Are bubble baths good for my skin?

Woman in bubble bath.
Personal Hygiene Image Gallery Bubble bath ingredients can irritate the skin, eyes, ears and urinary tract. See more pictures of personal hygiene.
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After a long hard day, just the thought of sinking into a hot bubble bath can help ease your tension, but you may want to give some thought to what you're soaking in before you plunge into the tub. Bubble baths offer a fun, inexpensive way to relax and reduce stress, but frolicking in that foam may lead to a whole new set of worries. Bubble baths contain surfactants -- ingredients that lower water's surface tension and cause it to foam -- and fragrances, which make the bath smell good. These ingredients can cause dryness and irritation, especially in people who have allergies or sensitive skin. Bubbles can also cause or aggravate several unpleasant skin conditions, including the following:

Even if you don't have sensitive skin or an existing skin condition, several ingredients commonly found in bubble baths can put a damper on your bathing bliss. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics sponsored testing on 48 bath products for children, and its research found that many products -- including those labeled "pure" and "natural" -- contained hazardous chemicals like formaldehyde. However, product manufacturers say they use safe levels of these chemicals [source: Consumer Affairs].


If you're unsure what your bath products contain, check the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Household Products Database [source: Household Products Database]. The Web site provides information on ingredients and posts any product warnings, so you can make informed decisions about what products to use.

Read on to learn how skin reacts to bubble bath ingredients.


How Skin Reacts in the Bath

Knowing the possible complications involved in taking a bubble bath may leave you wary of ever getting back in the tub. However, your skin is pretty complex, and once you understand how it works, you'll have a better idea of why bubbles can have unintended side effects.

Your skin is the largest organ in your body, and it acts like armor by protecting everything inside your body. Three layers of tissue -- an epidermis, a dermis and a subcutaneous layer of fat -- make up your skin. The top layer, or epidermis, is your first line of defense because it's what comes in contact with the outside world. Your epidermis works to protect the other layers of skin and everything underneath -- but it's not an impenetrable shield. Your epidermis can absorb some of the substances it comes in contact with, and sometimes these substances can pass through your skin and into your bloodstream [source: Snyderman]. This is especially true during prolonged contact -- like when you're spending some quality time soaking in the tub.


Bubble bath may seem harmless, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has issued warnings about some bubble baths, which may make you think twice about what your skin is absorbing. Fragrances, dyes and other substances found in many bubble baths can cause irritation to not only the skin, but also to the eyes, ears and urinary tract [source: Household Products Database].

People react to bubble baths in different ways. Keep reading to learn what specific effects bubble baths can have on males.


Men and Bubble Baths

Bubble baths aren't just for women. Check out the self-care section in many stores, and you'll find entire lines of bath products designed especially for men. But bubble baths can cause problems with men's most delicate parts.

Although it's important to keep the penis clean, too much soap -- such as that found in bubble bath -- can irritate delicate genital skin, resulting in inflammation, redness, itching and soreness [source: Royal Children's Hospital of Melbourne]. Bubble baths can also cause urinary tract infections (UTIs) in males. These infections occur when bacteria and other foreign irritants get into your urinary tract, which can be painful and can cause serious medical complications if they spread to the kidneys [source: Hershey Medical Center]. The ingredients found in bubble baths can also cause general types of skin irritation, including itching and redness. Sensitive skin on and around the penis is more vulnerable to this kind of reaction. If you have an existing wound, the likelihood of irritation increases, and you should avoid using bubble bath or other harsh soaps on the affected area. For example, if a male undergoes circumcision to remove his foreskin, then he shouldn't soak in a bubble bath until the skin has completely healed [sources: BUPA Health Factsheet, Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters].


But bubble bath products are equal-opportunity irritants and can also affect females. Read on to learn more.

