It’s one of the best instant stress reducers there is—and chances are you’ve got at least one in your home. It’s the often overlooked 30- to 50-gallon tub that sits in your bathroom—otherwise known as the bathtub.

Most people think of taking a bath as a way to get clean or to luxuriate on special occasions. But, says Carolyn Bessette, MD, author of The Bath Solution (Createspace), baths are so good for our mental and physical health that they should be part of everyone’s health maintenance routine. Here, she tells us how to get the most from a 20-minute soak…

BEFORE YOU STEP INTO THE BATH

Fill up the tub with water that is comfortably warm. Temperature sensation really varies by person—and so it’s important that you adjust the water so that it suits your personal preference. Hot baths are not advised for pregnant women or for people with heart conditions and/or high blood pressure. That’s because hot water raises heart rate, which could be harmful to people with these conditions.

To get the full effects of the bath, plan to sit for about 15 to 20 minutes. If it bothers you that the skin of your fingers and toes may “prune” a little, the puckering can be decreased by adding bath salts to the water (see below).

FOR THE MIND

Being surrounded by and partially submerged in water can place you fully in the present—and the peace of the moment. What’s especially nice about the bath: It’s a great place to get away from it all. When you say, “I’m going to take a bath” and close the bathroom door, chances are you won’t be disturbed by family members. Also, it’s difficult to multitask while you’re soaking in the tub—so it’s a perfect place to be still. Being in water is in itself relaxing. It brings balance and a feeling of calm. You can focus on the feeling of the water around you…on your breath…or on nothing at all.

FOR THE BODY

Sitting in a bath can ease sore, tense muscles…soften skin…reduce fatigue…and help you sleep better. To enhance the health effects of the bath, you can use “additives” (as they are called) to change the chemistry of the water. Here are some great choices…

For muscles…

Bath additive: Epsom salt.

What it does: Relaxes muscles and relieves sore muscles. Epsom salt is made of magnesium and sulfate. Studies have shown that the magnesium in Epsom salt can be absorbed by the body through capillaries in the skin to produce this effect on muscles.

Amount to use: Two cups of Epsom salt per bath.

For skin…

Bath additive: Sea salt.

What it does: Sea salt is dried sea water that contains all of the trace minerals and elements found in the ocean—not just the salt. When sea salt is added to bath water, minerals and elements such as chloride, potassium and magnesium enter the pores of the skin. They gently exfoliate the skin, making it clean and smooth.

Amount to use: One to two cups per bath.

Bath additive: Apple cider vinegar

What it does: Vinegar has an astringent, stimulating effect on the skin—and is especially good for baths during hot summer months. Vinegar is antifungal and antibacterial—and in the bath, it may temper poison ivy or sunburn. Apple cider vinegar has a less pungent aroma than other vinegars.

Amount to use: One to two cups per bath.

Bath additive: Baking soda

What it does: Baking soda is an alkalizing agent. When added to the bath, it can ease burning, stinging or itching skin from a skin condition such as dermatitis or from insect bites.

Amount to use: Two to three cups per bath.