What Are Epsom Salts?

A Natural Remedy for Sore Muscles, Constipation, and More

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Epsom salts are naturally occurring chemical compounds known scientifically as magnesium sulfate. They are called "salts" because of their crystalline chemical structure. In fact, they look very much like very coarse salt you'd find in the kitchen but they are not meant for cooking with.

Epsom salts on a wooden table with herbs and a scoop
 4nadia / Getty Images

Soaking in Epsom salts has long been touted as a natural remedy for sore muscles, minor sprains, swollen feet, irritated or scaly skin, minor bruises, and overall muscle soreness or mental stress.

What Are Epsom Salts?

Epsom salts are a naturally occurring chemical compound named after a saline spring in Surrey, England. The scientific name for Epsom salts is magnesium sulfate.

Uses

Epsom salts may be added to water for soaking in, taken orally to treat constipation, or used for cosmetic purposes.

Topical

When used topically, Epsom salts typically are added to warm water in a tub for a full-body soak or to a footbath or small tub for treating individual body part.

Epsom salt soaks are often used to:

  • Soothe itchiness from poison ivy and mosquito bites
  • Soften skin affected by psoriasis
  • Cleanse and soothe lesions from genital herpes and alleviate itchiness
  • Ease arthritis pain and swelling
  • Bruises and sprains
  • Heal and cleanse tears or stitches in the perineum after childbirth
  • Ease musculoskeletal pain and tenderness caused by fibromyalgia
  • Treat ingrown toenails
  • Promote sleep in people with insomnia
  • Relieve soreness from diarrhea during chemotherapy
  • Ease redness and pain from sunburn

Soaking in Epsom salts has been touted as a way to reverse magnesium deficiency, but there is no evidence it can be absorbed through the skin. Adding magnesium-rich foods to the diet or taking an oral magnesium supplement with a doctor's oversight is more effective.

Oral

The only use for Epsom salts approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is as an osmotic laxative to relieve occasional constipation. Pure Epsom salts (that do not contain fragrance or other additives) can be taken orally by adults and children 12 and older.

The typical dose of Epsom salts for constipation is 2 to 4 teaspoons dissolved in 8 ounces of water, no more than two doses per day. This should result in a bowel movement within a half hour to six hours. If it doesn't, it may be advisable to see a doctor.

Cosmetic

Hair and body treatments using Epsom salts include:

  • Hair volumizer: Apply equal parts warm hair conditioner and Epsom salts to hair and leave on for 20 minutes.
  • Facial wash: Mix 1/2 teaspoon of Epsom salts into cleansing cream for deep-pore cleansing. Massage onto skin, rinse with cool water, and pat dry.
  • Exfoliator: Sprinkle Epsom salts into your palm, dampen them, and gently massage into your skin. You can also try this with wet skin after showering.

Side Effects

Epsom salts should be used with some caution. When used topically they can dry out skin, which could be especially problematic in cold weather and for people with naturally dry skin.

Start with just a little salt (1/4 cup) in the bath and gradually increase as tolerated. Monitor your skin closely for dryness, and be sure to moisturize the skin after a soak.

Taken orally, Epsom salts can cause diarrhea, discomfort, and dehydration. Talk to your doctor before using Epsom salts as a laxative if you have kidney disease, stomach pain, nausea, or vomiting, or if you've had a sudden change in your bowel habits that has lasted more than two weeks. Epsom salts should not be used by those who are on a magnesium-restricted diet.

A Word From Verywell

Natural remedies are popular for many reasons and Epsom salts are no exception. Despite the dearth of research to support the usefulness of soaking in Epsom salts, there are a variety of uses for Epsom salts believed to be safe and effective. If you're thinking of using Epsom salts in any way other than as a soak for sore muscles or to help you unwind, get your doctor's OK first.

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  1. National Institutes of Health DailyMed. Label: Epsom salt magnesium sulfate. Updated December 17, 2019.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. 6 best fixes for pain and swelling in your feet and ankles. October 7, 2019.

  3. American Academy of Dermatology. Genital herpes: Diagnosis and treatment. 2020.

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  5. Epsom Salt Council. Summer Skin Care Tips. 2020.

  6. National Psoriasis Foundation. Herbs and natural remedies. Updated June 18, 2019.

  7. Cleveland Clinic. 7 things you probably didn't know about Epsom salt. July 20, 2018.