A Dermatologist Explains All the Reasons You Should Be Indulging in Baths More Often

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A Dermatologist Explains All the Reasons You Should Be Indulging in Baths More Often

Daily Baths

Getty ImagesAliaksandra Ivanova + EyeEm

To the casual observer, the Terme di Stigliano, a thermal spa just outside Rome, might resemble either a very posh insane asylum or a film set for a Creature From the Black Lagoon remake. Behind tall iron gates, Italians of all ages—some wrapped in fluffy white robes, others coated from head to toe in an impasto of mucky, greenish-gray mud—shuffle between a series of five pools, ranging in temperature from frigid to pleasantly toasty and scattered at various levels among rolling green hills. Habitués flock here to indulge in the skin-softening and sore-muscle–relieving properties of the region’s sulfur- and iodine-rich water and clay, and to join them—marinating in each of the admittedly malodorous (think rotten egg salad) pools; scooping up the mud (fango in Italian) from the earth and lavishing it all over my body; then lying on a lounge chair until the mud dries before submerging myself in the pools all over again—is to experience what the ancient Romans called salus per aquam, or “health through water,” the acronym of which gives us the word spa. I emerge, at the end, serene of mind and supersatiny to the touch.

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If anyone knows the secret to a truly sublime bath, it’s the Italians. The height of the Roman Empire saw the construction of opulent bathhouses, called thermae, complete with dressing rooms, wet and dry saunas, hot tubs, and cold-water plunge pools, to which patrons brought along their own perfumed oils and exfoliating tools. The Romans knew how to sniff out a salubrious scrub anywhere they ventured, even establishing the famous baths in Vichy, France, and Bath, England. Many cultures over the past millennia may have splashed about in hot water for health purposes, but the Italians imbued the practice with their own distinctive brand of dolce vita.

“It’s beautifying, but it’s also something bigger—it’s about a state of mind.”

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Creamy-complexioned model Mariacarla Boscono, muse to the likes of Karl Lagerfeld and Riccardo Tisci, was born in Rome and has been visiting Terme di Stigliano since childhood. “My mom would take me to bond with me,” she says, “and now I go with my best friend. You scrub each other’s back and you laugh; you put on the mud and you have a soak. It’s beautifying, but it’s also something bigger—it’s about a state of mind.” Fitting, then, that Boscono is the face of Borghese, the iconic Italian beauty brand created in the 1960s by glamorous jet-setter Princess Marcella Borghese, who had the then-revolutionary idea of bringing the spa experience into the home. Inspired by the revivifying qualities of thermal springs, Borghese worked to develop a line of products containing what she dubbed Acqua di Vita, a blend of minerals extracted from the alkaline clay and water found at her favorite spas in Tuscany, where volcanic geothermal heat pushes H2O up from deep below the earth’s surface, collecting natural salts along the way. The marquee Borghese product, Fango Active—a face-and-body mud mask that’s essentially a much-refined version of the stuff I used at Stigliano— has been a classic for decades (and the most-mentioned bath product in the pages of ELLE US since our launch in 1985). This month, it’s getting a reboot, as is Borghese’s Fango Delicato for sensitive types, with added botanicals to amp up results. Also joining the lineup: two totally new mud formulations, with targeted brightening and dry-skin–healing properties.

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“Mud is full of minerals, such as iron, magnesium, calcium, and potassium, that nourish the skin as well as moisturize,” says Redondo Beach, California, dermatologist Annie Chiu, MD. “It’s a very gentle exfoliant, and it draws impurities from the skin as it dries, making it great for people who are acne prone. It can also help circulation by stimulating blood flow.” This accounts for the distinctive glow a mud mask can impart to the skin, as well as the tightening effect it can have on the body (Madonna has said she uses the Chrome Clay Mask from her MDNA Skin line, which is also sourced from a thermal spa in Tuscany, on her derriere).

All manner of physiological magic happens when we submerge in a hot bath.

Borghese was one of the first brands to focus on treating body skin with the same care—and potent ingredients—used on our faces, but now that the bath has made a major comeback as a wellness must (banish all thoughts of pruney fingers and detergenty bubbles), there are endless options to upgrade a soak, from luscious, skin-nourishing oils to tealike herbal infusions to healing-crystal–spiked Epsom salt. And it’s not just about pampering your bod: A bath provides prime time to optimize your entire beauty regimen. “The heat and steam increase penetration of products, partly because your pores get opened up,” Chiu says, “but even more so because heat helps dilate blood vessels. This makes the skin better able to absorb ingredients in serums and masks due to increased blood supply.” Hair treatments work better in this environment, too, she says: “Hair is made up of shafts of keratinized cells that are slightly expanded and disrupted by heat, which allows smoothing products like glosses and conditioners to penetrate the cuticle.”

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All manner of physiological magic happens when we submerge in a hot bath—blood pressure lowers, and studies have shown that calorie burn temporarily increases—and as any tub-time devotee knows, the psychological benefits of a deep douse are myriad. A bath relaxes the mind as much as it does the muscles, and it can bring clarity, usher in sleep, and, in some circumstances, make you feel utterly reborn. Because of this, Chiu notes, you may see beautifying benefits whether you’ve slathered on lotions and potions or not: “There’s definitely a mind-skin connection,” she says. “Stress can interfere with your immune system and affect the skin’s ability to heal. That’s why a relaxation ritual can help with acne, hair loss, and skin issues like eczema, inflammation, and hives.”

The Romans often placed mosaics at the entrance to their thermal complexes wishing patrons bene lava: “Have a good bath.” Thousands of years later, that sentiment still holds.

Water World

The most indulgent suds, salts, and muds to put the aah in your home spa.

This article originally appears in the February 2018 issue of ELLE.


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