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