.

Start hotter than you’d think.

Bathwater loses heat rapidly. And if it’s truly too hot for you, it’s easier to achieve the perfect temperature by drizzling cold water into hot than drizzling hot water into cold. Plus, higher temperatures will generally improve absorption of minerals and increase diffusion of scents.

That about sums up my approach to building a better bath. It’s served me well, and I think you guys will find my recommendations useful as well. That said, I’m sure I haven’t covered every approach to a better bath. What about you guys? What do you do to improve your bathing experience? Let us know in the comment section and thanks for reading!

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. If you are pregnant or trying to conceive (men and women), look up the recommended temperatures for baths first. I believe TOO hot is considered harmful, though I don’t know what temperature is currently advised.

    Industrious Warrior Maiden wrote on June 19th, 2013
  2. Actually, I’ve never understood why anyone would want to spend time hanging out in a tubful of dirty, soap-scummy water when a shower is so much faster and cleaner. I’ve known people who shower first, then fill up the tub for a soak, then shower again to get rid of the tub residue. Ridiculously wasteful if you live in a dry area where water restrictions are often a fact of life.

    Shary wrote on June 19th, 2013
  3. Well I don’t have a bath tub (whomp whomp) but..I do live across the street from nature’s bathtub, the ocean, so all is good. When I do have access to a tub, I like to lather myself up in Coconut oil pre and post tub (again..make sure to really clean the tub after so no one slips) but I can’t tell you how soft it leaves my skin. Candles and some good tunes also make it a total experience.

    kate wrote on June 19th, 2013
  4. I take baths and foot baths using epsom salts or magnesium flakes. I think it makes a difference with inflammation.

    Dr. Carolyn Dean mentions throwing in a tablespoon of clay powder to absorb the fluoride in the tap water. Maybe it works for the chlorine too? The clay powder I use is redmond clay http://www.redmondclay.com/

    Thanks to everyone who posted about buying magnesium sulfate at the feed store. Is it the same as Epsom salts? It seems like an obvious question, but is there any reason to be careful?

    ValerieH wrote on June 19th, 2013
    • I keep a jug of mixed salts next to my bath tub — about 1/2 epsom and 1/2 white sea salts (pink sea salts tend to leave bits of mineral in the bottom of the tub after it drains). Then I add as much Dead Sea Salt as I feel I can afford at the moment (usually around 10% of the total.) Dead Sea Salt is expensive but quite lovely to use.

      I also keep a collection of essential oils next to the tub. I put about 1/2 cup of salts in at the start of filling, then use about another 1/4 cup or so for a carrier for my chosen oils of the day. Many oils have the ability to be toxic, so use care — for most oils I never use more than 6 drops of oil total for the whole tubful. I sprinkle this in the water as the tub finishes filling — soon enough for the salts to dissolve in the water, so I can inhale the lovely smell as I step in.

      Two oils are exceptions — lavender oil (NOT spike lavender) and tea tree oil. Both can be used safely directly on the skin and generally don’t cause the average individual any problems. I tend to add a few drops of lavender oil as an addition to the other 6 drops of oil because I love the scent and the soothing effect of lavender. Tea tree smells a bit astringent for my taste, but could be used.

      Essential Oils I like in my bath:
      Juniper Berry or Scotch Pine give a nice outdoorsy feeling in the tub.

      Marjoram oil and/or lemon grass oil are good for sore muscles — but the marjoram oil leaves me craving Italian food.

      Grapefruit oil is a nice picker-upper and good for morning baths. My favorite orangey oil is Mandarin oil — it mixes nicely with grapefruit.

      After making custom oil mixes at every bath time, I find my hand just goes to the oils that my body craves that day — be it relaxation, mental stimulation, whatever. Lavender goes in almost every day!

      If you have a jetted tub, essential oils are okay to use. Don’t add additional oil such as olive oil though — it’s bad for the jets (replacing the motor is expensive, believe me.) If you are using a soaking tub, add some oil. You might also try coconut oil — it will go liquid at bath temperatures and is a great body oil. I add the oil as a quick body rub right after I get out of the tub, while my skin is still damp — it keeps the moisture in.

      dkd2001 wrote on June 19th, 2013
  5. One more Great Addition to the bath:

    Seaweed!

    If you live near the ocean and can collect your own, it is a nice outing and you can enjoy seaweed baths all year from a single collection day (just rinse off the sand and hang to dry.)

    Inland, you can buy Nori or other seaweeds in the Oriental food section of the grocery store. Just throw in a sheet or two of nori in the tub, along with your bath salts and any essential oils you want to add. Don’t use you jets if you have a jetted bath — the seaweed can get stuck in them.

    dkd2001 wrote on June 19th, 2013
  6. Ok, I had always thought epsom was a good thing, until I read this article,

    http://saveyourself.ca/articles/reality-checks/epsom-salts.php

    He points out the in-accuracies in your reference to the study by RH Waring.
    The body does not absorb salt through the skin. While topically, salts and oils may be good for skin health, and the “feeling” of a salted bath may lead to a more relaxed state the rest of you probably does not benefit from Epsom Salts.

    Feel free to show me some more reference proving otherwise.

    A warm bath in general most likely assists in better performance and healing due to the reason you listed of heating up muscle groups and lymph which is responsible for removing damaged cells and inflammation.

    Trevor wrote on June 19th, 2013
  7. I had no idea about the vitamin C neutralizing chlorine. That’s fascinating. I don’t know why I read this, because I don’t even have a bathtub, but I do have a sauna. Maybe it’s time I got a bathtub though? ;)

    Henri J. wrote on June 20th, 2013
  8. Kinda perfect timing…just instituted a nightly epsom salt/EO bath with my toddler :) thanks for the information!!

