Soothing Soaks
New takes on the old bubble bath

By Alonna Friedman

Bathing today is not just about slippery suds and boundless bubbles—it’s about healing the body and soul through careful manipulation of water temperature and aromas. In short, a bath can be therapy. “Water is one of the most miraculous substances on Earth,” says Christina Woolard, ND, naturopathic clinic director at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. “When used in a bath it can be detoxifying, purifying, relaxing, regenerative, and appropriate for any age and to ease almost any disorder.”

Most therapeutic baths use aromatic oils or herbs to enhance the experience and healing effects. The water helps essential oils penetrate the skin, and the steam of a hot bath carries the oils through the respiratory system. Scents trigger pleasant memories and create new ones. “Fragrances affect the oldest areas of our brains,” says Woolard. “It makes them the perfect choice for general relaxation and revitalization.”

Before The Bubbles
The use of baths for healing and general health can be traced back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, where bathing was a social experience and often a religious practice, too. Steam baths were popular in Russia and Finland and also with Native Americans and Mayans in North and Central America. The concept of hydrotherapy, the use of water to maintain or promote health, started in 19th century Germany when Vincent Priessnitz and Father Sebastian Kneipp established independent hydrotherapy centers. John Harvey Kellogg, MD, promoted the concept in the United States when he published his 1902 book Rational Hydrotherapy to document his research on the therapeutic effects of water. Perhaps one of the few times in history when bathing was not considered a positive endeavor was during the Middle Ages, when people thought that keeping a thin layer of oil and dirt on the body provided protection from disease. Although baths were often group or public activities in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, Americans turned the ritual into a private event. “Tubs were first introduced into U.S. homes in the late 1800s, when people started to bring watering troughs from the farm inside for cleaning themselves,” says Gary Uhl, design director at American Standard, a leading producer of plumbing products. “From there, the basic white enameled bathtub was developed, but it was still used strictly for sanitary purposes.” When 1930s-era movies began depicting women taking leisurely bubble baths, the bath became a popular method of pampering.

The number of soaking tubs installed in homes has been on a steady rise for the past three years, says Arlene Matthews, an expert in consumer psychology and consultant to American Standard on consumer preferences for bath furnishings. To accommodate the public demand for watery retreats, the depth of tubs has increased from 14 inches to 20 inches, and some tubs now offer lumbar support with spaces to rest your head and arms, as well as deck space for candles, lotions, and scrubs.

The Hot And Cold Of It
Water temperature affects blood circulation, thereby creating a healing soak. “Circulation is key to healing because cellular tissue will be healthy only with a regular supply of nutrients, as well as the removal of toxic waste products,” says Woolard. “A hot bath causes blood vessels to dilate, become engorged with blood, and move stagnant blood out to the surface [of the skin] and through the extremities.” In other words, a hot bath opens up skin pores, enabling you to eliminate toxins through sweat glands. Also, heat allows you to absorb more oxygen and excrete more carbon dioxide. The end result of a hot bath can be relaxing, of course, and is best taken when you’re looking to soothe the body. “It’s definitely the choice for an evening, preslumber bath,” says Woolard.

Use a cool or cold bath, on the other hand, to invigorate and wake up the body. It’s especially good as a morning pick-me-up. This type of bath constricts the blood vessels, pushing blood to the body’s core to boost circulation. A major difference, says Woolard, is that a hot bath increases dilation and relaxation the longer you soak in it, but a cold bath is most stimulating when kept short, around one to three minutes. Why? The body’s response to cold is a three-step process: constriction from exposure, then dilation as the body tries to overcome the threat of cold, and finally constriction again if the cold is prolonged. By encouraging the first two responses, you can boost circulation without the ill effects of prolonged constriction, such as shivering and goose bumps.

Heaven Scent
The most popular bath today is one that involves aromatherapy with fresh herbs or essential oils derived from herbs, flowers, and other plants. It can be used for general relaxation or to treat a variety of ills from rashes to the flu. “It’s like being in a big cup of tea,” says Shatoiya De La Tour, herbalist and author of Earth Mother Herbal (Fair Winds Press, 2002), “and when immersed in water, our skin is open to receiving the healing properties.”

Herbs: When using herbs in a bath, De La Tour suggests buying them fresh. Hold the stems of a small bundle of herbs (as much as you can hold between your thumb and first finger), and secure them with a rubber band. Then hang the bundle from the tub’s faucet. Or, place loose herb leaves in a small muslin bag (a handkerchief, tea towel, or cotton washcloth will also do) and hang from the faucet. Let the hot water run over the “tea bag” as the tub fills. You may also place the bag directly into the tub and let it steep in a few inches of water for ten minutes before filling the bathtub completely. Or use the bag as a scrub directly on the skin or as a compress for your forehead. If you’re using dried herbs, use one-half cup of leaves to fill the cloth bag. For help deciding which herbs to use for a particular purpose, see “Healing Herbs and Oils for Bath Time.”

After a soak, De La Tour suggests taking a quick lukewarm or cold shower to seal the pores and keep in the herb’s healing properties. This should then be followed with the application of a moisturizing body lotion. Another post-bath trick: Take a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar, mix it with a quart of water, and pour it over your body. “It balances the pH level of the skin and prevents it from being susceptible to bacteria,” she says.

Oils: Essential oils are what give herbs, spices, fruits, and flowers their specific scents. They’re highly concentrated, so they must be used with caution. “You need only a hint of the scent,” says Margo Valentine Lazzara, aromatherapist and author of The Healing Aromatherapy Bath (Storey Books, 1999). “Using too much can cause the skin to become irritated.”

There is no one formula for all oils because each has its own parameters for use. For example, one drop of peppermint in a bath is enough, but lavender usually requires up to six drops. For specifics, read labels carefully or consult a certified aromatherapist. One method to ensure you’re not applying too much is to use an emulsifier. “Add the drops to a small bowl of warm water with 1 to 2 tablespoons of salt mixed in, and then add the mixture to the bath,” says Woolard. “This will prevent the oil from concentrating in one spot on the skin.” Try to soak for at least 30 minutes, but even a 15-minute bath offers therapeutic benefits. Essential oils usually stay fresh for six months, says Lazzara. You can extend their shelf life up to a year by storing them in a cool place in cobalt blue or brown bottles, to prevent decomposition from light.

Time To Turn It On
If you’ve been neglecting your bathtub, it might be time to pull back the shower curtain and heed the call of the water—with or without scents. You can manipulate this amazing substance to provide the sanctuary you need, whether it’s soothing a headache or easing an itch. All it takes is a turn of the faucet.

Alonna Friedman is a freelance writer living in New York City. Although she hasn’t been able to enjoy a bath in years due to cramped Manhattan bathrooms, if she did take a bath, it would be scented with lavender oil.