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The most-relaxing bath requires a little planning

NEW YORK — Taking a warm, relaxing bath is one of life's simple pleasures. If you want to make it the perfect bath, though, you'll have to sacrifice a little simplicity for more pleasure.

"Ambiance is the key between a good bath and a great bath," says Michelle Wilkos, director of Spa Bellagio at MGM Mirage's Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. Much thought goes into the lighting, music, scents and candles that are ancillary items to the spa's 78-jet hydrotherapy bath, Wilkos says.

The tub itself is important: All those jets stimulate muscles all over the body, and it doesn't hurt that you can soak from toes to neck without contorting your body.

Still, there's hope for the humble home bathtub. Even Wilkos is known to take a bath at home. "When I'm having a crazy day, the first thing I think about is going into the bathtub. There's something very tranquil about a bath; it's also very healing."

The healing part — especially of dry, rough or generally ignored skin — can be enhanced by a wide variety of bath-and-body products available. In fact, a bath, especially a hot bath, can further dry out skin unless you add some sort of moisturizer.

Too-hot water takes natural oil out of the skin while opening up the pores, disengaging one line of defense to the elements. The Bellagio Spa, for one, won't make a bath hotter than 104 degrees and considers 25 minutes the optimum time. For at-home bathers, Wilkos recommends adding bath oil, bath milk or bath salts.

Nicky Kinnaird, founder of the Space NK apothecaries and Spa NK retreats, says she reaches for different bath concoctions depending on her mood: If she wants to recharge her muscles after strenuous exercise, she would go for salt or seaweed-based products. If she's looking for revitalization, she uses a bath oil with lemon and bergamot along with soothing rosewood and clary sage.

Scent is one of the key benefits of plant extracts, says Ray Mauro, manager of Origins Global Product Development. The brand's Peace of Mind collection, its first in the "sensory therapy market," uses basil, peppermint and eucalyptus for its Tension Releasing Vapor Bath.

"We know that by topically applying plant-based oils to the skin, we can use the scent of these oils to alter mood states, strengthen one's own energy and even attract a partner with its aphrodisiac abilities," he says.

Botanical and herbal extracts also aren't as irritating or drying as a soap-based product, says June Jacobs, founder of the June Jacobs Spa Collection. All of her products, distributed at five-star hotels such as The Little Nell in Aspen, Colo., use a blend of pomegranate and various teas as antioxidants. Then it's grapeseed oil and shea butter to hydrate; cucumber, calendula and chamomile extracts to soothe; lemon peel extract to cleanse; and papaya, mango and pumpkin extracts to exfoliate and promote cell turnover.

If that already sounds like a mixed salad for the tub, Traci Reazer, a holistic aesthetician for Whole Foods Market, has further ideas: cucumbers and lemons — the whole thing, not extracts.

While they're particularly good for foot baths because they are cool and refreshing, Reazer says cucumbers help reduce swelling and lemon is good for people with oily skin.

"The citric acid in the lemons will help fight bacteria and balance oil production. And yes, they will make your bath be filled with a wonderful aroma as well as being therapeutic," she explains.

Jacobs pours citrus massage oil straight into the bath to soften skin — wearing her hair piled on top of her head — and a mud mask on her face. The heat coming from the bath helps the mask get deeper into the skin, she says.

Kinnaird, meanwhile, also multitasks in the bath, putting a deep conditioner on her hair, showering to rinse her hair after the soak.

Jacobs also encourages a post-bath cool rinse because while it's good for skin to detox in warm water you will want to close the pores afterward and cool water will do that. And, she says, you must lather in moisturizer after you've gently toweled off. The skin will respond best to the moisturizer if it's still damp.

At W Hotels, the towels are made of combed cotton, which treats the cotton fibers to make them plush before they are spun into yarn. Hotel and spa towels tend to have a higher gram-per-square-meter count — or weight — than most people buy at home and that's why they feel so cozy. W's, for example, have a GSM count of 700.

As for the robe, again the difference is the plushness. The Four Seasons Resort Whistler in British Columbia uses a 100 percent velour terry-cloth robe, which is both soft and absorbent for coming out of the bath, in its rooms, while its spa uses Kashwere robes made of a machine-washable synthetic that mimics cashmere.

Jacobs thinks people associate better baths with hotels for two reasons: If you're on vacation, you'll have more time to enjoy, and if you're in a hotel, someone helps along the process, whether it's providing products at your fingertips or even just cleaning the tub.

"At a five-star hotel, they'll offer to draw the bath, they will even put rose petals in it," she said.

Kinnaird, though, thinks the rest of the world should take a bathing lesson from the Japanese — don't bathe in the tub. The actual cleaning of the body is often done with exfoliating washcloths while sitting on a little stool and using a hand-held shower. The bath is strictly for "chill-out time."

"The Japanese view a bath as totally therapeutic. It's not about cleansing the body but it's about soothing the soul," she says.

Spending longer than 25 minutes in a soaking tub, above, is enhanced by adding bath oil, bath milk or bath salts. - AP