Bathing is as essential as anything we do as humans, yet baths frequently get overlooked in any list of healing habits. When prepared for and taken properly, a bath can relieve your toxic load — as well as mental and emotional stress — easily and at very little expense. The bath is your missing tool to better health.
As a longtime practitioner in the field of wellness and longevity medicine, I’ve found that empowering people to take conscious care of their physical bodies helps to ensure that their health care program succeeds. Yet there is one area, as essential as anything we do as humans, which frequently gets overlooked in any list of healing habits: bathing. I don’t mean merely washing your face, underarms and private areas; but more specifically the act — and the art — of total cleansing, by soaking and renewing the skin in the bath.
I come to the wisdom of bathing culturally as well as medically. I am Korean by birth. In Asia, the bath has an ancient heritage as a purification rite that is both practical and remedial. Growing up in Korea, my first experiences of bathing were of going with my grandmother to the local communal bath house. She had no bathroom of her own, and wouldn’t have thought that she needed one. I learned about bathing and hygienic skills from her at two years of age, with all the ritual attached to that journey: carrying my own bucket, towel and scrubbing cloths; the stages of cleansing; and the beautiful act of generations coming together, without vanity or inhibition, helping to take care of each other.
The key steps of traditional Korean bathing are easy to adopt, but they change the bath completely. The norm today, or at least the standard, in many Western countries, is to wash our bodies a lot — and not in the bath at all, but in the shower. Past the age of childhood, taking a bath is typically seen in terms of indulgence more than hygiene. A bath is virtually a psychological act. It is about stealing time away from the daily rush, for the sake of relaxation, solitude, sensuality, retreat or luxury. Still, a really phenomenal amount of health benefit gets lost in the migration from bath to shower, and from the spirit of cleansing to the behavior of clean.
The medical truth is that bathing is one of the most systemically corrective things that you can do for your body. When prepared for and taken properly, a bath can reduce real toxic as well as mental and emotional stress. The warm water in which you submerge gently stimulates detoxification through the skin and other organs of elimination (the kidneys, liver, colon and lungs) by inducing lymphatic flow, improving circulation, calming inflammation and encouraging sweating. Add scrubbing to the process as your dead skin layers naturally slough off in water, and you remove innumerable pollutants and metabolic waste products that have been collected there. Remember, the skin is the largest organ for detoxification and therefore a first line of defense for your body.
And we need to purify our skin more than ever in modern life. Toxins that are found in the skin include, but are not limited to: benzene, toluene, formaldehyde, styrene, deodorant, car exhaust, hydrocarbons, smog, household chemicals, perfumes, cosmetics, heavy metals including mercury, cadmium, aluminum, arsenic, lead, and nickel, dust mites, dust mite droppings, fungus, mold, bacteria, virus, parasites, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and hormones. It makes sense to rid the body of these elements as regularly as possible, in order to manage the toxic load we all carry to varying degrees.
Bathing has always helped our bodies do that, easily and at very little expense. In effect, a proactive bath once a week can replace certain types of doctor’s treatments, spa visits or other more invasive detox modalities.
I’d like to share some basic principles to help you transform bathing into a healing resource. All you need at home is a bathtub, a scrubbing mitt or cloth, a bucket and gentle, organic soap. Another option would be to find a local Korean sauna/bath house to visit on a regular basis, where you can soak and be scrubbed by an expert in the traditional manner. I’ve visited wonderful Korean bath saunas in many cities, and many offer hot rooms and pools of different temperatures, to intensify the ritual of cleansing. Following custom, these are communal places where you will have to let go of modesty. Most offer different sessions for men and women. Check your local city guide for information, or, you can visit my website for a list of reputable, classical Korean bath saunas across the country that I personally have experienced and highly recommend.
One note of caution: Bathing in this way is a form of mild detoxification, which involves raising your body temperature and increasing your metabolic rate through the steps of skin purification. For any bath or detoxifying regimen, get your doctor’s approval first if you have a physical condition or you are in a weak state. Contraindications may include, but are not limited to, diabetes, low or high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney or liver disease, adrenal exhaustion, recent illness, pregnancy, nervous system deficiencies and severe fatigue. Also, if you have just been out in the sun and gotten a burn or even a tan, scrubbing is not recommended.