Women and Bubble Baths

Bubble baths have long been a source of solace, romance and enjoyment for women. They're a great way to feel pampered and to dissolve stress, but bubble baths can also irritate a woman's delicate parts. In addition to general irritation and inflammation, women and girls may also develop the following:

  • Discharge: Normal vaginal discharge serves an important role in removing bacteria and dead cells, and this process helps prevent infection. But the use of some bubble bath products can cause abnormal discharge that may result in itching, burning and an unpleasant odor [source: WebMD].
  • Dryness: Although bubble baths don't cause vaginal dryness, they can aggravate existing conditions. Women shouldn't take a bubble bath to relieve vaginal dryness because the bubble bath may cause further drying [source: Mayo Clinic].
  • UTIs: Women and girls are at an even greater risk of contracting UTIs than men and boys. Women suffering from a UTI should especially avoid bubble baths because exposure to some ingredients can slow recovery [source: National Institutes of Health].
  • Vaginitis: A number of infections fall under the heading "vaginitis" including yeast infections. Soaking in a soothing tub of bubbles may seem like a good way to relieve itching, burning and pain, but irritants commonly found in bubble bath can actually make these symptoms worse. A bubble bath won't cause a yeast infection; however, it can make you more susceptible to one [source: Mayo Clinic].

Adults can read product labels to make informed choices about bubble bath products, but babies can't. Read on to learn how bubbles and babies mix, so you can make the best choice your infant.


Babies and Bubble Baths

Bubbles may seem like a great way to help a baby enjoy bath time, but bubble bath may not be the best option for infants. In fact, newborn babies should completely avoid the bathtub until the umbilical cord falls off. Give your newborn simple sponge baths, using lukewarm water and mild cleansers designed for infants. When your baby is ready to start splashing in the tub, continue to use mild soaps and avoid bubble baths and soaps with fragrances, dyes or other chemical additives. An infant's skin has just come out of a carefully controlled environment, so it's not ready to deal with harsh chemicals and other irritants [source: Mayo Clinic].

When choosing any baby bath product -- not just bubble bath -- you should double-check the ingredients. A recent study found that 48 personal care products advertised for children contained formaldehyde and dioxane, suspected carcinogens. In fact, dioxane has been banned in cosmetics by the European Union [source: Boyles]. If you decide to use bubble bath, keep an eye on babies old enough to put things in their mouths. That brightly colored container may be tempting to a curious infant, and even though many bubble baths are nontoxic, poisoning can still occur if too much soap is swallowed [source: Medline Plus].


This doesn't mean you should never indulge in a bubble bath, though -- but it is a good idea to take a look at the ingredient list before you start and to limit the time you spend lounging in the tub. For more information, see the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Cosmeceutical Facts & Your Skin." (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "EczemaNet: Preventing Flare-Ups." (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • Baumann, Leslie, MD. "Book Excerpt: The Skin Type Solution." ABC News. March 10, 2006. (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • Boyles, Salynn. "Report: Toxins Common in Baby Products." WebMD Health News. March 12, 2009. (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • Bupa. "Circumcision in Men." January 2008. (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters. "Hypospadias Repair." (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • Consumer Affairs. "Group Raps 'Toxic' Bubble Bath." March 13, 2009. (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • KidsHealth. "Your Skin." March 2007. (Accessed 8/22/09)
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  • Mayo Clinic. "Vaginitis." February 6, 2009. (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • Medline Plus. "Bubble Bath Soaps." (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. "Urinary Tract Infections (UTI)." (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • National Cancer Institute. "Radiation Therapy and You: Support for People with Cancer." (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • National Institutes of Health. "Managing Bladder Dysfunction." (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • Household Products Database. "Sesame Street Finger Paint Bubble Bath." (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • Royal Children's Hospital of Melbourne. "The Penis & Foreskin." (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • Snyderman, Judith. "More Than Skin Deep." July 1, 2008. (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • WebMD. "Ear Canal Problems (Swimmer's Ear)." February 13, 2008. (Accessed 8/22/09)
  • WebMD. "Earwax." February 13, 2008. (Accessed 8/22/09)