Lora Shinn

December 8, 2008

6 Min Read
Pull the plug on boring baths

It's been used for thousands of years to soothe the nervous system. It washes away the day's dirt and purifies skin. And in tough economic times it can provide a relaxing, inexpensive indulgence. It's a bath.

But because a soak is such a treat in our time-starved world, customers are increasingly particular about bathing products, scrutinizing labels for questionable chemicals like parabens and sodium lauryl sulfate.

"Our consumers are constantly seeking out the most pure, natural and organic bath products available," says Tom Havran, aromatherapy product specialist at personal care company Aura Cacia, based in Urbana, Iowa.

Even if the ingredient list passes muster, a customer will want to select the best bath products for his or her dermatological needs and emotional state. Providing individualized advice makes the sale.

Most bath treats work for any type of skin, barring individual allergies to an ingredient. However, salts, oils, milks and other products create special results for the dipper, physically and emotionally. Here's an overview of bath products by type, and the scents that motivate buyers during the coldest months.

Bubble baths

For many of us, bubble baths were our entry into the world of bathing. And kids of all ages still love the fun of bubbles. But the spherical soaks are less popular today due to controversies around the harsh detergents needed to make the bubbles.

Some naturals manufacturers are finding an alternative to bubble baths' most maligned ingredient, sodium lauryl sulfate, a skin irritant. For example, Corte Madera, Calif.-based EO Essentials uses sodium coco sulfate, a coconut-based surfactant. Emma Mann, director of marketing for EO Essentials, explains that dissolved surfactants stabilize a bubble's surface tension and elasticity, allowing it to stretch without bursting.

Customers who want milder suds can try bath foams or fizzy bath "bombs," many of which include naturally effervescent baking soda.

Bath salts

Are your customers seeking ancient remedies for stress and soreness? They may find relief in salts, which can help ease stressed muscles and draw out toxins.

Commercial bath products typically incorporate either Dead Sea salts or Epsom salts. "Dead Sea salts are mineral-rich," says Stephanie Tourles, licensed holistic aesthetician, herbalist and author of Organic Body Care Recipes (Storey Publishing, 2007). "They also help to remineralize and pamper the skin in general, so you don't have to have 'problem' skin to benefit from Dead Sea salts."

Epsom salts, named for the town of Epsom, England, are not sea-sourced, despite their granular appearance. Instead, the crystals are a blend of magnesium and sulfate, which Tourles says can relieve aches, pains and lactic-acid buildup in overused muscles. And while the word "salt" might lead some customers to believe that the products are drying, bath salts are fine for all skin types.

Bath oils

Typically, bath oils are made of scented essential oils mixed into a carrier oil like jojoba, macadamia nut or almond oil. Just a few drops into the tub do the trick. "They work by coating the skin and sealing in moisture absorbed during a bath," Tourles says. "They have a moisturizing and softening effect on the skin and should be used often, especially during the winter or in an area with low humidity."

However, not all customers like the filmy residue on the skin—or the ring around the bathtub. After all, oil and water don't mix. Kerri Ward Merrill, a holistic aesthetician in Olympia, Wash., explains that there are ways to get around that. Dr. Hauschka's bath oils, for example, contain a sulfated castor oil, which acts as an emulsifier, so the oils will disperse instead of collecting on the water's surface.


From the time of Cleopatra, women have used milk baths to heal and soothe skin. "Whole milk, especially, is high in skin-softening lipids and mild, exfoliating lactic acid," Tourles says. Products are typically made from either goat or cow milk, often dried into milk powder. Honey is a popular addition in milk-based bath products. Customers will likely have an eye out for products that are free from bovine growth hormone and antibiotics, if not wholly organic, which can be difficult to find.


Remember how mom told you not to drink the bathwater? That still holds today, but bath teas combine the best of nutrition with relaxation.

"Herbal bath teas are designed to affect the surface of the skin as well as the dermis layer beneath," Tourles says. "Their properties, if strong enough, will also be absorbed into the bloodstream to a degree."

Like traditional teas, bath teas are herbs packaged in muslin or another teabag-style container that may also contain either salts or milks. Herbal baths might be just the prescription to soothe a customer's cold or stuffiness; Tourles suggests teas containing eucalyptus, peppermint, ginger, thyme or wintergreen.

And customers may be interested in antioxidant-rich green teas for a midwinter pick-me-up, says Janet Blevins, a massage therapist from Greensboro, N.C., whose massage sessions can include bath therapy.

Scentsational essences

Most bath products are combined with single essential oils or a proprietary blend. "Essential oils turn a chore into an indulgence, and a routine into therapy," says Aura Cacia's Havran.

Aesthetician Merrill says essential oils are absorbed in two ways: through the skin and through scent. "They're antibacterial, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory," she says. "And as you inhale it, you trigger a response in the brain and lymphatic system."

Blah-beating baths are a smart sell in winter. "Stimulating essential oils work well as they awaken the psyche, increase circulation and energize the body," Tourles says. Turn to warming citrus scents like lemon, orange, grapefruit and tangerine; or holiday favorites like peppermint, spearmint, eucalyptus, juniper and pine.

To detoxify, Merrill suggests bath products with ingredients like kelp, grapefruit, coriander, ginger or lemongrass. Blevins recommends frankincense for restoring youthful glow to skin.

Too much holiday fun—or stress? Suggest calming mixtures to customers. "Try chamomile and lavender for relaxation," Blevins says.

No matter which bath products or scents you emphasize, make sure your merchandising draws attention to the simple luxury of bathing with super-soft sustainable towels or washcloths made of bamboo or organic cotton. Or point out the fun for kids—bisphenol A-free rubber duckies are hard to turn down.

Merrill says she's always encouraging her clients to hop in their tubs. "You're extending private time and blocking out the world."

Lora Shinn is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 12/p. 1,24,26

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