Magnesium is the deficiency du jour of the health world — and for good reason. Roughly half of all Americans are magnesium-deficient, and not getting enough of the mineral can lead to stress, lack of energy, headaches, and even heart problems. Which may explain the rise in popularity of Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) baths in an attempt to boost levels.
Dosing up on magnesium has been credited with reducing stress, curing depression, and giving you the best night’s sleep of your life. But do Epsom salt baths stand up to the hype? Yahoo Health looks at the science.
Where The Trend Began:
Though it seems to be a current fad, Epsom salt was first discovered in the late 17th century in Epsom, England, when residents boiled down the mineral water that flowed from local springs and were left with shiny white flakes of magnesium sulfate. Scientists soon figured out how to easily manufacture the salt and began selling it as both a bathing additive and a laxative. You can now find it in the bath aisle at drugstores, on Amazon, and, perhaps as a sign of the times, in the bulk section at Whole Foods. Epsom salt has recently spiked in popularity — many CrossFit devotees adhere to the belief that it aids in muscle recovery, and countless other wellness enthusiasts swear it can alleviate PMS symptoms and promote sleep.
How It Works:
The thinking is this: When you soak in a solution of water mixed with Epsom salt, your body will absorb the magnesium, replenishing your depleted levels. Some proponents even call this a “detox bath,” based on the belief that soaking in the solution can pull water-soluble “toxins” out of your body as you soak.
What The Science Says:
There’s been one small clinical study that has linked Epsom salt baths to raising magnesium levels— 19 adults with low-level magnesium deficiencies took 12-minute, 125-degree baths every day for one week, and most participants had marginally higher magnesium levels after seven days. Related studies found that magnesium did not penetrate the skin when used in a 98.6-degree bath — a more normal bathing temperature — and no study has been able to prove that Epsom salt relieves muscle pain or soreness.
According to Jordan Metzl, M.D., sports medicine physician and author of Athlete’s Book of Home Remedies, “Epsom salt baths seem to help some people as a placebo effect, and it won’t hurt them. But the science doesn’t really hold up.”
Michael Roizen, M.D., Chief Wellness Officer at the Cleveland Clinic, has a slightly more forgiving take. “Let me put it like this: We looked at prune juice to relieve constipation, and if you look at the data, it has no better results than a placebo,” he told Yahoo Health. “But everyone who drinks it says it works 100 percent of the time. This is similar. It might really work, but we just don’t have the [supporting] science.”
As for claims that Epsom baths can “pull toxins” from your body — those are pretty much bunk. A heated bath can make you sweat, which can help your body release excess salt and impurities, but the Epsom salts don’t make any difference.
Both doctors are quick to point out that soaking in an Epsom salt bath won’t hurt you — the hot water can loosen your muscles before or after a workout, and taking 15 to 20 minutes to stay in one place and breathe is always a great stress reliever. But when push comes to shove, the science just isn’t there. Your skin is meant to be a protective barrier, so magnesium won’t absorb through it enough to be beneficial.
That said, if you’re looking for more than just a steamy soak, there are products that mix Epsom salt with other, more science-backed ingredients. Naturopathica’s Sweet Birch Magnesium Bath Flakes, for example, contain methyl salicylate — clinically proven to help reduce inflammation, increase circulation, and manage pain. Dermalogica’s Hydro-Active Mineral Salts don’t contain any magnesium, but they do have tea tree oil, which is a proven anti-inflammatory ingredient. Lush’s Dreamtime bath bar doesn’t contain any salts, but it does have calming lavender and anti-inflammatory sandalwood. Love Epsom salt baths just as they are? Great! Keep on keepin’ on. Just don’t expect any miracles.