The Panel: Super soaker
Now that the weather is a little milder and the bathroom is not so Baltic, the suggestion of a long soak becomes less scary. In theory, a nice hot bath at the end of a long winter's day is just lovely, but often the shock of the cold room after the warm soak is just too awful. Come spring, however, the bath becomes the perfect wind-down once again.
While the warm water alone works wonders in terms of easing muscle stress and helping you to wind down, the universal advice is to heat it no higher than 37 C, as any hotter can, allegedly, cause the skin to slacken.
We tested a slew of bath oils -- a choice that will replenish winter-jaded skin far more than anything bubbly -- in search of those that played to our sense of smell as well as acting as a balm to our bodies, and impressively few of them turned out to be duds.
Our five favourites, however, had us bounding from the bath feeling renewed, refreshed and relaxed, while their fragrance and feel endured until morning.
Dr Hauschka Lavender Bath, €17.95, selected department stores, health stores and pharmacies nationwide
We'd go so far as to recommend this to men as much as to women, so deep and serious is the lavender fragrance. Without a hint of sweetness, the heavy hit of lavender essential oil is richly intense and is widely believed to promote restful sleep. It's suitable for children, too. "Hand on heart, I slept better after bathing in this," said one panellist. "I love the non-sickly lavender, and like that it leaves my skin soft but there's no slick of oil in the bath."
Nelson's Arnicare Bath & Massage Balm, €9.95, health stores and pharmacies nationwide
Sweet almond and evening primrose oils provide the moisturising base here, while the arnica content is credited with soothing stressed muscles and the grapefruit and lavender oils lend a calming fragrance. A sensually pleasing product that turns milky in the bath water. "Not at all girlie, which was nice," a panellist said. "A nice balance between being invigorating and relaxing."
Best With Bubbles
Clarins Relax Bath & Shower Concentrate, €19.45, Clarins counters nationwide
If you really must have bubbles, this falls somewhere between a foam and an oil. Basil, geranium and camomile oils provide a lovely fragrance, but there's also hawthorne, thyme and valerian to promote relaxation. This smells more clinically pine-forest than the other favourites. "A bath's not a bath without bubbles," said one panellist, "but this is as moisturising as a standard bath oil, without the slitheriness."
Best Little Pick-Me-Up
Liz Earle Vital Oils for the Bath in Harmony, €10, Wilde & Green, Milltown, D6, or see www.lizearle.com
Part of the reason for this product's popularity is its size -- it's neat enough to throw into a toilet bag for travel. One of three varieties -- the others being Comfort and Bliss -- this combines grapefruit, clementine, bergamot and neroli in a neutral, moisturising base of apricot kernel oil. "It's small, but it delivers a big hit," a panellist said. "And a little bottle isn't such a lifetime commitment."
Best Super Soak
Decleor Aromessence de Bain Concentrate, €68, selected department stores, pharmacies and salons nationwide, for stockists, tel: (01) 822-2711
The most expensive favourite, but this is an impressive product, a small amount of which goes a long way. Instructions are to add 20-30 spritzes to the bath just before getting in, which sounds faffy, but makes sense, as the essential oils of lavender, lemon and angelica waft up to meet you. "A lovely product," one panellist said. "It's a treat, given the price, but you feel terribly pampered."
Pictured, from left: Nelson's Arnicare Bath & Massage Balm; Decleor Aromessence de Bain Concentrate; Clarins Relax Bath & Shower Concentrate; Liz Earle Vital Oils for the Bath in Harmony; Dr Hauschka Lavender Bath