The benefits of hydrotherapy are widely known, and almost everyone enjoys a relaxing soak in the tub. But did you know that many people believe the addition of one simple and inexpensive ingredient can take a warm bath from pleasurable to healing? Epsom salt was first discovered about 400 years ago, in a healing spring located at its eponymous small English town in Surrey, southwest of London. What does science have to say about the benefits of Epsom salt baths and their reputation for broad healing powers?
What is Epsom Salt?
Epsomite, a naturally occurring compound with the chemical name magnesium sulfate heptahydrate (chemical formula MgSO4·(H2O)7), is commonly known as Epsom salt, also called Epsom salts. In solution, the salt ionizes into Mg+2 cations and SO4-2 anions, two common electrolytes found in the blood and inside our cells. Epsom salt is FDA-approved for relieving constipation, and it works by drawing water into the bowel. Doctors use pharmaceutical grade magnesium sulfate in a few other medical applications as well.
Epsom Salt Baths as Folk Remedies
But folk remedies abound when it comes to bathing in Epsom salt. It’s commonly used for speeding up wound healing, clearing skin, treating ingrown toenails and soothing the red, itchy skin of psoriasis and eczema. According to WebMD, Epsom salt baths are also thought to help loosen tight joints and relax sore muscles, although exactly how this might work remains a poorly researched question. Epsom salt baths are also frequently used as a home remedy for insomnia, fibromyalgia, soreness resulting from post-chemo diarrhea, to soothe sunburn and soak tired, swollen feet.
Magnesium’s Effects in the Body
Some researchers think magnesium supplements can increase serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that supports a relaxed and happy mood. Magnesium supplements have proved to be an effective treatment for anxiety and relieving stress. In fact, magnesium deficiency may be a common problem, especially frequent in the elderly, dieters and the ill.
Some people believe the magnesium ions in Epsom salt baths can be absorbed through the skin and provide some of the same anti-anxiety effects as magnesium supplements. Such absorption through the skin has not been conclusively demonstrated, however, in peer-reviewed published studies. Still, many eat magnesium-rich foods such as chocolate when they need a boost — so, next time, maybe try a nice tubby, too! It almost certainly couldn’t hurt.
Epsom Salt Foot Baths
No time for a luxurious bath? No worries. Footbaths can be amazing for a quick de-stress session. Add half a cup of Epsom salt to a warm footbath, and you can reap its soothing benefits in half the time. Electric footbaths are an inexpensive self-care splurge that might just improve your overall energy and mood when done on a regular basis. Plus, Epsom salt leaves your feet fresh and deodorized, and it may even help combat foot fungus when used frequently.
Epsom Salt Baths for “Detox”
Another common belief about the benefits of taking Epsom salt baths is that they can work to gently pull toxins out of the body. One thing is clear: Heat can certainly help the body to dump toxins. As the pores open and the body begins to sweat, toxins and metabolic wastes can pour out of the lymph system via sweat. Alternating hot Epsom salt baths with cold hydrotherapy, especially before or after exercise, can be an excellent way to help your body cleanse itself and detoxify naturally.
Potential Side Effects of Epsom Salt
Common side effects from ingesting Epsom salt include diarrhea and stomach upset. A number of rare but serious side effects from taking Epsom salt internally have been observed.
Until recently, magnesium sulfate was used by doctors to slow labor, particularly during preterm births. This practice is now controversial among physicians, however, and appears to be on the way out. But in any case, pregnant women must not take Epsom salt internally, except under the close supervision of a doctor. Few serious side effects from Epsom salt baths have been seen, other than rare cases of allergic reaction. So they are safe for almost everyone.
Relaxing Epsom Salt Bath Recipe
2 cups Epsom Salt
10 drops lavender essential oil
5 drops clary sage essential oil
5 drops chamomile essential oil
Add the oils to 2 cups of Epsom salt before sprinkling the mixture into very warm or hot bath water (but not too hot!). Stir thoroughly until completely dissolved. Enjoy!
*Do not use essential oils undiluted, during pregnancy or if you have known sensitivities to plants, without consulting a qualified practitioner.
Amy Myszko is a Certified Clinical Herbalist and Certified Lactation Counselor and has been practicing herbalism and nutrition since 2007. She recently graduated with a master’s degree in Lactation and is pursuing a career as a Holistic Lactation Therapist.