When I take a stress-relief bath, I always feel so much better after. But am I simply experiencing a placebo effect or if the relief I feel is real?
A stress relief bath reduces tension and anxiety. Scientific research proves these calming effects are real and not a placebo. Ingredients in a stress relief bath include Epsom salts with essential oils and spices. Each of the ingredients has a soothing effect on the nervous system.
What Is a Stress Relief Bath?
If you have a nightly stress-relieving bath, you are training your brain—and your whole body—to get out of “fight or flight” mode, which is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system.
A hot bath, though, moves the parasympathetic nervous system to take control of our brains. This is the system that is in charge of all the “subconscious” bodily functions like breathing and digesting. When the parasympathetic nervous system is in control, we move toward rest and relaxation.
Why a Hot Bath Makes You Go “Ahh!”
Researcher Bruce Becker from the University of Washington has studied why a hot bath makes us go “Ahh!” He finds that the reason is that when in warm water, our parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems come into balance. According to Becker, when our nervous system is balanced, we are at a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, our circulation improves as well as our cognitive function.
The way a hot bath balances us out is similar to how meditation and exercise can affect our brains. For much more about hot baths and our moods, read Can a Hot Bath Boost Mental Health? Absolutely!
Not bad for a soak in the tub!
Hot Bath vs Stress Relief Bath
According to Becker’s research, any warm water bath relieves stress. But when serious Bathtubbers talk about a “stress relief bath,” we are referring to adding enhancements to a hot bath.
A stress relief bath has the following basic ingredients:
- Epsom Salts, 2 cups
- Essential Oils, 20 drops
- Carrier Oils, 4 Tbsp
- Other Calming Ingredients, 2 tablespoons
The Ingredients in a Stress Relief Bath
Let’s take a look at each of these ingredients and the role it plays in reducing stress and anxiety.
Epsom salts are also called magnesium sulfate. Completely different from table salt, Epsom salts are a chemical compound made up of magnesium, sulfur and oxygen. When dissolved in water, the Epsom salts release magnesium that can possibly be absorbed by the skin.
Epsom salts were discovered at a spring in England in the 17th century. Cowherds would notice that when their animals waded into the spring, their wounds would quickly heal. People started coming from across England to the town of Epsom to heal their own wounds.
Magnesium and Pain
Today, Epsom salt is manufactured in labs across the globe. There is great demand for it. People who suffer from chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia and arthritis swear that routinely soaking in Epsom salt reduces their symptoms.
And it makes sense because magnesium is key to 300 different functions in our body. In fact, magnesium helps with the immune system and the cardiovascular system. Symptoms of magnesium deficiency include increased muscle pain and nerve pain.
Can We Absorb Magnesium Through Our Skin?
The question, though, is can we really absorb magnesium through our skin? Or does it need to be ingested orally? Despite a huge market for Epsom salts and medical practitioners and patients who swear by it, currently, little evidence supports that the magnesium from Epsom salts can make its way to the bloodstream from the bath.
So more research needs to be done. But knowing the overwhelming anecdotal evidence, along with the fact that it certainly can’t hurt, makes it an excellent base ingredient for a stress-reducing bath.
There are many companies that sell Epsom salts. You can get it at most grocery stores and pharmacies. Many Epsom salt brands combine aromatherapy essential oils with the salts, too.
So let’s take a look at the impact of various essential oils on stress and anxiety, to determine which ones work best to induce a state of calm.
You can use one essential oil in your stress relief bath, or you can combine a few different ones. Essential oils come directly from plants and contain the essence of the plant’s healing properties, as well as its aroma. (If you’re pregnant, you should consult a doctor before using any essential oils.)
The scientific research is clear that aromatherapy can reduce stress, relieve anxiety and increase feelings of peace.
My favorite essential oil collection is Natrogix from Nirvana. For about $35, you get 18 bottles of 100% pure essential oil. Since you only use a tiny amount at a time, they last forever. I use mine in my stress relief baths, as well as when I make DIY bath bombs and soaps. I got this set a year ago and I still haven’t run out of any of the oils. Click here to order the set on Amazon.
In any case, essential oils can irritate the skin, so you want to put a few drops on the inside of your wrist before you add any to your stress relief bath. If you don’t have an adverse reaction like itching or skin irritation, then you’re good to go. (Certain oils like Cinnamon Leaf extract are known to more commonly cause an adverse reaction.)
Note: Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not use essential oils unless they have the explicit permission of their doctor. If granted, try oils specifically blending for you. Neal’s Yard Remedies makes Mother’s Bath Oil, a blend of ylang-ylang, lavender and bergamot to nourish your skin.
