Sarah Villafranco, MD
Return to your senses with a DIY spa day in your own home. Sometimes it’s the need to unwind. Sometimes it’s a wet, chilly day that seeps into your bones and makes you cold right to your core. Sometimes it’s the way your co-worker snaps her gum. Sometimes it’s your kids, saying “Mama!” one too many times.
Whatever the reason, sinking into that tub is one of life’s great pleasures. If you value natural skincare, you’re going to choose non-toxic products that are excellent for your skin and easy on the environment.
Baths have been praised for centuries for their relaxing and rejuvenating qualities. Some natural hot springs have earned reputations for near-miraculous cures of various ailments, from wrinkles to rheumatism to skin disorders. While few of these claims have been studied scientifically, there is no doubt that regular, warm baths contribute positively to one’s mental and physical well-being. These benefits are probably the combined effect of physical immersion in warm water and both conscious and unconscious psychological factors, not the least of which is making the choice to dedicate a few moments to yourself in a given day. Conversely, a bath that is too hot can leave you feeling tired, dehydrated, and more prone to dizziness or low blood pressure when standing – so a nice, warm bath is always better than a hot one.
ANATOMY OF A BATH
There are many things you can put in your bathwater, but the one broad certainty is that natural bath products are just plain better, since you’re going to be immersed in it for a while. When you soak in warm water, the absorptive capacity of your skin increases substantially. Warm water causes the blood vessels near the surface of the skin to dilate, which is why people with lighter skin tones appear so pink after a warm bath. This dilation allows an increased exchange through the capillary walls – in short, higher absorption by an organ that already absorbs close to 60% of what we put on it at baseline. Another aspect to consider if you’re trying to be greener in the home is that when your bath water goes down the drain, it either heads to a treatment facility or to a septic field. With it flows the dirt from our bodies and the chemicals we have put into the bath with us. So here’s an easy solution to one environmental issue: don’t put chemicals in your bath water!
Epsom salt is a combination of magnesium and sulfate. Soaking in an Epsom salt bath allows magnesium, deficient in many diets, to be replenished in the skin and muscles. This is important in maintaining a balanced cellular environment. The likelihood of imbalance at a cellular level is increased after serious physical exertion, which is why athletes often reach for Epsom salt after their workouts. Sulfate acts to flush toxins and heavy metals from the skin. Both magnesium and sulfate are present in sea salt as well, in addition to other minerals and trace elements, depending on the body of water from which it was harvested. Some salts contain natural clay, which means even more skin-softening minerals. The reason these minerals in sea salt are so softening is that they attract water at a molecular level, plumping up the skin and softening callouses.
HERBS, FLOWERS, AND GRAINS
One plant that has gained a great reputation for skin benefits is the sturdy, soothing oat. Both the oat grain itself and the straw upon which it grows have softening properties when placed in warm water. In fact, oats have been studied extensively for conditions like eczema. There is a component of the oat grain that has an inhibitory effect on the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines (which trigger an inflammatory cascade) and histamine (which causes redness and itching). These avenanthramides are also strong antioxidants. The texture of bathwater changes substantially when oats are added – it becomes softer and more emollient.
Various herbs and flowers can be added to the bath, with benefits specific to each. Skin-softening compounds, vitamins, and essential oils in the plant material are released when immersed in warm water, allowing your skin to absorb them. There is also the added benefit of the natural aromatherapy that occurs when the botanicals release their oils. Just make sure you keep the botanicals in some sort of teabag (at Osmia, we use cotton muslin bags) or you’ll be dealing with a clogged drain!
Cleopatra made this type of bath famous, although she required a herd of lactating donkeys for her routine, which you probably don’t have – or want. Luckily, most kinds of milk will have a softening effect on your skin when added to your bathwater. Milk acids have an exfoliating effect. They help break down and slough away the top layer of dead skin cells, leaving behind soft, healthy skin. Whole milk and buttermilk have the highest fat content and will leave your skin feeling the most moisturized. Though a slight rinse is probably best to avoid a sticky feel from milk residue.
Natural plant oils are very softening to wet, post-bath or shower skin. Water has already hydrated the skin, and your warm skin is ready to accept the benefits of a well-chosen oil. That being said, using straight oil in the bath may not be the safest plan. Many a hip has been bruised or broken by slipping when getting out of an oily tub! Try sweet almond, apricot kernel, jojoba, or sesame (not toasted). Olive oil works as well but is best combined with another, more emollient oil.
Ahhh, the aromatherapy bath – perhaps the Queen of all Baths. Essential oils can be included in your bath preparation, but not without a word of caution. Undiluted essential oils can burn or irritate the skin if used incorrectly. Avoid too high a concentration or a poor choice of oils. The safest method is to pick your essential oils and add them (6-8 drops) to a tablespoon of one of the carrier oils mentioned here. Or you can add them to milk for a bath that would make Cleopatra herself green with envy! Here are the best oils for the bath: lavender, sandalwood, neroli, chamomile (Roman, rather than German), rose otto, ylang-ylang (watch for skin sensitivity), atlas or Virginia cedarwood, and geranium.
Whatever you choose – milk, oils, herbs, salt – make sure you protect your time in the tub. If it’s an escape, then ESCAPE! Lock the door, light a candle, put on some music, and don’t come back until you’re ready. If it’s just unwinding at the end of a day, use it as a transition to sleep if you can. Step out of the tub and get straight into your jammies and into bed.
Sarah Villafranco is the mother and maven behind Osmia, a luxury skincare line produced in Carbondale. MP’s favorite go-to bath essentials include Osmia’s Serenity Milk Bath, Tea Bath, or Recovery Salt Bath (made with French grey sea salt), followed by Osmia’s Sunset or Night Body Oils. If bliss comes from a store, this is it. LEARN MORE