Which is better — taking a shower or a bath? The answer to the age-old debate comes down to personal preference, but it’s no secret that most Americans prefer showers. Roughly two-thirds of Americans shower on a daily basis, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
While you might prefer the quickness of a shower on a day-to-day basis, bathing relaxes your mind and body, like taking a dip in a hot tub or a hot spring. “Warm baths promote relaxation by raising your core body temperature and lowering blood pressure,” says Jeffrey Gladd, MD, an integrative medicine specialist in Columbia, Indiana, and the founder of Gladd Integrative Medicine.
Maybe this is why, despite the popularity of showering, many people aren’t ready to ditch their tub. It’s true that baths typically use more water, per the United States Environmental Protection Agency, so they’re not exactly environmentally friendly, but personal health–wise they evoke a greater sense of calm and tranquility.
Opting for a bath instead of a shower checks the boxes for both personal hygiene and relaxation. Ready to take a dip? Here are five benefits to soak up during bath time.
1. Warm Evening Baths Help Promote Restful Sleep
Sleep is one of the most important aspects of overall health, but it’s one of the most neglected. An estimated one-third of Americans don’t get enough sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — but a nighttime soak may be just what the doctor ordered for a healthy night’s sleep.
“If falling asleep is a nightly struggle for you, a warm bath in the evening may help you drift off to sleep more easily,” Dr. Gladd says. He points to a meta-analysis published in August 2019 in Sleep Medicine Reviews, which suggested that participants who took a warm bath one to two hours before bedtime reported that they fell asleep more quickly and had higher-quality sleep than usual.
One possible reason: a rise in body temperature that comes from warm water. Your body temperature is connected to your circadian rhythm, which regulates your sleep cycle, per the Cleveland Clinic. As bedtime gets nearer, your body temperature dips naturally, notes the Sleep Foundation. Taking a bath before bedtime elevates your body temperature, forcing it to drop when you get out and mimicking the natural decrease that happens at night, better helping your body shift into sleeping mode.
2. Lukewarm Bath Water Hydrates the Skin
Soaking in warm or even hot water is ultra satisfying, but may not be the kindest option for your skin. “Soaking in lukewarm water can be beneficial for skin hydration,” says Beth G. Goldstein, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Central Dermatology Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Hot water can be counterproductive and cause the skin to lose water, Dr. Goldstein notes. If the water is too hot, bathing can also strip the skin of natural oils, leaving it dry, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). The AAD recommends turning down the water temperature — lukewarm temperatures are just right — and limiting baths to 10 minutes or less.
Goldstein recommends moisturizing after a bath to lock in the moisture. “The best time to moisturize is immediately after a bath when the skin is damp,” she explains. “Emollient moisturizers containing ceramides or lipids help trap the water in the skin’s outermost layer, the stratum corneum, to help the skin stay hydrated.”
3. Baths Soothe Joint and Muscle Pain
Stress, tension, injuries, and exercise can all cause muscle pain — as can certain conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, that are also associated with painful muscle and joint inflammation. Next time you’re feeling sore, consider lowering yourself into a tub of warm water, which can help soothe joint and muscle pain thanks to the temperatures and the gentle water pressure on your skin.
Hot baths are an example of thermotherapy, sometimes called passive heating. This type of therapy shares some of the same benefits of exercise, including improvements to chronic low-grade inflammation, according to a review published in December 2020 in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
If long baths aren’t your thing, a quick ice bath can also help ease sore muscles and decrease inflammation, per the Cleveland Clinic. (Check with your doctor first, especially if you’re managing a chronic condition like heart disease or diabetes, and aim to keep your dip around five minutes, the Cleveland Clinic advises. Cold water shock can lower heart rate and raise blood pressure, according to Harvard Health Publishing.)
4. Taking Baths May Help Lower Blood Pressure and Support Heart Health
Passive heat therapy and hot water immersion shouldn’t replace exercise, but they can have similar cardiovascular benefits for those who may not be able to exercise, like certain elderly men and women. According to a past cohort study, sauna bathing is associated with a reduced frequency of cardiovascular events and mortality. Another study, published in Heart in May 2020, found that Japanese men who bathed in a tub more frequently (daily or almost daily) had a lower risk of heart disease compared with those who bathed less frequently (once a week).
Those with low blood pressure will want to be careful as warm baths and saunas cause blood vessels to dilate. This makes it easier for blood to flow through, which lowers blood pressure — but can also lead to dizziness and lightheadedness, per Harvard Health Publishing. This may be helpful for those with high blood pressure, though, as the steam associated with sauna bathing can contribute to heart health by helping lower blood pressure, according to a review published in August 2018 in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
5. Being Immersed in Bath Water Helps Reduce Stress and Anxiety
“Taking warm baths can help improve feelings of stress and reduce fatigue and pain,” says Gladd. People have been taking baths for thousands of years simply because it feels good on the body, but it also soothes the mind. Warm baths create a physically tranquil environment that translates to mental calmness. It can be a form of self-care as immersing yourself in water creates a sense of calm across your mind and body.
Although showering is the most common form of bathing, taking baths could have emotional health benefits. Past research suggests that immersion bathing improves fatigue, stress, pain, and mood. Baths were also associated with reduced depression, anxiety, and anger.
5 Healthy Add-Ins for Your Bath
To give your next bath a boost, consider adding in one of these skin-loving ingredients (which you probably already have at home!). Keep in mind, though, they may not be for everyone. Some ingredients, such as essential oils, could throw off the delicate pH balance of the vagina or trigger certain skin conditions, such as eczema, as Johns Hopkins Medicine notes. If these are concerns to you, check with your primary care doctor, gynecologist, or dermatologist first.
1. Epsom Salts
Epsom salts contain magnesium, sulfur, and oxygen. The Cleveland Clinic recommends adding 300 grams of epsom salts to your bath to soothe sore muscles and stiff joints. (But avoid using them daily, as they can dry skin out and cause irritation.)
2. Lavender Oil
Essential oils are an easy way to elevate bath time. The Sleep Foundation notes that lavender is especially calming — add several drops to encourage restfulness, relaxation, and deep sleep.
3. Baking Soda
Baking soda baths are a potential remedy for skin irritation, notes the National Eczema Association. Add ¼ cup to your bath to help relieve itching. (You can also add 2 tablespoons to an infant-sized tub to help relieve diaper rash, notes Parkside Pediatrics.)
4. Olive Oil
Soaking in the tub for too long can dry out the skin, but olive oil can act as a natural moisturizer, research suggests (PDF). Add a cup of olive oil to your tub, or apply the oil to your skin before submerging yourself in your bath to increase skin moisture. (Take extra care not to slip when exiting the tub, and be sure to rinse your bath afterwards with dish soap and plenty of water to remove any slippery residue!)
Oat baths are a well-known remedy for a variety of skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis, and they’re great for anyone who wants to moisturize their skin. Colloidal oatmeal is especially helpful for soothing itching associated with eczema, according to the National Eczema Foundation. Add up to 1.5 cups of oats to bath water to soothe and moisturize skin. To minimize mess, add the oats to pantyhose and tie them to the faucet while you run your bath.