To take the most relaxing bath ever, add some healthy tips

Maximize the mental and physical benefits of bathtime.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably stressed. Never fear: We’ve dug through the evidence to reveal what science really says about finding zen—and holding onto it through tough times. Want to try meditation? Take better baths? Stop anxiety in its tracks? Welcome to Calm Month.

Baths are relaxing. This is, while perhaps not a universal truth, at least a decidedly uncontroversial opinion to have. And while research on bathing isn’t the booming field of study it deserves to be, the data we do have supports their stress-relieving powers. People who regularly take baths seem to have lower stress levels and be less depressed than people who just shower. Submerging yourself in water on the regular may even help make you less angry.

What’s more, a nice soak isn’t just helpful for your mental health: It does your whole body good. Several studies have shown that frequent bathers are more likely to report that they feel healthy than other folks, and tend to sleep better. One large study in Japan found that bathing can lower a person’s risk of stroke and heart disease, perhaps by lowering blood pressure and improving blood vessel function. There’s even some evidence that “passive heating”—when you warm your body up in a bath or sauna, as opposed to with vigorous exercise—can help control blood sugar.

More research is needed to fully understand the potential benefits of bathtime, but that shouldn’t stop you from reaping the rewards right now. Here’s a breakdown of the most evidence-supported advice we could find for maximizing the soothing effects of a soak.

When to take a bath

Listen, you can take a bath whenever you dang please. But if you’re looking to tap into a ritual to improve your sleep, there may be an optimal window in which to do so.

According to a 2019 meta analysis—that’s when researchers crunch the numbers on loads of individual studies to try to suss out how significant their findings are—bathing in warm water around one to two hours before bedtime can shorten how long it takes you to fall asleep by an average of 10 minutes. The reason? Your body naturally cools down its core temperature at bedtime, and anything that hinders this process can make it difficult for you to nod off. A warm bath (or shower, if you’ve only got a stall to work with) increases your blood circulation, which makes your body expel heat. Kickstarting that process around 90 minutes before you want to hit the sack will help your body cool down the way it’s designed to, cuing your brain to chill out and let you snooze.

If you’re wondering how long to stay in the bath for, it’s really up to your personal preference. Soaking too long in scalding water can be bad for your skin (more on that later), but it seems likely you’ll see benefits from anything longer than a cursory dip (think 10 minutes or more).

As for frequency, there’s some evidence that taking a bath every day provides even more benefits than dunking once or twice a week. So don’t let anyone try to tell you that bathtime should be treated like a luxury—it’s perfectly reasonable to make it a daily practice.

How hot the bath—and the bathroom—should be

The meta analysis from 2019 zeroed in on 104 to 109 degrees Fahrenheit as a temperature range that improves sleep quality. Heating the water a few more degrees than that will risk melting away the fatty layer that protects your skin, but you also won’t get the benefits of warming up your body if the water is too much cooler. After all, most of us maintain body temperatures around 97 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit, so it doesn’t take much for water to start feeling cool on our skin.

Don’t feel like you need to add a thermometer to your bath time routine, either: If the water feels pleasantly warm but not uncomfortably hot, it’s the right temperature. Keep your bathroom warm, too, because a toasty room will keep the tub from losing its heat too quickly.

Conversely, if you’re taking a bath with the aim of going to bed soon after, make sure you move into a cool space not long after soaking—otherwise the heat from your body won’t dissipate and send you off to dreamland.

What you should add to your bath to get the most health benefits

Research on the benefits of various bath potions is scarce (which is a travesty), but one Japanese study on the health effects of bathing found that “additives” seemed to increase those physical and mental benefits. But what exactly should one add?

On the one hand, anything that makes you feel happy and relaxed is going to make your bath happier and more relaxing—and for many people, bubbles will fit the bill. On the other hand, fluffy suds and other bath additions that feature dyes and fragrances can increase your risk of yeast and urinary tract infections. The best way to balance your desire for bath-time excitement with keeping your skin and mucous membranes safe is to track how different products make you feel—and avoid any that cause irritation. If you’re trying out a new product, use a small amount at first.

a woman reads an old book in a bath tub full of bubble bath surrounded by candles
The best bath doesn’t necessarily feature bubbles, but follow your bliss. Pexels

If you don’t want to mess around with potential irritants but want to kick your bathwater up a notch, try Epsom salts. The evidence that they relieve muscle tension and help you relax is mostly anecdotal, but plenty of athletes swear by them—and it’s easy to find them without added dyes or scents. You can also make your own bath bombs to ensure their ingredients are all mild (and save a bunch of money). Or simply toss in some flowers, herbs, or essential oils to craft your own bath-time brew.

