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6 Health and Wellness Benefits of Taking Hot Baths, According to MDs

A good, hot soak can relieve stress, sooth sore muscles, and get you ready for a good night's sleep.

<p>Galina Zhigalova / Getty Images</p>

Galina Zhigalova / Getty Images

Centuries before the existence of modern-day spas, people around the world bathed in natural hot springs for healing, hygienic, religious, and cultural purposes. “There’s a reason why many health resorts in the past were traditionally at the location of a hot spring,” says Meredith Warner, DO, an orthopedic surgeon in private practice in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and author of the upcoming book, Bone on Bone: An Orthopedic Surgeon's Guide to Avoiding Surgery and Healing Pain Naturally.

Not only were the warm waters a soothing place to soak, but because they came directly from the earth, they contained minerals like magnesium, potassium, and lithium (in various combinations), which were thought to treat or cure everything from arthritis and indigestion, to syphilis and psoriasis. “Traditionally, hot springs and thermals were utilized to treat conditions, or sick people,” Warner explains. “Today, they are primarily focused on making relatively healthy people healthier.”

Health Benefits of Hot Baths

While we no longer think of bathing as a form of medical care, spending some time in the tub could help you feel better. And perhaps best of all, taking a bath is both accessible and affordable: It’s something many people can do in their own homes, without booking spa treatments, or traveling to a resort with hot springs.

For a practice as old as taking hot baths, there is surprisingly little research into the health benefits of this practice—especially since most of the studies that have taken place have small sample sizes. With that in mind, here are some of the documented positive health outcomes of taking hot baths.

Related: 4 Beneficial Uses for Epsom Salt—and One You Should Always Avoid

Boosting Mental Health

Soaking in a warm bath could have a positive impact on mental health and relaxation, according to a small study of 38 participants published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2018. The participants also reported reduced feelings of tension, anger, hostility, depression, and dejection.

“Through a randomized study, the researchers found that baths can have a greater effect on mental health and anxiety than showering as a form of bathing,” says Michael I. Jacobs, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, and associate professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Along the same lines, a small pilot study of 45 participants published in BMC Psychiatry in 2020 found that taking warm baths twice a week, for as few as two weeks, can result in “clinically relevant improvement in depression severity,” when the person continues their usual mental health care routine.

Calming Stress

Everyone manages stress in their own way, and some people’s method of choice is taking a hot bath. “Stress can be triggered by so many things, so if you are looking for some ‘you’ time, or time to take a break from your mental load, a bath is a great way to relax, take a break from work, limit your social media scrolling—whatever it is,” says Laura Purdy, MD, a Miami-based family medicine physician. “It helps your brain slow down and is a great way to take a mindful break.”

If you consistently feel less stressed after getting out of the tub, you probably don’t need research to confirm this benefit of bathing. That’s a good thing, too, because there isn’t much out there. That said, the 38 participants in the tiny 2018 study mentioned above reported that bathing regularly helped reduce their levels of stress and fatigue.

Supporting Cardiovascular Health

Taking hot baths may improve your cardiovascular health, according to a 2020 study out of Japan published in the journal Heart. The researchers observed more than 30,000 people between the ages of 40 and 59 over a span of 19 years, and found that participants who took warm baths frequently had a decreased risk of cardiovascular events, Warner explains.

There is also research suggesting that taking hot baths regularly may have a positive effect on a person’s vascular health, meaning the blood vessels, veins, and arteries responsible for blood flow. For example, a small 2016 study from the Journal of Physiology found that after eight weeks of testing, daily hot baths resulted in lower blood pressure and increased artery health for the 10 participants. “Hydrotherapy in a warm bath will increase peripheral blood flow, and this promotes healing of any irritated or damaged tissues,” Warner adds.

According to Thomas Pontinen, MD, LCP-C, a double board-certified anesthesiologist and pain management specialist, physician and co-founder of Midwest Anesthesia and Pain Specialists, taking warm baths also increases vasodilation, which improves circulation. “Improved circulation comes with numerous health benefits, but from a pain management perspective, it’s important because blood is what carries essential nutrients and molecules to your musculoskeletal tissues,” he explains. “In instances where pain is coming from trauma to muscle tissue or connective tissue, circulation expedites the process where the body heals itself.”

Related: If You Think Saunas Are Just a Spa-Day Treat, These 5 Healthy Benefits Will Change Your Mind

Reducing Muscle and Joint Pain

Bathing can provide some much-needed relief for people dealing with painful muscles, joints, ligaments, and tendons, Dr. Pontinen says. This is because the warm water can help the tissues in your musculoskeletal system relax, which helps you heal faster, he explains.

