We instinctively understand the healing powers of a hot bath. Since childhood, we’ve used bathtime as an opportunity to wash away our troubles: warm water eases aches and pains, steam alleviates cold and flu symptoms and, on a subconscious level, the floating sensation is comforting because it reminds us of being in the womb.
Crucially, taking a bath gives us an increasingly rare opportunity to take a break from our busy lives. Those precious few minutes of peace and solitude can be a sanctuary at the beginning or the end of a hectic day; it’s a bad idea to use a phone or tablet in the tub, so a daily soak makes us lie back and relax, get lost in thought, listen to music, or read a book.
As 2002 study by Neil Morris, a psychologist at Wolverhampton University, found that daily bathing improved psychological wellness. He said, “There was a significant drop in feelings of pessimism about the future and increases in hedonic tone, the internal feeling of pleasure.” Other research has shown that bathing reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and boosts serotonin, the feel-good hormone.
There’s also evidence that bathing can improve our physical health. A warm bath can help the immune system to work more effectively, improve sleep, and ease chronic or muscular pain. A 2016 Loughborough University study, led by Dr Steve Faulkner, found that a hot bath reduces blood sugar spikes after eating, benefitting people with type 2 diabetes. Another 2016 study at the University of Oregon, found that regular hot baths dilate blood vessels, improve circulation, and lower blood pressure — all of which are linked to cardiovascular health. “Many cultures swear by the benefits of a hot bath, but only recently has science begun to understand how passive heating [as opposed to working up a sweat in the gym] improves health,” explains Dr Faulkner.
The History of Bathing
The Ancient Romans famously recognised the medicinal benefits of regular bathing. Although public baths were a common feature of Ancient Greek towns, they usually featured only small bathtubs, foot bowls and hand basins. The Romans surpassed this by building elaborate public bathhouses, called thermae, in towns and cities throughout the empire. Romans believed that cleanliness was a vital aspect of health and fitness, and public bathing was a recreational activity— people would visit the public baths to relax, socialise, recuperate, and even do business.
Bathing also plays a key role in traditional Chinese medicine. The Ancient Chinese mixed medicine, flowers or herbs into hot water as a therapeutic treatment, and believed that bathing could help to restore depleted levels of Yin, the watery, cooling, calming energy.
By Victorian times, the ‘cold water cure’ (essentially, taking cold baths) was commonly prescribed as a painkiller, a treatment for insomnia, or to improve poor health. In 1849, Charles Darwin claimed that he was “absolutely cured” of vomiting and general malaise after taking the Malvern Water Cure, which involved daily scrubbing and soaking in the local spring water, believed to be the cleanest and clearest in England. Fast forward to 2017, and athletes advocate ice cold baths, which help to drain the lactic acid which builds up during intense exercise, aiding recovery and repair.
Other traditional bathing rituals, such as the Turkish bath, or hamam, Japanese onsens, and Russian banyas continue to inspire modern spa rituals. The hamam, which originated in Ottoman times, involves relaxing in a steam room before the body is massaged, scrubbed, and rinsed with cold water. Every Turkish town still has at least one neighbourhood hamam, and cities and tourist resorts are populated with prestige spa resorts which offer a luxury hamam experience. Russian banyas also focus on steam, followed by exfoliation, and a dip in a cold plunge pool — designed to improve circulation, boost the immune system, and relieve stress and fatigue. Onsons are still a popular feature of Japanese tourism; these public baths are traditionally outdoors and use naturally hot water from geothermically heated springs. The waters are believed to have healing powers due to their high mineral content — a good soak is said to heal aches and pains, skin conditions and diabetes.
Bathe yourself better
According to the experts, the optimal bath time lasts for 10-20 minutes. It’s best to aim for a temperature of 32-35C — which is warm, rather than hot — as this will open the pores and encourage sweating, which releases toxins. If the temperature gets hotter than 44C, you risk raising blood pressure, scalding the skin, and stripping away the skin’s protective acid mantle, leaving it feeling tight, dry and itchy.
The Danish concept of hygge (pronounced hoo-ga) has become a global obsession in recent years— and soaking in a hot bath is one of the easiest ways to incorporate the feel-good cosiness of hygge into your everyday life. Crumble half a bubble bar under a running tap, then lie back and relax under a blanket of bubbles; try The Comforter for its uplifting, fruity foam.
Tackle insomnia with the help of Twilight bath bomb, which has a soothing lavender fragrance and has been formulated to promote sleep. As it dissolves, the bath water changes from the colour of the setting sun to a shimmering deep purple that’s reminiscent of the night sky — while the tonka fragrance smells just like a malted bedtime drink.
Salt baths can aid relaxation and detoxification, and there’s evidence that they can relieve inflammation and sports injuries, as well as arthritis, back pain, skin conditions, and cold and flu.Big Blue bath bomb is made with sea salt and arame seaweed, which is rich in vitamins and minerals, including iodine, which helps to regulate the metabolism.
To soothe sore, dry skin, take inspiration from Cleopatra — according to legend, she bathed in asses’ milk — and try skin-softening Ceridwen’s Cauldron bath melt, which is made with whole oats and cocoa butter to create a creamy, oat milk soak.
So whether you want to be soothed, cleansed or invigorated, taking a few minutes out of your day for a relaxing bath could be just what the doctor ordered.