A Brief History of Epsom Salt: What Is It, Exactly? Why Do We Bathe In It? And, Really? People Drink It?

A Brief History of Epsom Salt: What Is It, Exactly? Why Do We Bathe In It? And, Really? People Drink It?

Edith Zimmerman
Apr 9, 2017
(Image credit: Edith Zimmerman)

If you've ever poured cups of Epsom salt into your bath while wondering, "What is this stuff, and why am I doing this?" but you haven't yet poked around long enough to find out (or remember)...


Technically a bitter-tasting, naturally occurring magnesium-and-sulfate mineral compound (chemical name: magnesium sulfate heptahydrate), Epsom salt is named for the English town in which it was discovered, where it bubbled up in water from an underground spring in the early 17th century. (It's also known as epsomite.)

(Image credit: Google)

Here's more on the story of its discovery, from the Royal Society of Chemistry:

The summer of 1618 saw England gripped by drought, but as Henry Wicker, a local cowherd, walked across Epsom Common he came across a pool of water from which his thirsty cattle refused to drink. The water tasted bitter and on evaporation yielded a salt which had a remarkable effect: it was a laxative. This became the famous Epsom's salts (magnesium sulfate, MgSO4) and a treatment for constipation for the next 350 years.

According to Jim Hill, the president of the Epsom Salt Council (an organization founded in 1993), Wicker noticed that the wounds on the animals who waded in the bitter-tasting (or, Epsom-salted) water also seemed to heal more quickly. "From this discovery," Hill wrote in an email, "many in England began to travel to Epsom to experience numerous health benefits, particularly the relief from the painful symptoms of gout and for the natural purging effects of the water." Or, ahem, what we'd now call its laxative effects. Enough visitors traveled to Epsom for this purpose that (in the mid to late 1600s) it became known as a spa town.

Or, in the words of a Dutch visitor to Epsom during this time (via the Epsom and Ewell History Explorer):

"The practice of the drinking of the water is early in the morning and from then until 8, 9, 10 o'clock. It is drunk on an empty stomach from stoneware mugs holding about one pint. Some drink ten, twelve, even fifteen or sixteen pints in one journey, but everyone as much as he can take. And one must then go for a walk, works extraordinarily excellent, with various funny results. Gentlemen and ladies have their separate meeting places, putting down sentinels in the shrub in every direction."

Epsom salt wasn't officially called Epsom salt (or salts) until 1695, however, when a scientist named Nehemiah Grew gave a name to the "bitter purging salts" (or, the bitter laxative salts) that he found at Epsom. He and an associate went on to try to manufacture Epsom salt to sell, but the wells in Epsom soon dried up and the town's reputation as a spa destination waned (this was the early 1700s).

Most of America's Epsom salt now comes from two domestic producers: Giles and PQ Corporation (both of which are USP and FDA-approved).

(Image credit: Edith Zimmerman)

Uses for Epsom Salt

Popular uses for Epsom salt span the spectrum — depending on what you're Googling, it can feel almost difficult to find something for which Epsom salt isn't supposedly helpful — but it's been used as a health and beauty aid since its discovery, and it's currently an FDA-approved laxative.

The Epsom Salt Council's website highlights the ways people can expand their Epsom salt repertoire, from gardening and crafting to itch-alleviation and champagne-repurposing. Council president Jim Hill's favorite use for Epsom salt is as a sleep aid: "I find that when I take a bath with a generous amount of Epsom salt dissolved in it, I sleep much deeper and wake up feeling refreshed." (You can also find the Council on Instagram and Twitter.)

WebMD lists several medicinal uses for Epsom salt, and includes this brief description of how it works:

In water, it breaks down into magnesium and sulfate. The theory is that when you soak in an Epsom salt bath, these get into your body through your skin. That hasn't been proven, but just soaking in warm water can help relax muscles and loosen stiff joints.

WebMD also provides useful instructions for properly taking an Epsom salt bath: "Keep the part of your body that hurts in the water for at least 12 minutes. Just relax."

(Image credit: Wikipedia)

Float On

If you don't care to draw your own Epsom salt-infused bath, there might be an isolation tank nearby you could visit (or there one might be on its way). Per a recent press release from the Epsom Salt Council:

The number of flotation centers has surged nationwide, a spike fueled by spa-goers, sports superstars and medical researchers exploring the health benefits of flotation therapy and magnesium sulfate. An industry report shows that 149 centers have opened since 2011, and 222 more businesses plan to open in the next two years.

"Float On" is also the name of an annual conference for float/isolation tank owners.

(Image credit: Getty)

Other fun facts about Epsom salt:

For soaking or ingesting purposes, the Epsom Salt Council recommends using only Epsom salt that's been marked as "USP" (United States Pharmacopeia-approved) and that has a "Drug Facts" label on its container (an indicator it's been FDA-approved).

And if you're inspired to visit the town of Epsom, in Surrey, England, some popular destinations include the Bourne Hall Museum (which houses an old water pump and other remnants of Epsom's spa-town past), the Epsom Downs Racecourse (home of the Epsom Derby), and the Epsom Playhouse.

(Image credit: Bourne Hall Museum)

Bonus: The website The Conversation (via Discover Magazine) also just rounded up some recent research on the potential health benefits of passive heating (e.g., taking a bath): "A hot bath has benefits similar to exercise."

Also, here are 47 more unexpected, surprising, and mind-blowing uses for Epsom salt.

Any personal favorite uses?

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