When I first heard the term “bleach bath” a range of frightening images immediately popped into my mind: being poisoned, dissolving away, literally bleaching my skin a different color — basically the list goes on and on. But, my current skin state is pretty distressed, and I’m desperate and willing to try anything. So, here I am, typing whilst sitting in a bathtub filled with the overwhelming scent of bleach, waiting for my 10-minute timer to count down to zero.
Let me back up a minute. I am a life-long sufferer of chronic atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema. I’m constantly covering up itchy skin rashes on my legs, arms, shoulders, chest, back, neck, eyelids…pretty much everywhere. Working in the fashion industry is both a blessing and a curse — the former because I am pushed to creatively cover up my skin flares, and the latter because I work in an industry where appearance does matter. My eczema rashes can pop up from an allergy or simply because my body is stressed. It’s mildly irritating, sometimes debilitating, often uncontrollable, and always an inconvenience.
About two weeks ago, I got a small staph infection in my cuticle and it triggered a massive eczema inflammation all over my body. Anyone who suffers from chronic eczema knows the cycle well — as it flares up it sucks all the moisture from your skin, leaving behind cracked, dry, red patches. The irritated skin retains zero moisture and this brittle environment cracks and creates the perfect environment for infection. To get a better understanding of the sensitivity, dermatologist Dr. Jessica Weiser of the New York Dermatology Group explains, “Patients with eczema have compromised skin barrier function and are more susceptible to routine bacterial skin infections which can either secondarily infect active eczema or can trigger a flare of eczema.”
From my jawline to my ankles and even on my eyelids, I was covered in a red, horribly itchy skin rash. I was put on antibiotics to calm the infection, and a high dose of steroid pills to calm the inflammation. It was impossible to go to work since the rash had crawled up to my face and it was difficult to go outside in the May heat, so for the first 30 hours I laid in bed rotating ice packs around my body to calm the feeling of what I imagined to be second degree burns on my skin. Thank goodness for Netflix and air conditioning!
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When my skin wasn’t clearing up normally from both topical and oral medications, my dermatologist suggested that I try taking a series of bleach baths. Describing it as a method that “is so old it is new again” I looked at him in disbelief as he started to explain my prescribed regimen of dousing myself in bleach.
“Bleach is an antimicrobial and is helpful in reducing bacterial counts on the skin surface thereby reducing flare-ups of dermatitis.” Weiser stated, when I asked her if this could really cure my ailing skin. “Bacteria can trigger redness, inflammation and can exacerbate itching also. Removing bacteria from the skin therefore alleviates many eczema symptoms especially when used with other eczema-appropriate skin care techniques. Typically adding bleach baths to a skin care regimen can significantly diminish the need for and usage of topical steroid products.”
In cases like mine, bleach baths sounded like a helpful solution so my next step was to fill a bathtub (which is about 40 gallons) with water, mix in a 1/2 cup of regular strength 6% Clorox bleach, and soak in it from the neck down for no more than 10 minutes per day, every other day for 2 weeks. Getting this amount of bleach correct was crucial, because it is a strong irritant; too much can harm your skin and it can become dry and irritated very easily, but too little may not be enough to kill the bacteria.
Weiser warns that at very high concentrations, the skin can develop chemical burns so be extra cautious when measuring – and of course, do not put your face in the water because you’ll want to avoid getting the bleach in your eyes, mouth, or hair. Rinsing with water after soaking is also advisable to remove bleach from the skin surface.
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In reality, a bleach bath wasn’t as scary as it sounds. I tried to think of it as basically turning my bathtub into a strong swimming pool. Plus, the idea that all the bacteria on my skin would be killed off was too good to scare me off. I was willing to do anything to reduce the redness, itching, and scaling.
So I filled my tub, mixed in the bleach, put on a podcast and counted down 10 minutes. Slightly tingly at first, the bath really felt quite normal, other than the smell of an over-chlorinated pool. When the time was up, I drained the bath and took a warm shower to rinse. This is where things got interesting. I was washing off the bleachy smell with extra mild Dove soap when I noticed my skin was significantly less red. And as I started to rub my body, the scaly dry patches started to peel off literally like a molting snake.
The water was encouraging the exfoliation, and I began to rub my arms, face, and neck as sheets of skin rubbed off and washed away. It was like discovering new baby skin underneath – soft skin free of bacterial irritation. The first bath was remarkable, and the second, third, and fourth only showed even better results. I was thrilled, and felt like I was getting my life back to normal. By the sixth bath about 10 days later, all my rashes had calmed down and I had peeled off all of the dry, cracked patches.
Now at the end of my two week cycle, and in my final bath, I’m still on a low dose of steroids but my skin has improved dramatically. Bleach baths are simple, inexpensive, and involve no doctors or medical equipment. My skin feels soft and I feel like a whole new person. After decades of trying thousands of dollars of medications, creams, and visiting doctors, with bleach baths I’ve literally learned to wash my eczema down the drain.