How to maximize a bath’s moisturizing potential

It’s true that soaking in too-hot water can disrupt your skin’s protective layer of fatty molecules, which can lead to dryness and irritation. But that doesn’t mean a nightly bath is inherently bad for your skin. In fact, many dermatologists actually recommend a daily soak or shower for people with eczema.

The key to taking a bath that moisturizes you is temperature: The water should be warm, not boiling hot. If you have particularly sensitive skin, you should probably keep your soaks to around 10 minutes, use gentle cleansers without fragrances or other irritants, and avoid scrubbing. Adding unscented oils, a tied-off sock full of oatmeal, or even baking soda can help sooth itching or irritated skin, too.

No matter what shape your skin is in, sealing in the moisture of a bath is always a good thing. The secret to this is patting your skin dry instead of rubbing yourself down with a towel, then immediately applying a good moisturizer. Your bath will leave you calm, cool, collected, and dewy to boot.

How aromatherapy, lighting, and sound can make a bath more relaxing

One of the biggest differences between your bathtub and a spa is the ambiance. If you’re committed to making your evening submersion as zen as possible, consider surrounding yourself with sounds, scents, and colors that have a calming effect.

First, let’s talk about music choices. Research suggests that nature sounds—birdsong, rainfall, and so on—help put human minds at ease. If you’d rather not listen to chirps and caws, just seek out music that makes you feel calm. These tracks were crafted to be especially relaxing based on research about how our brains react to sound, so they’re a good place to start if your usual musical taste is too peppy.

When it comes to lighting, dimmer is always better for lowering stress and getting you ready for sleep. Candlelight is an excellent choice. Or if you have the ability to tweak your bathroom lighting—perhaps with some trendy LED strips—consider testing out cool colors like blue. While blue light has gotten a bad rap for disrupting our circadian rhythms, research suggests that it’s only stimulating when it’s too bright. At dimmer settings, cool hues may actually be more relaxing than warm ones.

Aromatherapy—using scent to try to improve health and wellness—has been around for thousands of years, but it hasn’t gotten much attention from the Western medical community until recently. Existing research suggests that various essential oils such as ginger, eucalyptus, peppermint, rose, and lavender may help reduce pain and anxiety. The assumed mechanism is that these smells activate receptors in your nose that then talk to different parts of your brain, potentially helping to regulate your experience of pain or emotion.

Essential oils can cause skin irritation or even allergic reactions, so consider using a diffuser instead of adding them to your bath directly. If you want to add them to the water, use just a few drops—and make sure you’re getting your oils from a source you can trust.

If those tweaks don’t do enough to set the mood for you, consider bringing a couple potted friends into the bathroom. Looking at plants is known to lower anxiety, and there’s nothing quite like a bit of foliage to make a shower look Instagram-worthy.

Why you should keep a beverage handy while you soak

You might assume that you’re pretty well hydrated when you’re in a bath, but your body isn’t soaking up water through your pores. In fact, if your bath is warm or hot, it’s probably going to make you sweat (or at least glisten). That can quickly make you dehydrated. Keep a nice big glass of water within reach while you’re soaking, and make sure you take regular sips—especially if you’re enjoying a glass of wine in the tub, because alcohol can further dry you out.

Why you should keep your phone out of the bathroom

Every time your phone vibrates or pings, it triggers a little rush of adrenaline as your brain tells you to be alert. Some research suggests that this response to our devices is now so ingrained that we’ll stress out about them even when they’re turned off or put away. If you create a nightly routine of keeping your phone out of sight and out of mind while you’re in the tub, you may be able to disrupt your instinct to check it or think about notifications—allowing you to actually calm down. Consider reading a physical book, doing a crossword, or even meditating in the bath instead.

If your nightly soak is the only time you get to scroll through TikTok in peace, however, that’s also okay. There’s no wrong way to relax. Just try not to drop your phone into the tub.

Rachel Feltman

Rachel Feltmanis the Executive Editor of Popular Science and the host of the podcast The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week. She's an alum of Simon's Rock and NYU's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting program. Rachel previously worked at Quartz and The Washington Post. Contact the author here.