This is especially true of mineralized water, like the kind found in natural hot springs (or in your tub, after adding water-soluble mineral sources, like Epsom salts), according to a 2021 study out of Ethiopia with more than 1,000 participants, published in the journal Inquiry. The researchers found that bathing in hot springs for three or more days can “have significant therapeutic effects on patients with musculoskeletal disorders” including rheumatoid arthritis—which affects approximately 1.3 million adults in the U.S.

“One of the main benefits is to help the body relax, help muscles to recover and heal, and to reduce pain,” Warner says. “Joints and stiff connective tissues will also feel better after a warm bath.” In addition to pain, bathing can also alleviate other types of muscular discomfort. “For sore muscles, a hot bath can reduce built-up tension, tightness, pain, and soreness,” Dr. Purdy adds.

Related: When to Use Heat—and When to Use Ice—for Sore Muscles, Back Pain, and More

Preparing Your Body for Sleep

Given that taking a warm bath can help some people relax, it’s not surprising it can also help promote a good (or at least better) night’s sleep. “Taking a bath at night may help you fall asleep and stay asleep, increasing your overall sleep quality, which is vital for your body to reset for the next day,” Dr. Purdy says. “It’s a great way to wind down, as it triggers the body and your mind to relax, which in turn can help you fall asleep.”

One way bathing accomplishes this is by supporting the body’s nightly temperature adjustment. “The body naturally undergoes a cooling phase when you begin to sleep, and a hot bath can give you a head-start with that phase,” Dr. Pontinen explains.

These benefits aren’t strictly anecdotal: A 2019 review of the findings of 17 studies on the effects of bathing on sleep concluded that taking a warm full-body bath, foot bath, or shower before bed for at least 10 minutes can improve sleep quality.

Improving the Condition Your Skin

You may not think of bathing as part of a skincare routine, but whether you opt for a bath or a shower, that’s exactly what it is. In addition to removing dirt on the surface of your skin, bathing in warm water also opens up your pores, allowing you to wash away built-up grime, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Plus, it softens the layers of dead skin cells on the outer surface of the skin, so that they slough off easily with a washcloth (or prepare your skin for your exfoliation method of choice).

“[Bathing] can also help you clear away the bacterial and fungal load from contact in your environment,” says Amy Zack, MD, a family physician at the Cleveland Clinic. “As that accumulates, it increases your risk of infection.”

Once again, the research on the dermatological benefits of bathing is limited, but the 38 participants in the small 2018 study published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine mentioned above reported an improvement in their skin’s condition after two weeks of bathing regularly.

Additionally, taking warm mineral baths can help treat acne and seborrheic dermatitis, according to a 2020 review of studies investigating the effects of bathing in warm, mineralized water for people with chronic inflammatory skin diseases, published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine. The article also concluded that warm baths in mineralized water can be especially beneficial for people living with atopic dermatitis and psoriasis.

Related: Yes, There Is a Right Way to Shower

Recommended Duration and Temperature

In order to reap the benefits of hot baths, whether it’s for your skin or any other part of your body, the conditions have to be just right. How, exactly, can you maximize the health benefits of your next bath? It comes down to factors like timing, temperature, and duration. Here’s what the doctors advise:

The Ideal Temperature of Bath Water

Although we typically talk about taking a “hot bath,” the doctors we spoke to all recommended opting for a warm bath instead. “Hot baths are generally not recommended, due to the fact that it will be drying and irritating to the skin,” Dr. Jacobs explains.

How hot is too hot? “Anywhere between 90 and105 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal,” Dr. Jacobs says. “Anything warmer will be scalding to the skin and can be damaging to the skin barrier.” At the same time, Dr. Pontinen points out that “anything colder than your body’s natural, healthy temperature will yield fewer benefits,” so he recommends soaking in water that’s at least 95 degrees.

You probably don’t know the precise temperature of your bath—who does? When in doubt, Dr. Purdy shares the simple tip that the “the hotter the bath water temperature, the shorter your duration in the bath should be.”

The Ideal Duration of a Warm Bath

The good news is that you don’t have to set aside hours for long, luxurious soaks in order to maximize the benefits of a bath. “To get decent health benefits from hydrotherapy and thermal therapy, about 20 to 30 minutes in the bath would be adequate,” Warner says.

According to Dr. Pontinen, the “sweet spot” is going to vary from person-to-person, especially as their needs and bodies vary, but says that anything more than a few minutes can be beneficial. “Your body typically knows when it’s had enough hot or cold exposure, so if you get really uncomfortable, have trouble breathing, feel light-headed, or experience any other uncomfortable symptoms, then it’s time to get out,” he says. “Baths are meant to be relaxing and that relaxation is a major source of the benefits, so don’t push yourself.”

Baths are more of a time commitment than showers: Even if you’re only in the tub for 10 or 15 minutes, you also have to factor in the time it takes to fill it up with water. This is all to say that the best time to take a bath is when you have time for one. But what about days when your schedule is flexible? Dr. Jacobs recommends taking an evening bath, “as it will promote relaxation and better sleep.”

