Social Bathing: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Steaming mineral pools, relaxing massages, and peaceful tranquility surround you. Historically, bathing with others has been a communal activity tied deeply to culture, health, and social connection. While the practice declined in popularity in North America and Europe, a resurgence of interest in social and communal bathing experiences has emerged.
This trend of shared public bathing spaces provides opportunities for relaxation, community, and potential health benefits. However, it raises important questions about hygiene, sanitation, and safety protocols. As we explore this trend of social bathing, we will examine the history of social bathing, its modern incarnation, the benefits and risks, and top destinations reimagining the communal social bathing experience.
|Story at a Glance
The History and Culture of Social Bathing
Sharing bathing facilities and rituals has existed across cultures for millennia. Public baths were essential community hubs for social connection, hygiene, and health.
In ancient Roman times, extravagant public baths allowed citizens to bathe, exercise, receive medical services, conduct business, and socialize. At their peak, over 900 baths operated in Rome, some accommodating up to 3,000 bathers at once.
In ancient Greece, public bathing facilities also dotted the landscape. Historical texts reference bathing as a vital part of Greek culture tied to cleansing, health, and social discourse.
In Japanese culture, public baths represent crucial gathering places and communal rituals. Sento, traditional public bathhouses, and onsen, facilities built around natural hot springs, remain popular today.
In Finland, the tradition of saunas persists as an integral part of Finnish culture. There are over 3 million saunas in Finland (for a population of 5.5 million), with many apartments containing private saunas. Public saunas also thrive, some accommodating up to 1,000 bathers at once.
As bathing shifted from public to private activity in much of Europe and North America, some cultures maintained communal social bathing traditions. Now, a resurgence of interest in social bathing looks to the historical and cultural roots of these experiences.
The Modern Communal Bathing Experience
Once public bathing facilities declined in Europe and North America in the 19th and 20th centuries, most bathing shifted to private spaces. However, a modern revival explores creative ways to facilitate group bathing experiences.
This trend reimagines social bathing with modern sensibilities around privacy, amenities, and atmosphere. While some facilities offer complete open layouts reminiscent of ancient baths, many incorporate private spaces alongside communal areas.
Modern spas fuse relaxation, community, and holistic health. They provide sensory relaxation through water, steam, saunas, massage and design elements like meditation spaces, flowering gardens, fire pits, and relaxation lounges.
Facilities range from small neighborhood spas to lavish wellness resorts. Urban locations allow busy city residents to escape hectic city life and connect with others seeking relaxation. Some target specific demographics, like women-only spas, while others welcome people across ages, genders, and backgrounds.
This communal social bathing renaissance also ties into broader wellness movements. Recovery practices like meditation, yoga, or tai chi complement the deep relaxation from warm therapeutic waters. Nutrition, sleep, and mental health education supplement the spa experience.
Ultimately, these spaces facilitate human connection, often missing in modern life. The bonding experience of sharing vulnerabilities and finding common humanity are antidotes to the stress of daily routines.
Physical and Mental Health Benefits
Proponents of social bathing tout its numerous research-backed health benefits. However, risks like sanitation and overexposure also deserve consideration.
- Reduced Stress
Warm water exposure triggers the body’s relaxation response. Soaking in warm therapeutic pools, steam rooms, or saunas soothes tense muscles and calms the mind. One study found soaking in a hot tub lowers cortisol levels, a key stress hormone. Lower stress carries wide-ranging benefits, including reducing anxiety, depression, and heart disease risk.
- Community Connection
Sharing vulnerable experiences in relaxing environments facilitates human bonding. This sense of belonging counters the loneliness epidemic linked to depression, cognitive decline, and more. Humans are social creatures, and communal bathing provides community missing from many people’s lives.
- Pain Relief
Water therapy provides natural pain relief for many muscle and joint conditions. Mineral water composition, massage water jets, and warm temperatures relax muscles and increase circulation. This alleviates conditions like arthritis, fibromyalgia, and back pain. Evidence confirms pool-based exercise and aqua-therapy improve function for chronic pain issues.
Sweating in hot tubs, saunas, or steam rooms promotes detoxification through the skin’s pores. Some advocates claim this removes toxins, though limited evidence confirms this benefit. However, sweating does burn calories and provides temporary weight loss benefits.
