You know that sinking into a warm bath at the end of a long day can help you relax and unwind, but did you know it might also be good for your health? Research shows that using baths as a form of medical therapy, sometimes referred to as balneotherapy (see "Balneotherapy, or bath therapy"), can bring health benefits — among them, easing certain types of chronic pain, helping your skin, and potentially even improving heart health.
Balneotherapy, or bath therapy
The name balneotherapy is derived from the Latin word balneum, or bath. Today, balneotherapy may refer to the use of a typical bath (warm or cold) as a treatment for an illness or condition. However, the term historically and sometimes still refers to mineral baths or mineral-rich mud packs to coat the body. Some medical professionals also consider saunas or steam baths as balneotherapy.
One of the conditions that may benefit from balneotherapy is fibromyalgia. In studies, people with this chronic pain condition reported significant improvement in their symptoms after soaking in hot water, says Dr. Donald Levy, medical director at the Osher Clinical Center for Integrative Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital and assistant clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
While the overall body of evidence is mixed when it comes to fibromyalgia pain and baths (some studies show an improvement in pain levels; others don't), it's safe to say that some people benefit from this simple intervention, says Dr. Levy.
It's reasonable to take a hot bath (96° to 100° F) using mineral salts five days a week to see if it helps, he says.
There is also some evidence that warm baths may help to ease pain related to osteoarthritis, according to the National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). However, there aren't enough high-quality studies to say for sure. But because baths are low risk, it's worth a shot to see if it helps.
Baths may also help to soothe your skin — particularly if it's dry or itchy. While excessive bathing in hot water can dry your skin if you're not careful, with the right technique, soaking in warm water can help eliminate dryness, says Dr. Kenneth Arndt, a dermatologist and prior medical editor of the Harvard Special Health Report Skin Care and Repair.
"If a heavy cream or ointment is put on the skin immediately after drying off, the water that the skin has soaked up will stay in the skin for a prolonged time, and will be helpful for dry skin problems," he says.
Soaking in warm water can also help soften and loosen scaly skin or crusty patches so they can be removed by gently rubbing them, avoiding more abrasive techniques. Itchy skin may be soothed by a tub bath with colloidal oatmeal added to the water. And taking a warm bath before applying a topical medication can help your skin absorb it more effectively, which means it will work better, says Dr. Arndt.
In addition, according to the NCCIH, a specialized form of balneotherapy may help if you have psoriasis, a condition in which skin cells grow abnormally fast, leading to a scaly or red rash on the skin. Called Dead Sea climatotherapy, this form of therapy involves bathing in the Dead Sea itself.
But if you're not up for the plane ride, a substitute form, called artificial climatotherapy, which simulates the salty, mineral-filled Dead Sea water by adding a magnesium-rich salt solution to the bath water in conjunction with a special form of light therapy, may also help.
Avoid bubble trouble
For the most part, baths are very safe. But there are some cautions you should be aware of before you settle into your tub.
Slips and falls. "Bath oils really don't add anything to hydrating the skin. They may be pleasant, but they may also make the tub slippery, so one has to be careful about getting in or out," says Dr. Kenneth Arndt, a dermatologist and prior medical editor of the Harvard Special Health Report Skin Care and Repair. The same is true of colloidal oatmeal or other treatments you may add to the bath water.
Skin irritation and yeast infections. Be careful when it comes to using certain soaps in your bath or adding bubbles or salts. Certain products may cause skin irritation or may increase the likelihood of developing a yeast infection if you don't dry off carefully. Some soaps may also cause irritation to the genital area.
Dizziness. If your blood pressure is already low, a bath may cause it to dip further, which can make you feel dizzy or lightheaded, particularly if you quickly stand up after a long, hot bath. This could lead to a fall, so be certain to use caution, says Dr. Adolph Hutter, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Balneotherapy may also help your heart. The warmth of the water dilates your blood vessels, which lowers your blood pressure, says Dr. Adolph Hutter, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. The water pressure around your body also increases the flow of blood back to your heart and increases cardiac output.
A study published in May 2020 in the journal Heart found that middle-aged people in Japan who took a daily bath in either warm or hot water had a 28% lower risk of heart and blood vessel disease than people who didn't bathe in the tub more than twice a week. It also found that the daily bathers had a 26% lower risk of stroke than those who bathed in a tub less frequently.
It's a good study that adds to the evidence in this area, says Dr. Hutter. But it's important to note that this study was observational and relied on people to accurately report how often they bathed. It's also possible that other factors could explain the differences. For example, bathers might have had other healthy habits such as more frequent exercise or a healthier diet, factors that are known to reduce risk of heart disease.