Body & Soul: Soothing Bath Treatments

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For pure pampering, nothing beats a long, hot soak in the tub. 

At the end of a long day, there’s nothing as therapeutic as drawing a hot bath, dimming the lights, and sinking in. Heat immediately surrounds and comforts aching muscles and joints; water and steam provide moisture to plump and soothe dry skin. Senses awaken. Tension evaporates. Those who opt out of this sensuous experience in favor of a quick hot shower are missing one of life’s truest and most comforting pleasures.

A long soak actually helps you become cleaner than a shower. As skin softens and pores open to the warmth, deep dirt is released. A short, cool shower after a bath will rinse away any impurities that cling to the skin. But devoted tub bathers take baths for all kinds of reasons besides cleanliness. Baths can awaken the mind or relax it; they can facilitate clearer, more focused thinking or allow our thoughts to drift into the clouds.

Some baths using natural additives are designed with physical healing in mind. For example, a person with eczema will find that a handful of oats thrown under the running water will help soothe itchy skin. A hot bath, accompanied with a muscle-warming oil rub, will do wonders for sore legs or an overworked back. A steamy bath with a few drops of eucalyptus oil or floating eucalyptus leaves may help relieve clogged sinuses.

Other baths are purely for pampering. Aromatic herbs and other natural ingredients can make bathing a sensuous treat. Below are a few easy recipes for nighttime pampering baths.

Milk baths

The proteins in milk help skin feel smooth and silky. Bathing in donkey’s milk was one of Cleopatra’s favorite beauty secrets. You can modernize her practice by pouring 1/4 to 1/2 pint of fresh milk into your warm bath. A few tablespoons of powdered milk will give the same effect. For an added relaxation benefit, steep herbs such as lavender, chamomile, or fresh rose petals in cold milk for several hours; strain and then pour into the bathtub.

Honey baths

Honey baths soothe, smooth, heal, and nourish the skin. Honey is slightly antiseptic, so it’s a good cleansing agent as well. Try adding 1/4 to 1/2 cup of honey to a hot bath; the heat will disperse it into the water. Another way to use this sweet healer is to mix one part honey with three parts unscented, vegetable soap-based bath gel. (I suggest using Dr. Bronner’s Liquid Castille Soap.) Add this blend a few tablespoons at a time for a bubble-bath effect. If you don’t like bubbles, you can use small amounts on a washrag.

Another make-ahead, skin-nourishing, honey-bath recipe involves making “bath candies”–a blend of healing bath ingredients formed into pretty shapes using a candy mold. To make bath candies, see the recipe on page 66.

Fruit baths

Pleasing scents and astringent qualities make fruit a refreshing bath additive. Julius Caesar’s wife is credited with creating the first fruit bath using twenty pounds of strawberries and twenty pounds of crushed raspberries. While that recipe might not fit very well in the bathtubs of today, (not to mention staining both tub and skin), berries are still a fun choice for fruit baths. Use about a cup of crushed or pureed berries, poured directly under the hot running water. Be sure to soak for at least ten to fifteen minutes to get the full astringent effect. Apricots and papayas are also popular fruit baths.

Baths from the sea

Try bringing a bit of the ocean to your bathtub! Sea salts containing salt and seaweed extract are particularly helpful in relaxing tired muscles and joints at the end of a long day. Salts also contain a wide variety of trace minerals. Some experts believe these minerals dilate the pores and relax the muscles, allowing the absorption of soluble vitamins into the skin. Use approximately 1/4 cup of sea salts per bath. For an extra treat, add 3 to 5 drops of a favorite essential oil to the sea salts before adding to the bath. To mix salts and essential oils ahead of time in larger quantities, use 20 drops or less per cup of salts. Lavender or marjoram essential oils are good ones to use if you’re worried about insomnia.

Bathing with seaweed is another way to experience the benefits of the sea at home. Dulse and kombu, two types of dried seaweed, are available at health-food stores and specialty markets and are wonderful skin softeners. Add two parts dulse flakes to one part sea salts for best results. If you use kombu, soak the seaweed in a separate bowl of warm tap water (just enough to cover) before crawling into the tub. Then, apply the slippery gel from the kombu to your skin. You’ll feel its skin-softening effect right away.

Essential oils and oil-rich baths

Essential oils are pure and luxurious; they transform a bath into an aromatic escape. The oils, which are distilled and extracted from various parts of plants, can also aid in healing. The therapeutic benefits of essential oils in the bathtub are twofold. First, their fragrance is inhaled and enjoyed through the olfactory system. Secondly, the oils are absorbed through the skin into the circulatory system. Essential oils have been used medicinally for centuries. Some people prefer to add the oils neat and undiluted to the bath water. But you must use them sparingly; essential oils are powerful and can be irritating. Use only 3 to 5 drops per bath. Add the oils after you’ve filled the bath and just before you enter it, because the oils tend to evaporate quickly. Make sure to agitate the water well before getting in.

Better still, consider using a carrier oil (such as almond, sesame, or avocado) or soap base for bath essential oils. Add no more than 10 drops of essential oil per fluid ounce of carrier oil. Stress-relieving essential oils include vanilla, orange, lavender, sandalwood, bergamot, cedarwood, chamomile, frankincense, lavender, marjoram, neroli, rose, and ylang ylang.

Adding essential oils to vegetable and nut-based carrier oils is one of the best ways to enjoy them while giving your skin a deep, moisturizing treatment. A wonderful, nourishing skin oil can be made from equal parts of avocado oil, apricot kernel oil, and sweet almond oil. Add 10 drops of essential oil per ounce of blended skin oil if you wish–or leave the skin oil unscented. It will float on the top of the water and cling to your skin, softening it long after the bath is through.

Herb tea bath

A bath using fresh or dried herbs can be every bit as heavenly as a cup of hot herbal tea. In fact, many people like to brew a whole pot of tea and, saving themselves a cup to sip while they soak, pour the rest into the bath. If that’s too much work (and if you have a reasonably fine screen on your bathtub drain) just throw a handful of herbs into a full, warm tub and let it steep for a few minutes before crawling in.

If you want a more tidy method or have delicate plumbing in your home, make herbal bath-tea bags to place under the spigot as the bath is being drawn. Tie up a large handful of some fresh or dried herbs, such as chamomile, rosemary, or mint in a piece of muslin and fasten it just under the running water.

The bubble bath

No matter what our age, suds never cease to please. Unfortunately, most commercial bubble baths get their suds from chemicals that can irritate the skin and urinary tract. Happily, there exist some castille soap-based bath products available in health-conscious stores. While the bubbles may not last quite as long, they are still wonderfully rich and fun. Purists might enjoy making their own “bubble bath” concoctions using soap flakes and spring water. Grate a few bars of your favorite vegetable-based soap until you have about 8 ounces of them. Melt the soap in two cups of spring water. Bottle and add essential oils, if desired, at ten drops per finished fluid ounce of liquid. Add about 1/8 cup to each bath. Shake the bottle vigorously before each use, as some separation may occur.

Most importantly, add a rubber ducky or a plastic boat to your bath. Swish the water back and forth to make big waves. Baths are a great place to get in touch with your inner child!

Nancy Nottingham is a freelance writer living in Bozeman, Montana. An herb and aromatherapy enthusiast, she gets her best ideas in the tub.

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