In Hot Water

Need a break for mind and body? Try these simple remedies that draw on the healing power of an old-fashioned soak.

Holidays pushing your stress level to the max? Take a bath. A half-hour in the tub can relieve myriad ills. A bath's warmth and gentle water pressure prompt your blood vessels to dilate slightly, which in turn encourages a slower heart rate and relieves muscle tension.

And if you add one or more of the ingredients described here, you can turn your bath into a pool of healing waters, too--something to be truly thankful for this month.


How Hot?

A bath that feels warm to the touch is most therapeutic--and least drying--says Jerome D. Fallon, M.D., a dermatologist in private practice. That's because an overly hot bath is drying to the skin. Oil moves faster when it's heated, and a very hot bath can quickly dissolve the skin's protective oil layer.

Avoid cold baths. It's the warmth from the water that relieves aching muscles and aids relaxation. The ideal bath temperature is between 95 and 104 degrees.


How Long?

If you have less than ten minutes to spare, you might as well take a shower. The ideal bath is twenty to thirty minutes long. Any more than that and you're just drying out your skin. A twenty-minute bath will work well with any of the ingredients described below.

Also, if you stay in longer, you'll be tempted to add more hot water, which will dilute the effects of anything you've added to your bath.

If you just can't resist the lure of a good book and an entire hour of blissful soaking, be sure to use lotion on your skin afterward to help your skin retain and replenish its natural oil. And no matter how long you bathe, do dry off quickly. Dripping dry accelerates the loss of water from your skin. Adding certain ingredients to your bath can provide specific therapeutic benefits. Among them:


Oatmeal to Relieve Itch

* What it does: Colloidal oatmeal (finely milled oatmeal made from the inner part of the oat) relieves itchy skin caused by dryness, poison ivy, sunburn, eczema, psoriasis--even chicken pox. This form of oatmeal, which resembles fine face powder, is specifically created for the bath and disperses well in warm water.

* How to do it: Colloidal oatmeal comes prepackaged in individual packets. Use one packet per bath. By adding rolled oats to a sock and holding it under warm running water, you can reap some of the same benefits. Just don't dump rolled oats directly into the bath: You could be in for a hefty plumbing bill.


A Saline Solution for Infection

* What it does: You don't have to cry a river of tears to get quick relief from yeast-infection symptoms, says Gideon G. Panter, M.D., a staff gynecologist at New York Hospital Cornell Medical Center. Panter recommends saline baths to his patients who have yeast infections. "A yeast infection is a disorder of the ecology of the vagina," he explains. The saline solution helps return the vagina to a normal, healthy state.

* How to do it: Just add 1/2 cup table salt to a warm bath. "Relief is instantaneous," says Panter, who suggests using a saline bath for two to three nights in a row at the first sign of symptoms. He advises patients to use a finger to gently allow the water to enter the vaginal opening. If symptoms persist, see your doctor.


Bath Salts to Battle Bloat

* What they do: Bath salts--including Epsom salts (hydrated magnesium sulfate) and sea salt--work primarily by drawing fluid from your system and reducing swelling. Soaking in a warm tub with bath salts can help relieve PMS-related bloating, too.

* How to use them: If you're using straight Epsom salts from your local pharmacy, you'll need about two cups per bath to get the maximum benefit. If you're using fancier bath salts blended with other ingredients, you'll usually get the best results by adding slightly more than the amount specified on the label.


Soothing Cornstarch

* What it does: Much like colloidal oatmeal, cornstarch can be used in the bath to soothe itchy skin caused by poison ivy, sunburn, eczema, psoriasis--or just old-fashioned dryness.

* How to use it: Add a cup of cornstarch to the bath, pouring it directly into the stream of warm running water to help it dissolve.

Herbal Tea to Steep Away Stress

* What it does: You can increase your relaxation response by adding great-smelling herbs and teas to your bath water, according to Harold Bloomfield, M.D., author of *Healing Anxiety With Herbs (HarperCollins, 1998). Bloomfield favors submersion to neck level at a temperature of about 100 degrees and suggests avoiding potentially irritating herbs such as thyme, sage, and oregano, in favor of traditionally relaxing additives such as lavender and chamomile.

* How to do it: To minimize cleanup, try placing three to five of your favorite herbal tea bags under the faucet as you run your bath. Or create your own bath sachet by placing half a cup of herbs in a muslin bag or cheesecloth and letting the herbs steep in the water. A third--and even easier--option is lying back and luxuriating in one of the many prepackaged herbal-tea infusions now on the market, such as Harney & Sons' Soothing Blend Bath Infusion, Tub Tea, or Bulgari's Tea Bags for the Bath.

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