5 Stress-Reducing Essential Oils for the Bath
So what are the oils that you should consider putting in your stress relief bath? There are several to consider:
1. Lavender Oil
There are many studies that document the calming effect of lavender. Not only can it decrease anxiety, but also it can also relieve menstrual cramps.
2. Ylang Ylang Oil
The ylang ylang tree is native to the Philippines and Indonesia. It produces large yellow drooping flowers. The essential oil from these flowers reduces stress and anxiety. Studies also show that ylang ylang essential oil can reduce blood pressure and heart rate, relaxing you for sleep.
3. Sweet Basil Oil
One study looked at this essential oil’s impact on mice. Researchers found that the oil had a statistically significant calming effect on the mice without causing the sedation associated with some anti-anxiety medications.
4. Frankincense Oil
This essential oil has been considered holy since the time of the Egyptians. It’s incorporated into many religious ceremonies and confers those who inhale it with a sense of calm.
5. Bergamot Oil
This essential oil is made from the skin of a citrus fruit that’s native to China. Bergamot essential oil is used by Chinese medicine doctors to fight stress and depression, create a sense of serenity and bring the body into harmony.
Use 20 Drops in Your Stress Relief Bath
You can find all of these essential oils in the kit from Natrogix, along with many others that have different therapeutic effects like increasing energy or clearing skin.
Use one or a combination of these essential oils in your stress relief bath. You probably won’t want more than a total of 20 drops in your tub, though, because the oil could irritate your skin. Too much essential oil in your bath water can make the bottom of your tub slippery.
When using essential oils in the bath, be sure to mix them in well with the water. (Oil and water don’t mix, of course, but you don’t want large clumps, so disperse the oil by running your hand back and forth through the water.)
Anyone with sensitive skin should patch test essential oils first, to be sure they don’t have an adverse reaction such as a rash. Also, if you are pregnant or breastfeeding you will not want to use essential oils in the tub without speaking to your doctor first. And the same goes for anyone with open sores, irritated skin or with a chronic illness.
Also, be careful while getting in and out of the tub, so that you don’t slip in case some of the oil pooled on the bottom of the tub.
Always Dilute Essential Oils in Carrier Oils
While both essential oils and carrier oils are made from plants, seeds or flowers, essential oils are much more potent. They contain the scent and healing property of the plant. By dissolving the essential oils in carrier oils, you’ll help disperse them throughout your bathwater. This also helps prevent the essential oils from irritating your skin. As a general rule, adults can use 15 drops of essential oil diluted in 2 Tbsp carrier oil. However, the true dilution ratio will depend on the particular strength of each essential oil. Read more about diluting essential oils with carrier oils.
4 Kitchen Ingredients for a Stress-Relieving Bath
There are some spices and other kitchen ingredients that can also enhance a stress-reducing bath. Try adding two tablespoons of any or all of these to your bath.
Chamomile has long been used in tea to help the drinker wind down and get ready for sleep. If you have chamomile tea, throw a few bags in the tub. Better yet, put them right under the spout as your tub fills to help diffuse the aroma.
This bright red spice can increase circulation by opening up arteries and veins. When blood flows more easily through our bodies, we feel calmer. (One word of caution: If you use more than 2 Tablespoons of paprika and you soak more than 20 minutes, you may need to scrub the tub with baking soda and warm water when you’re done to prevent staining.)
Did you know that the same vanilla you put in your cookies can reduce symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder? It’s true! Try some in your stress relief bath and feel the calm.
4. Orange Peel
Use a knife to cut ribbons of orange peel. Then drop them into the tub. The scent of orange is naturally stress reducing. Plus, the peels floating on the surface of your bath are quite beautiful to look at.
My Favorite Stress-Relief Bath Recipe
Truly you can pick and choose from the ingredients above to create your own stress relief bath. But I’d like to share my favorite recipe with you here:
- 10 drops lavender essential oil
- 10 drops bergamot essential oil
- 4 Tablespoons sweet almond (carrier) oil
- 2 cups Epsom salt
- 2 Tablespoons vanilla
- Orange peel ribbons
Mix essential oils into sweet almond oil. Fill tub with very warm water. Once full, add the salt. Swish with your hand to dissolve. Then add the oil mixture and vanilla and swish again. Then scatter orange peel on top. Get into the tub and soak 20 minutes.
How to Gift a DIY Stress-Relief Bath
Once you find your favorite stress relief bath, why not share the awesomeness with friends and family? Turn your creation into a gift!
Put all the ingredients into a mixing bowl and stir well.