- Cardiovascular Health
Saunas’ high temperatures mimic light exercise by increasing heart rate, circulation, and metabolism. Evidence links regular sauna to lower blood pressure, reduce heart disease mortality, and improve exercise endurance.
Increased circulation from warm water immersion improves nutrient delivery throughout the body. This provides an anti-aging effect for youthful skin and may accelerate cell repair.
- Improve Immune Function Reduce Inflammation
Moderate heat stress from saunas, hot tubs, and steam rooms may bolster immune function. Heat exposure triggers the release of heat shock proteins, which reduces the risk of inflammation and infection.
- Improved Sleep
Relaxation before bedtime supports high-quality sleep. Reduced stress hormones, loosened muscles, lowered core temperature from cool-down, and meditation spaces facilitate restful sleep. Quality sleep strengthens immunity, cognition, mood, and more.
While benefits exist, moderation is key. Excessive heat exposure stresses the body, challenging the cardiovascular system. This could be problematic for pregnancies, heart conditions, or blood pressure concerns. Drinking enough water prevents dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, dizziness, and overheating. Consulting a doctor helps identify any potential risks.
Staying Hygienic and Sanitary for Social Bathing
With people sharing tight spaces in social bathing, sanitation is critical. Fortunately, modern science offers advanced water filtration, cleaning methods, and design adaptations to maximize hygiene.
- Water Sanitation
Sophisticated filtration removes microbes like bacteria, viruses, and parasites from bathing water. Ozonation, ultraviolet irradiation, and chlorination eliminate pathogens and provide residual disinfection. Test strips gauge pH, free chlorine, and alkalinity levels multiple times daily. Backwashing and replenishing water prevents the buildup of organic waste.
- Air Quality and Ventilation
Proper ventilation with external fresh air dilutes concentrations of chloramines that accrue from disinfected pool water mixing with human sweat and waste. This prevents the buildup of irritating chemicals in indoor air.
- Surface Cleaning
Frequently disinfecting surfaces with antimicrobial cleaners containing chlorine or quaternary ammonium kills disease-causing microbes. Workers rigorously wipe down lockers, showers, benches, pools, etc., in exceptionally high-traffic areas.
- Design Innovations
Smart facility design enhances cleanliness. Concrete decking surrounding pools allows regular pressure washing. Slip-resistant flooring helps prevent falls and accidents. Proper slope, drainage, and water collection systems remove water rapidly to avoid standing water and bacterial growth. Special heated floors rapidly dry surfaces.
Guidelines and Oversight for Social Bathing
Official oversight adds accountability. The Centers for Disease Control provides strict disinfection and water quality guidelines for public swimming pools. Routine mandatory facility inspections identify potential issues. Staff training covers water chemistry monitoring, sampling procedures, cleaning, risk minimization, and more.
Ultimately, risks around sanitation come from improper maintenance, not communal bathing itself. Following rigorous protocols minimizes health hazards. Patrons should look for overseers like the CDC to confirm facilities adhere to the highest standards. Avoiding pools and social bathing during peak times limits overcrowding and maximizes cleanliness.
Communal social bathing in spas also has many drawbacks and dangers that may be hidden from the users. One of the main risks is the transmission of germs and infections through the water or the air.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 208 confirmed outbreaks of illness associated with treated recreational water between 2015 and 2019, resulting in 3,646 cases of illness, 286 hospitalizations, and 13 deaths. Most of these outbreaks were linked to hot tubs at hotels or resorts. Some of the common pathogens that can cause diseases from spa communal social bathing are:
- Cryptosporidium: This parasite can cause gastrointestinal illnesses, such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and cramps. It can survive in chlorinated water for days and spread by swallowing contaminated water or contacting infected feces.
- Legionella: This bacterium can cause Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially serious lung infection that can lead to pneumonia, fever, cough, shortness of breath, and even death. It can grow in warm water and inhale through the steam or mist from hot tubs or showers.
- Pseudomonas: This bacterium can cause hot tub rash, a skin infection resulting in itchy bumps or blisters on the areas exposed to contaminated water. It can also cause ear infections or eye infections.
- Giardia: This parasite can spread via contaminated hot tubs and swimming areas. It can cause giardiasis infection, which leads to vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps.
