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In Hot Water

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.

 

Vinegar Baths to Prevent Infection

* What it does: OK, so it won't leave you smelling like a rose. But a vinegar bath can help makes the skin's pH level slightly more acidic so that certain bacteria won't grow, says Alan Blaugrund, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of New Mexico. For example, a vinegar bath can help curb persistent foot odor. And doctors often recommend vinegar baths as a preventive measure against possible vaginal infections when taking antibiotics, Blaugrund says. "If you're taking an antibiotic for bronchitis, for example, you're also killing off the good bacteria (in the vagina)," he explains. "A vinegar bath helps restore the slightly acidic mantle to the skin that allows the good bacteria to flourish."

* How to use it: Add about a pint of plain white vinegar to a warm bath. "Just be sure to shower off with plain water--no soap--after your bath so you don't smell like a salad," Blaugrund adds. And see your doctor if symptoms continue.

 

Pain-Relieving Sitz Bath

* What it does: A warm-water sitz bath--in which you sit in a sitz-bath seat that fits over the toilet rim--can help soothe and shrink hemorrhoids, according to John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., and Sheldon Margen, M.D., authors of The UC Berkeley Wellness Self-Care Handbook (Rebus, 1998). Warm sitz baths are also used to help cleanse and heal the outer vaginal area during the first few weeks following childbirth, especially if an episiotomy was performed. Sitz-bath seats are available at pharmacies.

* How to use it: Take a warm sitz bath two or three times daily to relieve hemorrhoids or to help cleanse, heal, and improve circulation in the outer vaginal area. While a sitz-bath seat is convenient for such frequent bathing of a specific area, a bathtub also can be used.

Kathy Sena is a medical writer and columnist.


What Not to Add To Your Bath

Not every addition to the bath is good for your skin. Here are some you may want to avoid:

* Bubble bath If your skin is blistered, burned, or cut, or if you tend to suffer from vaginal or urinary-tract infections, you'll want to skip bubble baths. That's because most contain detergent, which removes oil from the skin. (Picture those dish-detergent ads that show the greasy food being lifted from the pan. Then imagine the same thing happening on the surface of your skin.) Also, some ingredients added to bubble bath (such as sodium laurel sulfate) are added to create a nice foam. Unfortunately, these are the very same ingredients that irritate and dry sensitive skin.

* Scented products If you tend to have skin allergies or frequent vaginal irritation, you'll want to avoid scented bath salts and oils or other bath products that may be perfumed.

* Products containing alcohol Alcohol can be very drying to the skin, says dermatologist Marsha Gordon, M.D., co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Beautiful Skin (Alpha Books, 1998). She notes, however, that some ingredients, such as alcohol esters and cetyl alcohol, sound like alcohol but lack its irritating effects.


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