The Best Time of Day for a Warm Bath

Warner gets a little more specific, and suggests taking a warm bath one or two hours before you plan to go to bed, explaining that the heat of the water causes vasodilation of the surface blood vessels, reducing the body’s core temperature. “The core body temperature must drop by one or two degrees to sleep best,” she explains. “Likewise, the repair and restoration capacities of the body happen at night during sleep, and providing relaxation to the muscles and connective tissues can only help with this process.”

Who Should Avoid Hot Baths?

While many people benefit from taking hot or warm baths, others may be putting their health at risk and should speak to their doctor about how to bathe safely or whether to avoid it altogether. Some of those groups include:

  • Individuals with psoriasis, eczema, or similar skin conditions: Hot or warm baths could increase irritation and dryness, and exacerbate symptoms, Dr. Jacobs says.

  • Older adults with cardiovascular vascular health issues: Bathing might cause them to feel dizzy, Dr. Jacobs explains. “If there is a lack of ability to thermoregulate due to cardiovascular deficiencies or medications, bathing in hot water is not recommended,” Warner adds.

  • People with health conditions or injuries that involve their metabolism, nerves, joints, or internal organs: They should make sure to talk to their doctor about experimenting with hot baths for their condition, Dr. Pontinen says. Even if they do get the green light, this group should be cautious about how their skin responds to the hotter temperatures, he adds.

  • People with neuropathy: They may experience a worsening of their symptoms when they bathe in water that is too hot or too cold, Dr. Pontinen says.

  • Pregnant people: Hot baths are not advised during pregnancy, Dr. Jacobs says, as the body temperature can rise too much. Warm baths should be fine, though, provided your doctor is on board, Warner notes.

  • Children: According to Warner, kids lack the ability to thermoregulate, and should stick only to warm (rather than hot) baths.

  • People with certain mobility issues: Anyone unable to safely get into and out of a tub should avoid taking baths, Warner says. The solution “may simply involve some bars or steps, but the mechanical aspects of bathing should be explored and confirmed as safe,” she adds.

Tips for the Most Relaxing, Beneficial Bath Possible

Add Epsom salts to your bath.

Like bathing itself, there isn’t much research on the health benefits of Epsom salts, but, as Warner points out, people have been safely adding it to their baths for centuries. With or without empirical evidence, many people have reported experiencing pain relief, and feeling calmer after bathing in it, she explains. “Magnesium, found in Epsom salts, is vital to our health, but it also helps with relaxation and improved sleep— both of which are crucial for recovery and pain management,” Dr. Pontinen says.

Fill up your tub more than you think.

According to Dr. Purdy, being immersed in hot water can calm your nervous system and give your entire body a sense of calm. Of course, not everyone has access to a bathtub that accommodates full-immersion, so do your best with what you have and fill it so most of you can be submerged.

Keep the bathroom warm.

Warner recommends keeping the ambient temperature of your bathroom (or wherever you bathe) somewhat warm, if possible. “This will prevent the acute contrast and need for rapid thermoregulation that happens when going from a cold room to a hot bath and vice-versa,” she explains.

Dim the lights.

If you’re opting to bathe at night, try to adjust the room’s lighting to help make the atmosphere more relaxing. “Using dim lights, and avoiding the blue light spectrum can help dramatically to begin the body’s process of melatonin production,” Warner says.

Work in some aromatherapy.

Scents like lavender and chamomile are thought to assist with relaxation, and could be a great addition to your bath time routine. While many people suggest adding a few drops of essential oils to your bath water, Dr. Jacobs recommends using scented candles instead. “Essential oils can be irritating, and no one has studied absorption,” he explains. To further facilitate relaxation, he suggests listening to calming music, or using a bath pillow to get as comfortable as possible in the tub.

Stay hydrated (bring some water with you!) and moisturized.

Bring a cool glass or bottle of water with you and place it next to tub so you can sip while you soak, if needed. In addition to drinking enough water to stay sufficiently hydrated, Dr. Jacobs recommends applying lotion after taking a bath to do the same for your skin. Similarly, he stresses the importance of staying mindful of the temperature of your bath water when filling the tub, ensuring it’s not so hot that it will dry out your skin and affect the skin barrier.

Focus on breathing and unwinding.

Drs. Jacobs, Warner, and Pontinen all recommend doing some breathwork to help you relax while in the tub. Deep breathing, pranayama, or box breathing techniques can also be helpful for reducing cortisol levels and engaging the parasympathetic system, Warner explains. Along the same lines, bathing is a great time to practice (or test out) mindfulness meditation—including for skeptics.

Related: 8 Little Ways to Make Your Bathroom More Relaxing

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