The custom of taking a bath is as old as the world, and has always been adopted as a pleasurable experience, rather than a hygiene routine.
It appears that the ancient Egyptians, particularly women, used to take more than one bath a day: one cold to start with, then a lukewarm one, and a warm one to finish. The latter was accompanied by scents and followed by an aromatic massage for the face, neck and breast. The same bathing culture was found in ancient populations of the Middle East, Syria and Arabia. The Greeks adopted the Egyptian habits, but with some adaptations: they used to find entertainment in the gymnasium, a place with a gym, a bath and an exedra (where the philosophers talked to their pupils after they trained their body and took a soothing bath for their soul). The Roman baths, the so-called thermae romane, originated as a fusion between the Greek gymnasium and the Egyptian steam bath. As time passed, the culture of baths expanded through the whole empire. They became a place for social interactions, as they could host up to 6000 people. We could see them as our equivalent of a multi-purpose leisure center with attractions, libraries, high-end sports centers, small theaters to listen to poetry and music, and flourishing gardens. Usually men and women were separated, but in some thermae, there were common areas where they could all bathe together.
Thermae represented an extremely important institution in Roman life. Some of these magnificent sites remained preserved until modern times: the most famous ones are those of emperor Caracalla (3rd century AD), built when Rome counted about one thousand public baths. They were organized as follows: in the first room, the unctuarium, people undressed and applied aromatic oils on their skin; they then walked into the drigidarium, where they practiced a rapid, simulating friction; subsequently, they used the tepidarium, and finally the calidarium, a steam room. The vapor was generated by a boiler where hot embers were kept and regularly sprinkled with water to steam the environment. Here, it was also common to use oils on the skin and practice massages.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, perhaps due to the high maintenance costs or for a shift in habits and the destruction of the aqueducts, the thermae went out of use until the 13th century, when the Crusaders brought this custom from the East. We will need to wait another four centuries to hear about “Turkish baths” and two more to “convince” the Europeans to adopt a hygiene routine.
Aromatic baths can act beneficially in two different ways: first, via the sense of smell that captures the scent propagating when oils are dropped into warm water. Then, via the skin, when the thin film on the surface of the oil layers on it and enters the body through the hydrolipidic barrier, travelling down the circulatory and lymphatic systems.
The temperature of the bath is also a key factor. While a lukewarm bath (around 30°C/86°F) is relaxing and sedative, a hot one (above 35°C/95°C) has a toning effect if brief, and a debilitating one if lengthy. This is strongly related to the choice of the oils, which should be in line with the desired effect. If the issue is dry skin, for instance, it is beneficial to massage it with a vegetable oil (e.g. olive or almond), that is able to nourish and protect the skin by making it more elastic.
Please note: applying oils on the skin during a sauna is not recommended, because sweating is a purging process that blocks absorption, and the oils themselves can hinder that. Therefore, the body will not absorb oils until sweating has stopped.
Recipes for baths:
- Winter bath to prevent colds and stimulate immune response
- 3 drops of Juniper
- 2 drops of Pepper
- 5 drops of Lavender
- Refreshing and toning summer bath
- 3 drops of Peppermint
- 4 drops of Bergamot
- 2 drops of Basil
- Morning, toning bath
- 5 drops of Rosemary
- 5 drops of Juniper
- 2 drops of Peppermint
- Evening bath to facilitate sleep
- 2 drops of Camomile
- 5 drops of Lavender
- 2 drops of Neroli
- Aphrodisiac bath
- 2 drops of Jasmine
- 2 drops of Ylang Ylang
- 8 drops of Sandalwood
- Footbath for hyper sweating
- 3 drops of Sage
- 4 drops of Cypress
- 3 drops of Lavender
Bibliography: Dr. Leonardo Paoluzzi, Phytos Olea, Morphema Editrice, (2013).