If you want to add some color, try adding 10 drops of soap-dye to the Epsom salt and mix. Then add the rest of the ingredients and mix again.
Next, put your stress-relief bath into a mason jar. You can put a square of fabric under the lid for a nice decorative touch. Close the lid tightly and the salts should last several months. (In fact, the salts will never expire but then any added color or scent can fade after a few months.)
You might want to add a card that explains how to take a stress-reducing bath. And consider adding a list of the ingredients, so your gift recipient will know what they’re getting into (literally!). Read about how long bath salts last and how to store them.
The Best Stress Relief Baths You Can Buy
If you don’t have time to DIY your bath recipe, I highly recommend giving yourself a bath box subscription! My absolute favorite is Bath Bevy. Every month or quarter (depending on what type of subscription you choose) you’ll receive a gorgeous box of 6-10 stress-reducing bath items carefully curated around a theme. See my unboxing video for the Autumn Vibes bath box above — it will give you a good idea for what to expect — and how it can totally help you take soothing baths all year long.
Bath Bevy makes an incredible gift too. When you get family or friends a subscription to Bath Bevy, you’re gifting a box of love again and again.
Who Can Take a Stress Relief Bath?
If you have any of the following conditions, check with your doctor before taking a bath:
- cardiovascular issues
- circulation and blood pressure problems
- anyone over age 70
- anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding.
Secondary Health Benefits of a Hot Stress Relief Bath
In addition to reducing stress directly, a hot bath has other health benefits that indirectly reduce anxiety.
A Hot Bath Improves Sleep…Which Decreases Stress
Everyone knows that when we humans don’t get enough sleep, we’re more likely to feel irritable and we’re more easily stressed.
A Study of Fatigued Sailors
In one study, there was a group of men who worked on ships. The daily life of these men was quite stressful, and unfortunately, they rarely got a good night of sleep.
The researchers wrote:
“The prevalence of fatigue in the general working population has been estimated to be as high as 22%, and this fatigue is associated with pain, tiredness, nervous system mechanisms, and environmental stimuli in individuals who experience the effects.”
The scientists decided to investigate how they might help the men relax.
The study divided the men into three groups: a control group, a group that received music therapy, and a group that bathed in hot springs full of minerals. The researchers found that the group of bathing men experienced the greatest reduction in fatigue, stress and pain. These benefits were statistically significant.
Taking a nightly stress-relieving bath at home with Epsom salt, aromatherapy and other spices can simulate the hot springs and potentially give you similar relief.
A Key Finding of the National Sleep Foundation
Further, the National Sleep Foundation says that when we get out of a hot bath and our core temperature drops, our bodies suddenly want to hibernate—or at least sleep. So it’s getting out of the tub can help you wind down, too. If you can sleep better consistently, you’re likely to experience less stress.
Based on this evidence, a practice of taking a nightly stress-reducing bath can be a great benefit.
A Hot Bath Decreases Pain…Which Reduces Stress
There is plenty of research that a hot bath decreases pain. And as you probably know, physical pain increases stress. The more pain, the more stress.
Joint Pain Feels Better in a Hot Bath
According to the Arthritis Foundation, people with arthritis can get immediate relief by joint pain by taking a warm bath. The Foundation writes:
“Warming tissues eases arthritis pain by increasing blood flow to affected areas, which decreases inflammation, relaxes tight muscles, and eliminates waste products, like lactic acid, that cause stiffness and soreness.”
The foundation warns that if you’re above age 70 or have cardiac issues, you should consult a doctor before taking a bath.
A Hot Bath Relieves Menstrual Cramps
Menstrual cramps are caused when the uterus contracts as it sheds its lining. This causes pain in the pelvis among other areas. A warm bath can increase blood flow throughout the body, most notably through the pelvic floor, and this decreases the pain from cramps. If you get stressed and crampy during your period, you definitely should read this post.
More Ways a Hot Bath Can Reduce Stress
There is mental and physical stress. The two often co-exist and one can cause the other. That said, there are plenty of other stressors on the mind and body that are alleviated by a bath. These include problems with:
- depression and
If you’d like to alleviate the tension and want to know more about how a hot bath can help, read 20 Hot Bath Benefits for Mind, Body and Soul.
Does a Stress Relief Bath Really Calm You Down?
There’s plenty of evidence to support the fact that a stress-relieving bath truly soothes the nervous system. For best results, make a regular habit of taking a stress-relief bath, so that your nervous system learns to stay in balance.
Think of taking a stress-relief bath as building up your “calm response.” The more you exercise it, the easier it is for you to cast off anxiety and ease into a state of relaxation.