- Shigella and E coli: These bacteria can cause intestinal infections that can lead to bloody diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain, and dehydration. They can be transmitted by swallowing water contaminated with fecal matter or contacting infected persons.
Another risk of spa communal / social bathing is the effect of high temperatures on the body.
- Hot water can raise the body temperature and lower the blood pressure, which can be dangerous for people with certain medical conditions or medications. For example, people with heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, or pregnant women should consult their doctors before using hot tubs or saunas.
- Hot water can also cause scalding and burns if it is too hot or if the user stays too long.
- Hot water can cause dehydration if the user does not drink enough fluids before or after the bath. Dehydration can lead to headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and fainting.
Top Social Bathing Destinations
Seeking to experience the communal bathing trend? The following destinations provide relaxing and rejuvenating spaces to enjoy the pleasures and benefits of social bathing.
Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs (New Mexico) – This desert oasis offers pools with four different mineral blends harnessing the healing powers of nature. A picturesque location and luxury amenities like massages, yoga, hiking, and nutritional workshops complement the therapeutic waters.
Buckstaff Bathhouse (Hot Springs, Arkansas) – Using the area’s healing thermal waters, Buckstaff provides traditional bathing packages. Their whirlpool mineral baths, sitz baths, steam cabinets, hot packs, and massage therapy supply therapeutic relaxation.
The Bathhouse (Santa Barbara, California) – This beloved neighborhood spa offers pools, steam rooms, saunas, showers, and vintage relaxation rooms. Their variety of massages, facials, scrubs, and Ayurvedic treatments provide holistic healing.
Banya 5 (Seattle, Washington) – This Russian-style bathhouse in Seattle provides traditional wooden saunas called banyas. Banya 5 is an environment that promotes wellness, vitality, and rejuvenation of the soul in the tradition of Turkish hammams, Russian banyas, Finnish saunas, and Japanese bathhouses. At Banya 5, immerse yourself in this unique sensory experience. Plunge pools, massages, body treatments, and Russian steam rooms offer relaxation with cultural flair.
Coming Soon Opening Fall 2024 Alchemy Springs, a planned hydrothermal spa located in San Francisco’s Lower Nob Hill neighborhood, has announced a vision to revive the city’s bathhouse culture and provide a place for community and wellness to intersect through social bathing.
Alchemy Springs will incorporate a modern biophilic design to bring the outdoors indoors and provide a psychological and physical healing space to unplug and immerse in nature.
Plans include 16,000 sq ft of open indoor-outdoor space with multiple therapeutic baths, including moon, mineral, massage, and sun baths, a salt cave, herbal steam room, treatment rooms, an elixir lounge, a café, and a retail boutique.
Therme Vals (Graubünden, Switzerland) – Renowned architect Peter Zumthor designed this elegant bathing facility containing 60C thermal spring waters flowing through indoor and outdoor pools. They offer steam baths, resting areas, cold water immersion, and peaceful surroundings.
Blue Lagoon (Grindavík, Iceland) – Situated in a lava field, the Blue Lagoon’s geothermal seawater provides relaxing and healing silica mud masks and massages. The scenic location and its position near the airport make this a popular tourist destination.
Széchenyi Thermal Bath (Budapest, Hungary) – As one of the largest spa complexes in Europe, Széchenyi contains three outdoor pools, over a dozen indoor thermal baths and pools, steam chambers, saunas, and other amenities across 18 acres.
Final Thoughts on Social Bathing
The resurgence of social bathing spaces shows the deep human need for connection, community, and healing experiences. While risks around sanitation exist, proper oversight and protocols minimize health hazards, allowing patrons to reap benefits.
Exploring the social bathing trend provides profound relaxation and perspective into cultures worldwide that have maintained social bathing traditions for millennia. By thoughtfully incorporating these practices’ historical, cultural, and medicinal lessons, we can recreate spaces facilitating health, human bonding, and community in the modern era.
In conclusion, spa communal bathing is a trendy but risky practice that may harm the users more than benefit. While it may offer some relaxation and enjoyment for some people, it also exposes them to germs and infections that can cause serious illnesses. Moreover, it can affect the body’s temperature regulation and hydration levels, negatively affecting health. Therefore, spa communal bathing is unhealthy and should be avoided or used cautiously by those interested.