Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

Epsom salt has, for hundreds of years, been used for myriad reasons – primarily health and beauty– but it seems everyday we hear about more and more uses for these handy little white crystals.

I thought I knew a lot about Epsom salt when I started researching this story, but, as usual, au contraire!

First, Epsom salt isn’t salt at all.

We just call it that.

It’s a mineral compound composed of magnesium and sulfate.

It could be called just plain magnesium sulfate (MgSO4).

Epsom salt got its name from Epsom, a town in Surrey, England, approximately 15 miles from central London, where the mineral compound was first identified.

In the summer of 1618, during a drought, an English farmer or cow herder – the stories vary on this point – Henry Wicker, was driving cattle across Epsom Common when he noticed that a hoof print quickly filled up with water.

He dug into the ground and more water filled in the spot.

The next morning, Wicker saw that a large pool of water had collected in the spot, but the thirsty cows would not drink it – the water was too bitter.

And when it evaporated, it left a salt-like residue.

Wicker noticed that the wounds on the animals who waded in the bitter-tasting water seemed to heal more quickly.

It didn’t take long before people all over England, and then Europe, were traveling to Epsom’s bitter springs to drink their healthful waters.

By the late 17th Century, Epsom, the once sleepy rural village, became well-known as a spa town – one of the first in Britain.

The crystallized compound was obtained by boiling down mineral water from the springs, a process which accelerated with each passing year.

The water was said to have purgative (laxative) powers and was drunk in great quantities, on an empty stomach, from stoneware mugs.

In 1695, a chemist named Nehemiah Grew described its medicinal properties in his book about the “bitter purging salts.”

Grew named the mineral found in the spring water after the town where it was discovered.

And he tried to start a business of selling Epsom Salts.

But, not long after Grew acquired a royal patent for the exclusive manufacture of Epsom salt, the mineral had been discovered elsewhere and became inexpensively and commonly available.

Unfortunately, that was about the same time that the springs in Epsom started to dry up and with them, the town’s boom as a spa destination.

Tourists can still see a few reminders of Epsom’s past as a spa town. There’s the Bourne Hall Museum, which houses the old water pump and a few other mementos of the old spa days.

The mineral compound of Epsom salt occurs naturally. It forms from precipitation from vapors on limestone cave walls, and walls and timbers of various mines.

It has been found in springs in many places in Britain and around the world – in Europe, North America, Canada and Africa. It has been found in deposits from hot springs and fumaroles in Italy, including on Mt. Vesuvius.

Large sedimentary beds of it have been discovered in marine salt deposits in South Africa.

Epsom salt is one of the best known popular folk remedies for muscle aches and pains.

Ever since I was a little girl and my mom told me about it, I have “known” that Epsom salt is what we put in a hot tub to help soak away achy muscles.

So here’s my biggest surprise about it.

Despite all the anecdotal evidence behind the claim that the magnesium in Epsom salt can be absorbed into our skin – and is an effective remedy for muscle pain – there is very little published scientific evidence for this.

I know. Shock!

Mind you, Epsom salt has been used as a cure-all for centuries.

While the jury is still out about how its magnesium could possibly be absorbed through our skin, there have been lots of studies confirming the therapeutic effectiveness of Epsom salt as a laxative, antacid and for other medical conditions.

It is often recommended to help get a good night’s sleep.

Many believe that it can increase energy and stamina, improve nerve function, the digestive process, the absorption of nutrients and improve the formation of proteins in the intestinal lining.

It has been used to ease migraine headache and provide relief from muscle cramps and improve cardiovascular health and heart arrhythmias.

Besides being thought to be effective in the relief of inflammation and muscle pain, Epsom salt is also used to treat bronchial asthma and is believed to help prevent heart disease and strokes by lowering blood pressure.

It is also thought to increase the effectiveness of insulin, helping to lower the risk or severity of diabetes.

It is well known to promote skin healing and the treatment of all manner of skin irritations, like poison ivy and sun burn, and skin lesions, like psoriasis.

Soaking in a warm bath containing about two cups Epsom salt, for about half an hour, is thought to reduce the discomfort and inflammation due to gout.

It is recommended to soak one’s feet in a warm Epsom salt water bath three times a day as a treatment for toenail fungus and athlete’s foot.

And if your only foot concern is about foot odor, Epsom salt will take care of that, too.

A warm water compress with Epsom salt is helpful to speed up the healing of bruises.

It can even be used as a compress or an eye wash in cases of conjunctivitis, styes or just plain tired eyes.

An Epson salt soak will soften up skin to help remove a difficult splinter and, mixed with a few drops of baby oil, Epsom salt makes a wonderful moisturizing hand or facial scrub.

It is effective for removing blackheads.

Add a teaspoon of Epsom salt and three drops of dishwashing liquid to half a cup of boiling water. Let it cool, then dab the offending spot with the liquid until it has loosened enough to be gently removed.

There are lots of beauty tricks that incorporate Epsom salt.

For example, it will help remove the buildup of hair care products on hair and makes a wonderful additive to one’s hair conditioner to prevent “the frizzies.”

Just put about a teaspoon of Epsom salt in with your usual amount of hair conditioner and leave the solution on your hair for about 20 minutes.

Epsom salt is a helpful household staple.

There are dozens, maybe hundreds of uses for it inside and outside the home.

A solution of half Epsom salt and half dish soap will quickly clean kitchen and bathroom tile and counters.

Soaking burned-on food from pots and pans is much easier with a little Epsom salt added to some warm water.

A ring of Epsom salt around a trash can has been known to keep pests like raccoons away and sprinkling Epsom salt on your garden and flower bed will deter slugs and snails.

In fact, Epsom salt is a good replacement for fertilizer in your vegetable or rose garden – one cup of Epsom salt will fertilize 100 square feet of tilled soil.

I was told many years ago that adding a little Epsom salt around my tomato plants would increase plant size and blooms and even make the tomatoes tastier.

And I had good results with it.

I understand many gardeners use it this way for all their vegetable and fruit crops.

Because magnesium is necessary in the production of chlorophyl, sprinkling it on yellow spots in the lawn will help bring the green back without the help of lawn chemicals.

But despite its many other uses, my favorite way to use Epsom salt is in bath water.

I may not be a scientist, but I can attest to the fact that bathing in hot water and epsom salt is excellent for relieving sore muscles and stress.

Maybe that’s because just lying in a warm bath is pretty relaxing in itself.

Or maybe there really is something special that happens when you add Epsom salt to the water.

Although researchers are divided about whether an Epsom salt soak will cause a relaxation response, here’s the theory:

When we are anxious, our bodies sometimes release adrenaline, which leaches the body of magnesium.

Magnesium, a key ingredient in Epsom salt, raises serotonin levels in the brain, inducing relaxation.

Epsom salt can be found at any drug store and it is not expensive, so you can easily do your own experimental bathing with it.

To enjoy an Epsom salt soak, dissolve about two cups in warm bathwater– in an a average sized tub, more for a large tub – and immerse yourself for at least 15 minutes.

You can make a foot bath with a half cup of Epsom salt in a gallon of warm water.

It can come in handy in the shower, too.

Just make a paste with soap and water and use as a scrub – it makes a great exfoliator for face and body.

For an inexpensive, at-home spa treatment, add a tablespoon to a 1/4 cup of olive oil and scrub your body down – your skin will feel like you spent the day at Elizabeth Arden.

Just as my mother did, I have always put great stock in keeping Epsom salt near the bathtub.

I will continue to take my Epsom salt soaks, and I will continue to experience a heavenly, relaxing relief from them while I wait for science to catch up with my mother’s wisdom.

After all, she was hardly ever wrong.