TAKING A BATH is a lot like baking a cake from scratch.
Few people have time for it anymore.
And while showers get you clean, and the right mix -- with just a little help -- produces a cake, both showers and packaged cakes lack the psychic effects of their more old-fashioned counterparts.
Slipping into a warm, fragrant, sudsy bath is not something we should deny ourselves just because of time.
Baths warm you up on a cold night, and are said, with the right fragrance and water temperature, to give you a lift.
Baths have long been known for their medicinal effects, alleviating backaches, sore feet, headaches and even clogged sinuses. Now, they are also being touted as antidotes to anxiety, depression and stress, as well as dirt.
A bath is a cheap thrill, too. With a few drops of oil or gel, a scented soap and a smooth sponge, a necessity becomes a luxury.
"A bath clears your mind and relaxes your body," says Jeannine Maykrantz, manager of Caswell-Massey, a specialty bath and fragrance shop at The Gallery at Harborplace.
"It's the cheapest luxury vacation. In 10 minutes, you not only feel like you have been on a cruise, but also like you have had three days after to pull yourself together," says Maykrantz, who is a "bathologist," meaning she knows how to mix herbs and aromas into a personalized bath program that will make your baths more pleasant and therapeutic.
"You can take a shower to get clean, but you can totally spoil yourself in a bath," adds Scott Samios, co-owner of The Body Shop, which sells bath products, toiletries and cosmetics at White Marsh Mall and Harborplace.
For those still worried about time, consider this: Americans average about 11 minutes in a shower and about 20 minutes in a bath, according to a survey by Colgate-Palmolive cited in American Health magazine last year.
If you can feel like you've been to Bermuda for nine minutes a day, turn on the tap.
Maykrantz says the key to keeping baths time efficient is to use well the minutes it takes for the tub to fill. She suggests using them to gather what you'll need for your bath: soap, sponge, oil, moisturizing cream, tools to treat your finger and toe nails.
If those things are already at arms' reach, tidy up the bedroom, glance at the evening newspaper or light the candles and pour the wine.
Candles and wine??
Some wouldn't bathe without them. These are the folks who indulge themselves, even if just for a few minutes a week.
In addition to wine and wax, there are hundreds -- no, thousands -- of products with which to enhance your bath. Why, even the Romans, who are said to have spent copious hours at their baths, would be astounded at the bubbles and beads, oils and jels, powders and soaps for today's bath.
One of the newest, and oldest, ways to buoy your bath is aromatherapy, which Maykrantz defines as "assigning aromas for certain purposes" and adding those aromas, usually through essential oils, to the bath so one can inhale them while they work on your skin.
Peppermint, for instance, is considered stimulating; camomile, calming; sandalwood, sensuous, she says. These oils, produced steaming herbs and flowers to extract their oils, are often blended to create a effect.
At The Body Shop, for instance, there are bath beads, those small translucent balls you drop in a bath, that claim to be therapeutic. The "rejuvenating" bead, for instance contains oils of juniper, black pepper and bergamot, a small fruit native to Italy, in carrot juice, says Samios.
If aromatherapy, bathology and herbalism has your head swimming, you might look to your own kitchen for some well-tested bath treatments. "If you want to boost the skin-softening impact of a bath, hang a cheesecloth bag containing bran, oatmeal or almond meal under the faucet as you run the bath water," suggests Lia Schorr in her book, "Seasonal Skin Care."
Or, to make your own more comforting, simply hang three or four herbal tea bags under the running water," writes Lesley Bremness in "The Complete Book of Herbs." The herbs you choose, like the essential oils, determine the effect of the bath. You can also mix your own herbs in a tea ball and hang it under the water, she advises.
Here are some other suggestions from Schorr's book:
* To soothe irritated skin, add 1 or 2 cups of dry-fat milk to your bath; put in an essential oil, if you like.
* If your skin is particularly dry, slather your body with a high grade of olive oil before stepping into a warm bath. Soak for five minutes and then use a loofah to on your skin to chase away flaky cells.
* For a "bath-stimulating" mixture you can store: Heat a few cups of cider vinegar to just boiling. Add a handful of fresh or dried herbs, such as chamomile, sage and rosemary. Simmer five minutes. Remove pot from stove and cover; let sit overnight. Strain the liquid and refrigerate. Add about 1/4 cup to a warm bath.
If you are considering a gift of bath products this Christmas, there are thousands -- no, millions -- in stores, plus those you can concoct and package at home. There are also back brushes, scrubbing mitts, loofahs, sponges, bath thermometers and even bath pillows for the person who plans to stay awhile.
Specialty shops, departments stores and cosmetics counters everywhere have pre-packaged assortments of bath products. The more elaborate contain wash clothes, brushes, potpourri and candles. Many stores will put together an assortment of items while you wait, and some stores will fill a basket, or other container, that you supply.
If you'd rather assemble your own, you can buy individual items or make up some mixtures of your own.
But, remember, if you're giving someone bath goodies, you've also got to give them time -- a little anyway. So, why not tuck in a little note, saying you'll watch the kids, run the errands or fold the laundry while they soak.
You might even offer to bake a cake -- from scratch, of course.
Winter skin treatments
Winter, which is almost upon us, is perhaps the hardest season on skin. Wind, cold, overheated buildings and the lack of humidity gang up to dry up our skin.
You can feel the season's dry, rough touch on your face and see its reddening effects on your hands. You probably don't like how winter feels on your skin, so start to fight it now before the cold really sets in.
Here are some tips:
* Even if you are a shower lover, take a bath at least once a week to re-moisturize your skin. Keep the water moderately warm -- not so hot your skin turns beet-like -- and soak 10 or 15 minutes in a tub. Longer baths may tend to dry your skin. Use a favorite oil. There are even unscented oils, which many men prefer.
* If you have particularly dry and itchy skin, you may want to skip a day between baths or showers.
* Think about switching from a deodorant soap to a moisturizing soap. Specialty shops are full of beautifully colored and scented soaps for different skin types, but the grocery store, too, offers plenty of bars that are kinder and gentler to your skin than deodorant soaps at this time of year.
* Milk baths and other milk-based products are particularly effective because the sugars in milk draw water from the air to moisturize skin. These products also help to keep the skin smooth.
* When you get out of the bath, pat your skin dry. While your skin is still damp, apply body lotion all over. Be sure your legs, especially the ankles which dry out and itch, are well lubricated.
* Avoid cleansers or cosmetics that contain a lot of alcohol; save these for the warm months.
* Do not go outside for at least 30 minutes after bathing; the cold air will chap your skin.