The Sensual Bathroom: Create a Healthy, Relaxing Retreat

You don’t have to spend a fortune to create a delicious, decadent room that goes way beyond bathing.

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Simplicity equals elegance in this bathroom in the home of Boulder, Colorado, architects David and Betzi Barrett.

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Sometimes, in the words of William Wordsworth, “the world is too much with us.” There’s so much happening, so much to do. How do we stay sane?

Take a bath.

“Frequently people look at the bathroom as a refuge or day spa for themselves,” says Jules Lambert, a kitchen and bath designer for DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen in Bellingham, Washington. “It’s a place they can escape from the kids, the television, the phone, their work.”

Ask people what their ideal bathroom would look like, and the details are delicious. “It would have a stone tile floor and a pebble composite-type sink with lots of natural light,” says Heather Pike, owner of PikeWorks Design Studios in Walls, Mississippi. “Balance that with a deeply textured rug for crawling out of the big tub, thick Egyptian cotton towels and, of course, candles. Lots of candles. And some fantastic smell, like rosemary, and a tray of gorgeous perfumes and soaps that I would use for only me. And lace somewhere.”

Sounds yummy, doesn’t it?

The biggest difference between the closet-size bath and the Cleopatra-like opulence is cost—to your pocketbook and to the environment. A full bathroom remodel might range anywhere from $3,000 to more than $20,000, depending on architectural changes, finish materials, and fixtures, and it will involve a hefty amount of natural resources and energy. But with some minor, earth-friendly modifications that introduce inviting colors, textures, and the right accessories, even a basic bathroom can become a personal sanctuary, a sensual space that nurtures the body and soothes the spirit. The key to a sensual bathroom is to remember all the senses.

Make it warm

“Warmth, warmth, more warmth!” wrote Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. “It is not the night that kills but the frost.” While a chilly bathroom probably won’t kill you, it doesn’t make for a pleasant bath.

“You’re getting undressed in this room; you want it to be warm,” says Lambert, who frowns on forced-air heating because it “increases the wind chill. Plus, forced-air systems that turn off and on can’t keep surfaces warm.” Ideally, he says, the bathroom should have radiant heat. “That will keep everything in the room at a constant temperature, and the room’s heat will radiate back into your body.”

Towel warmers are another way to achieve radiant heat in the bathroom. Some models, such as Runtal’s Omnipanel, will work as the sole heat source in a bathroom up to 110 square feet. Larger rooms can be heated with two towel-warming units. Cost ranges from $600 to $1,000, depending on size.

Studies show that color can profoundly affect one’s mood, making it an important consideration in any interior design. For a soothing bathroom, consider the color spectrum’s cooler end. Blues generate feelings of tranquility. Greens are associated with calm and healing. Both colors can wax warmer by adding yellow or red undertones.

For a warm atmosphere, yellow, considered highly stimulating, can evoke cheerfulness. Red, suggestive of danger and excitement, arouses some and disturbs others. Ironically, diluted red (pink) is so tranquilizing that it’s now used in some prisons to suppress hostile behavior.

Catherine Hobbs, owner of Studio Frank in Telluride, Colorado, has a conservative approach. “From the designer position, it is important to create a grounded, sustainable background in the space,” she says. “If someone wants a sensual bathroom, I see creams, beiges, greens—colors that create a lighter, brighter feel—bright, but not harsh. For instance, off-white is much more soothing than white-white.”

Connect with the earth

Hobbs prefers natural materials in the bathroom. “We have an attachment to our past on this earth,” she says, “so when we walk into a room that uses materials such as limestone and wood, we get a feeling that is warm and relaxing, even if we don’t know why. In a sensual bathroom, I don’t see anything too glitzy or polished—more things that are raw—things that bring us back to home and to the earth.”

Wood adds warmth, rich color, and texture that can balance the coolness of stone, glass, and metal. Cedar and teak are decay-resistant and better suited to wet areas, but cabinets, wall finishes, even floors can be made from almost any wood if properly protected. As with paints, choose low-VOC finishes.

“And I’d like to see fabric,” Hobbs says. “Raw linen or raw hemp would make nice sheer window coverings. They’d also work well to cover a cushion on a bench or chair if you have room—a comfortable piece lets you really relax and spend some time there.”

The nose knows

One of the least expensive senses to satisfy is the sense of smell. “You can use essential oils to uplift and de-stress,” says Bobbi Lacroix, manager of product development at Green Valley Aromatherapy in Courtenay, BC, Canada. “Geranium is an antidepressant, great for picking you up as opposed to stimulating you. Lavender is calming and soothing. Rose, jasmine, and neroli [from the flower of the bitter orange tree] are aphrodisiacs.”

To use essential oils, add four to six drops to running bath water. You can also use a diffuser—warmed either by electricity or tea light candles. “I like using the tea lights so I have the added benefit of the candles—and candles are always a nice part of a sensuous bathroom,” Lacroix says. Select beeswax or soybean candles to keep the air chemical-free.

For soothing sore muscles, add essential oils to Epsom salts—five or six drops of oil to a half cup of salts—then add to running water. Or for postbath aromatherapy, add one drop of essential oil to one milliliter of sweet almond oil or sunflower oil. Beware of using petrochemical-based oils, such as baby oil, which clog your pores.

As an alternative to oils, fresh flowers in the bath provide both scent and beauty. Pike suggests gardenias—soft and velvety white. “Hyacinth is a good water plant, too,” she says, “with an intoxicating scent. And magnolias, if you can get them, have a rich lemony smell.”

Music in the fresh air

To help you breathe deeply, you’ll need ventilation to remove stale air and moisture. An operable window is ideal—plus it adds natural light to the room. For windowless rooms, Lambert recommends Panasonic Whisper Lite bathroom fans. “They have low sone ratings—from 0.5 to 1.5. That means very quiet.” Cost is around $300.

Either revel in the near-silence or relax to music. “Music in the bathroom really sets the tone,” Lambert says. “I recommend people run some good wire from their stereo system into the bathroom and install a discreet speaker like the Stealth Speaker System from Dimensional Communications. You can’t even see it—it looks like drywall.”

The secret

High-end bathrooms might also boast spa-like accessories such as jetted tubs, steam showers, and saunas. But the secret to enjoying a sensual bathroom is to make the time to be in it. So lock the door. Draw the bath. Take a deep breath. Now steep.

Flat Towels?

Ever wonder why your organic cotton towels seem to lack the fluffiness you find in those chemical-laden ones? Because cotton is not naturally absorbent, harsh chemicals are often used to add bounce during the finishing process. You can get that feel in untreated organic cotton towels by filling your washing machine with hot water, then adding a detergent that contains washing soda (sodium carbonate) and 1 cup of cider or white vinegar. Soak your towels for one hour, then wash in the same water. Voila! All the fluff— none of the chemicals.