    Chelsea wrote on June 20th, 2013
  9. I guess this post describes one of those “cutting edge recovery techniques”.
    I recently got banned from the local campgrounds so I can’t shower anymore. I have to use the river to rinse.

    Animanarchy wrote on June 20th, 2013
    • Also reminds me of a scene from the X-Files when Mulder, Scully, and Skinner are all talking on the phone to each other somehow (I think it was on-the-other-line, not a three way call) while having bubble baths.

      Animanarchy wrote on June 24th, 2013
      • When I played football I used to go for a quick swim in the family’s above ground pool after practice, like a cool water plunge. The water was chlorinated, but it seemed to help me recover.
        Suspension in water + movement is good for your muscles and joints

        Animanarchy wrote on June 24th, 2013
  10. I have found that taking a warm bath with some of the mineral salts mentioned in this article (Epson, peppermint, etc.) seems to delay DOMS for me after a hard strength training session.

    Phil-SC wrote on June 22nd, 2013
  11. Hi, wondering where I can buy the sodium chloride? Local stores rather than purchasing online. Thanks! Sounds intriguing!

    Rachel wrote on June 22nd, 2013
    • lol

      Animanarchy wrote on June 24th, 2013
  12. My three-year-old loves to take baths with me. It’s really one of his favorite things.I had the bath torn out of the master bath because finding one to fit my wife or me was not practicable, but if you’re three foot three inch, they’re reportedly very enjoyable.

    ion freeman wrote on June 22nd, 2013
  13. I absolutely LOVE hot baths with epsom salts and essential oils. I’m fortunate that we have well-water (tested safe) so no worries about chlorine, either.

    And, you’re right about it making a great pre-workout warm-up! This is how I start most mornings… hot bath, then work out. (Coffee first, of course!)

    Mari Ann Lisenbe wrote on June 23rd, 2013
  14. One of these days I’m going to take a “super bath.” I’m going to combine every hint, trick and tip offered here in one awesomely luxurious bath of the Gods and emerge more powerful than Superman!

    Drumroll wrote on June 24th, 2013
  15. I enjoy a bath pretty much daily.

    First it is a great way to unwind after a long day, and pretty much the only quiet time I get to read.

    Second, my theory is that raising your body temp is a good way to help ward off flu and cold bugs. Your body gives you a fever to help your immune system fight the infection, so if you start having hot baths the moment you feel a sickness come on, your body can hit the cold or flu harder and sooner.

    I often get in the tub with only a few inches of water, point the shower at the wall, close the curtains tight and enjoy hot steam with my bath. It helps me with chest ailments.

    Not sure if this is true, but I follow this mentality, and I tend to beat the same flu and colds friends and family fight with days sooner.

    I will probably buy some epsom salt soon. The Japanese have hot springs with certain mineral contents which are known to fight specific ailments… seems to work well for them.

    Gabe wrote on July 9th, 2013
  16. I’m curious. Do you wash the salts off at the end of your soak or just rinse? Does using soap prevent absorbtion of the salts through the skin? Should you wash and then soak or soak and then wash?

    Mary Mac wrote on July 10th, 2013
    • Hmmm. Maybe these are about personal preference? I don’t know about absorption, but I generally don’t rinse off. I usually use Epsom salts and baking soda, which eliminates filmy residue on the tub, so I figure I’m not to filmy either…

      Leslie wrote on July 10th, 2013
  17. if you don’t have access to a bathtub, you can mix Epsom salts and equal parts water in a spray bottle and spritz it onto yourself, or just do an Epsom salts foot bath. Our naturopath recommends spraying down with Epsom salts immediately after leaving a chlorinated pool. If you are having a detox, take an Epsom salts bath. It works wonders!

    Rebecca Magliozzi wrote on July 10th, 2013
  18. Lucky and grateful to live in Hawaii where I’m surrounded by the Pacific Ocean; full of healthy minerals.
    I remember going to the beach to soak in the ocean when I ached after a too long bout of racewalking. I knew my body wouldn’t ache after the soak and I would sleep quite comfortably that night.
    Once in a while I like to draw a hot bath and soak, but why waste precious fresh water when I have the ocean at my doorstep?

    CreativeGrammie wrote on July 10th, 2013
  19. Baths are nice, but I’ve always felt guilty with “wasting” water. After developing a chronic pain syndrome (which persists even after dropping everything from my diet, though I feel infinitely better in many other ways), I now take baths every morning. I use Epsom salts, baking soda, sometimes hydrogen peroxide, and sometimes essential oils. It has changed my life. I can get out and do things consistently that I was not able to do before (playing with my dogs 2x daily, rock climbing 3x a week, enduring a full work day). I’m sure this is, in part, because of the physical benefits of the bath, but it is also in part because it has become this soothing step between pain and function. The physical AND mental leap between the two, for me, was too big to jump. I’m so lucky to have found that middle step that now gets me from point A to point B and back on track with life. I still struggle with the guilt, but I remind myself the benefit outweighs the cost. I’m a better contributor to society!!!

    Leslie wrote on July 10th, 2013
  20. A recipe for bathsalts in a Rosemary Gladstar herbal book called for borax — apparently a traditional bath salt ingredient for the water softening. I’d found it quite curious and shocking and did more research and found a fabulous essay detailing that a doctor used a diluted amount to treat osteoarthritis in Australia and after he tried to give publicity to the success was suddenly attacked….boron is one of those necessary trace elements. There were also dilutions used to fight systemic candida if I recall. Anyway, I toss some into my bath if I think of it but epsom salts are my fave.

    Oly wrote on August 9th, 2013
  21. Now I want to take a bath :/

    Nenad wrote on March 22nd, 2014

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