1. Wash your body first. This is when to take that shower! It doesn’t make sense to enter a clean bath with dirty feet and a sweaty body. The bath is not for washing, but for soaking in fresh pure water in order to open the systems of the body and exfoliate old layers of skin. Plus, in order to exfoliate properly in your bath, all oils and creams need to be completely removed from your skin first. Washing first can also reduce contamination and prevent possible bladder infections when in the bath. Not cleaning before bathing is a major omission in the Western concept of the bath.
As part of a general skin care regimen, I recommend that my patients use a probiotic soap for best cleansing. Like oral probiotics and cultured foods for your digestion such as Korean kimchi or yogurt, this type of soap is naturally anti-microbial and works on the skin in a similar way: The presence of good bacteria helps to diminish the ill effects of the bad. In his book, “Life on Man,”bacteriologist Theodor Rosebury estimates that 50 million individual bacteria live on the average square centimeter (5×107/cm2) of human skin! Probiotic soap will optimize healthy skin flora and help remove harmful pathogens as well as dirt and sweat.
2. Make sure your bathtub has been cleaned with natural, nontoxic products. Draw your bath at a comfortably hot, but not scalding temperature. You want to feel very warm, to the point that you may be perspiring from your face, but not so hot that you want to get out of the tub to cool off. If you have a Jacuzzi tub with jets, you can use them for soothing muscles.
3. Stay in the bath for at least 20-30 minutes. You can stop here after your soak, and still derive beneficial, passive healing from the bath. Dry yourself vigorously with a clean towel to add a light amount of lymphatic stimulation.
Do not scrub after 8 or 9 p.m., as it may keep you awake. If you do choose to exfoliate, check your skin after about 15 minutes of soaking. Can you feel some debris sloughing off? If so, your skin will be ready soon to be scrubbed, to remove all the toxins which are embedded in the dead outer layers. Sweating also brings these toxins to the surface.
4. To begin exfoliating, finish your bath and jump back in the shower. Keep your body wet; the room should still be warm enough from your bath that you should not feel chilled or uncomfortable. If you do not have a separate shower, drain your bathtub and sit inside the tub to scrub there. It is best if you have a stool to sit on. You should have your small plastic pail or shallow bucket to fill with fresh hot water, a scrubbing mitt or cloth, and your mild or probiotic soap at hand.
5. Scrub each section of your body and then fill the bucket with hot water and splash it clean. However, do not scrub: all genital and rectal areas, eyelids and lips, or your whole face if you have sensitive skin. You can start from your feet and go up or from the arms and work down. Use linear strokes, back and forth: do not make circles. Practicing will show you how much pressure you need to use. Notice areas where you will always find dead skin, such as the back or inside of your forearms. Be aware that rinsing in the traditional way with a bucket is gentler on your skin and body than using a shower spray. Never use cold water before or during scrubbing. This will cause the skin to tighten so that it will not slough off, and may cause pain. You may be perspiring during the scrubbing process, or you might feel a bit of energy releasing. This is all normal. It just means your body is at an elevated metabolic state to aid in the detoxification process.
6. After one sweep over the entire body, you can go over any area again with a lighter touch to ensure you have removed all the dead skin. Your skin should feel baby soft, slightly pink with color, and vitalized. Wash your body one more time with soap, and rinse. Dry yourself well, and liberally apply a nourishing moisturizer to both body and face.
7. Lay down if you can for 15 minutes to relax and return to your regular temperature and heart rate. You will feel invigorated, clean, fresh and ready to go!
I often prescribe additional types of bath therapies for specific health conditions, using different medicinal salts, herbs and detoxifying agents. In future articles, I will discuss how to create bath programs for healthy and preventive skin care, chronic illness, injury, heavy metal toxicity and other ailments, as well as ways to assure that your bath water itself is pure and clean.