We like to think Brits excel at baths but, according to Dr Barbara Kubicka, author of The Bath Project, it’s time to up your soaking game. Borrow from these mind-soothing, skin-softening bathing traditions from cultures all around the world and sink in to your best bath yet.
What kind of bather are you? A bath bomb aficionado who won’t dip a toe into the tub unless it’s swirling with Lush’s finest? Perhaps you’re a bathing maximalist, lacing the water with a glug of Jo Malone London bath oil, then emerging silky-limbed and scented like a Lime Basil and Mandarin candle? Or are you a staunch traditionalist, relying solely on a capful of Radox bubble bath to see you through your soak?
Whatever your preference, there’s no better time than the present to expand your bathtime rituals. According to Dr Barbara Kubicka, author of newly published book The Bath Project, “Bathing [in British society] is seen as a treat as opposed to a necessary component of self-service and care… If we look at countries such as Japan and those within the Middle East, bathing is a social ritual.
The Japanese onsen, for example, sees entire families congregate in communal baths to melt away the day’s stress and to spend quality time together. In Russia, the banya steam bath serves a similar social purpose.
If you consider your 20-minute soak purely as a means to get clean, Kubicka believes you’re underestimating its benefits entirely. “Baths are not only cleansing but also relax our muscles, detox our body and calm our mind,” she explains. “There are many aspects of modern life that impact our health, [including] physical burnout and injuries, and stress due to political or social pressures.” While a bath might not be able to solve Brexit, it can help remedy some of life’s trials.
So dip into bathing rituals from around the world and heed our advice on how best to recreate their mind-massaging, muscle-manipulating and skin-softening effects from the comfort of your very own bathroom.
The geothermal pools in Iceland
The geothermal pools throughout Iceland offer bathers the skin and circulation benefits of milky, mineral-rich and vividly turquoise spring water. However, a key part of many Icelandic springs is the mud. At natural spring sites, bathers can scrape the algae-rich silica directly from the pool floor, while at man made pools (such as the iconic Blue Lagoon, which pumps in recycled water in from a nearby geothermal power plant) mud is available in tubs. Pasted all over the face and body, it offers skin-exfoliating and anti-inflammatory properties – made all the more effective after a few hours soaking in the surprisingly warm spring water.
DIY: Designed to relieve dry and itchy skin, slather Westlab’s Dead Sea Mud, £6.99, over limbs before soaking off in the bath.
The banya in Russia
The banya is Russia’s answer to the steam room. “In one form or another, the banya has existed for at least 1,000 years,” explains Dr Ethan Pollock, author of Without The Banya We Would Perish. “Many Russians claim that to really get clean, one must go to the banya – showers and tubs only clean the skin superficially; the banya opens up the pores, removing toxins from the system.”
The big difference from a standard steam room, beyond the fetching felt bonnets worn inside to prevent overheating, is that banya bathers brush and hit their skin with dried branches of white birch, oak or eucalyptus to improve circulation.
The closest you’ll get to the authentic experience without the plane trip, Banya No 1 in London’s Hoxton offers an invigorating treatment called Paranie. After an intense twig massage, bathers jump into an icy plunge pool to boost circulation.
DIY: Tie fresh eucalyptus round your shower head to scent the steam. Then brush your body in sweeping motions with Goop’s G.Tox Ultimate Dry Brush, £18, to help circulation and skin turnover.
The flower bath in Bali
Not just fodder for smug Instagram posts by tourists, Balinese flower baths have much more to offer than their dreamy aesthetic. The ritual involves floating either fresh or dry heads of different flowers in the bath, each selected for its individual botanical properties: rose petals will nourish skin; peony will tone; chamomile will soothe irritation; hibiscus will lightly exfoliate; and lavender offers antibacterial benefits and a stress-melting aroma.
In spas across Indonesia, flower baths are a common part of Lulur, a traditional cleansing ritual first employed by 17th-century Javanese royalty. After scrubbing the body using a paste of saffron, rice flour and spices, bathers then soak that all off in the flower-strewn water.
DIY: The luxurious L:a Bruket Marigold Orange and Geranium Bath Salt, £21, comes sprinkled with dried rose and marigold petals, as well as energising essential oils. It works wonderfully, but it’s not quite as vividly OTT as the Balinese original. So, if you’re unashamedly doing it for the ’gram, add a few fresh rose petals and dried sprigs of chamomile to the water for show, too.
The onsen in Japan
The onsen (or hot spring bath) serves as a social hub where entire families or communities gather. Bathers used to head to a public bath, but many homes now have their own onsen. Some take the form of natural rock pools, while others have a more modern aesthetic like the uber chic onsen at the Decorté family home. To be deemed an ‘official’ onsen, the water needs to be at least 25°C (although some toasty onsens reach the 40s) and contain one of 19 elements, such as antibacterial sulphur, skin-healing iron or lipid barrier-bolstering calcium.
DIY: Try putting Earl of East’s Onsen Bath Salts, £24, into your tub. Its Himalayan and Epsom salts have a similar composition to onsen water and contain uplifting mandarin oil.
The ayurvedic bath in India
Bathing lies at the core of Ayurveda, the ancient Indian holistic healing system trusted to balance the mind, body and spirit. Focused on the belief that everyone falls into one of three spiritual categories known as doshas – Kapha, Pitta and Vata – an ayurvedic bath is all about bringing an off-kilter dosha back into balance. After massaging nutritious sesame oil into the skin, bathers soak in water infused with essential oils, milks and herbs, tailored to their dosha and skin needs.
Rosemary, basil and a spoonful of mustard powder will reboot a Kapha’s lagging energy reserves, while rose along with ‘cooling’ herbs such as mint and coriander will calm a stressed Pitta and cleanse sebum from blocked pores. Frankincense, sweet orange stirred into rice starch and powdered milk, meanwhile, will bring serenity to a Vata, as well as softening their skin.
DIY: First spend a good 10 minutes massaging Essential Ayurveda’s Cured Sesame Oil, £7.50, into your entire body. Then stir five drops of one of Mauli’s ayurvedic oil blends into the bath before getting in. Serenity Pitta Body Oil, £47, contains rose, spearmint and lime to help you cool off after particularly taxing days at the office.
Thalassotherapy in France
Thalassotherapy is, quite simply, the use of seawater and/or seaweed in a therapeutic ritual. While it’s central to the spa offering in countries such as Greece and Portugal, some sources claim thalassotherapy was first developed in the towns along the Brittany coastline in France back in the 19th century, although others believe it was actually a key aspect of spa culture in Roman times.
Either way, thalassotherapy is all about utilising the trace elements found in salty sea water (including magnesium, potassium, calcium and iodide) to improve circulation, soften skin and ease tired muscles.
You don’t need to cross the channel to experience it. Haeckels’ Thalassotherapy Sea Bathing Ritual involves bathing in a seawater steam room inside a Victorian-style bathing hut on Margate beach (see above), before enjoying a tension-relieving 30-minute massage using a seaweed compress and hot oils. £100 for 45 minutes.
DIY: Dropped into a hot bath, Haeckels Traditional Seaweed Bath, £18, rehydrates with skin-softening minerals. If you’re not too squeamish, try releasing the weeds from their net and rubbing their surface gel on your skin.
Images: Getty Images / Courtesy of The Blue Lagoon / Banya No 1 / Decorte / Kawasumi, Kobayashi Kenji Photograph Office / Haeckels