Europeans have long known the true origin of the word spa: sanitas per agua or “health through water.” Before facials and massages became synonymous with spas, bathing was the premier avenue to personal wellness and whole-body detoxification. The citizens of ancient Rome considered a daily bath their civic duty to maintain public health. Since the late 1700s and through to the present day, German physicians have prescribed to stressed patients a kur (cure or treatment) consisting of one bath a day for 10 to 20 days. And since the end of the 19th century, the French have indulged in thalassotherapy baths, which harness the antiaging powers of ocean water and seaweed.
In America, we’ve just begun to catch on to the skin-saving benefits of relaxing baths, says Andria Roth, lead aesthetician at Oasis Spa in Woodinville, Washington. Recent studies have directly correlated annoying skin problems like acne and eczema with excessive stress—the body releases panic hormones that weaken the skin’s defense against breakouts, dry patches, and redness. Thankfully, the ability to reduce that burden on your skin is as close as your bathroom door.
“Our high levels of stress could be mitigated if we just bathed every night,” says Ann Brown, director of Spa Shiki in Lake Ozark, Missouri. “It’s easy to create a before-bed ritual with the same music and same scent to signal our body that it’s time to wind down.”
Start your at-home treatment by filling the tub with warm water—about 90 degrees if you want an energizing bath or 105 degrees for a relaxing soak. While the tub’s filling, dry brush your skin (toward your heart) for at least five minutes, but shoot for 10 if your skin’s not too sensitive. “Body brushing exfoliates the skin and gets the blood right up to the surface,” says Brown. “It not only opens up the pores to allow your bath ingredients to penetrate better, but it also helps your skin keep its tone.”
Finally, customize the beautifying power of your bath with one or more of the following herbs and oils, and give your skin the relaxation and support it’s craving.
For stressed, sensitive skin, add 20 drops of French lavender essential oil or two chamomile tea bags to your water to reduce redness and calm the tension that can lead to breakouts.
For cellulite and puffy skin, take a mineral salts or seaweed bath. Both the salts and the seaweed have negative ions that attract the positively charged ions in skin. Like a magnet, the skin pulls in minerals and nutrients, eventually drawing them all the way into the bloodstream, where they help carry toxins away from the body through the lymph system. Keeping the temperature of the water a little cooler at 94 to 97 degrees will help you to reduce the look of cellulite by stimulating your body to dispose of cellular waste, says Brown.
For dry, flaky skin, give skin a moisture boost by adding a few drops of sweet almond oil infused with carrot seed or rose essential oil (both high in nourishing vitamins C and E) to your tub, or massage the mixture all over your body before soaking. Using evening primrose oil, which is high in the essential fatty acid linoleic acid, in place of almond oil can be especially helpful for soothing eczema and psoriasis.
For tired or dull skin, drop rosemary or peppermint essential oil to the water. The mentone and menthyl esters in peppermint provide a cooling sensation to the skin that will amp up circulation at the surface of the skin and perk up its appearance. Rosemary oil stimulates hair follicles (making it a natural dandruff fighter) and also helps keep skin toned when added to a bath.
To reap the benefits of any of these fragrant scents, always use pure essential oils rather than synthetic fragrances. “The brain’s limbic system can’t recognize synthetic scents, so you won’t get any benefits if you use them,” advises Brown. Natural scents, on the other hand, have been scientifically proven to affect brain waves associated with relaxation or alertness depending on the fragrance used.
No matter what kind of bath you prepare, you need to spend at least 20 minutes soaking in the water to allow your skin to absorb the healthful ingredients. Though it may seem a bit extravagant, taking that much time to calm down, meditate, and breathe can only help improve the appearance of your skin by helping your whole body—and mind—feel better. “Bathing isn’t just a luxury,” adds Roth. “It’s a necessity.”
No Time for a Bath?
Even showers can deliver benefits to dull skin when done right, says Ann Brown, director of Spa Shiki at Lake Ozark, Missouri. “The trick is to create a thermal exchange in the body by switching between hot and cold water,” she says. “Shower under 100-degree water for five minutes, and then switch to 40 degree water for eight to 10 seconds.” Repeat two or three times, always ending with cold water.
The rapid temperature drop puts the body on high alert, and blood rushes to the surface of the skin. “This increased energy speeds up the detoxification process,” adds Brown. After the goosebumps subside, you’ll find brighter, healthier looking skin.