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Epsom salts

Category: Natural chemicals



Introduction and description

Magnesium sulfate (or magnesium sulphate) is a chemical compound containing magnesium, sulfur and oxygen, with the formula MgSO4. It is often encountered as the heptahydrate epsomite (MgSO4·7H2O), commonly called Epsom salt, from the town of Epsom in Surrey, England, where the salt was distilled from the springs that arise where the porous chalk of the North Downs meets non-porous London clay. Another hydrate form is kieserite.



Internal use

Oral magnesium sulfate is commonly used as a saline laxative.Other indications for its internal use are

  • Replacement therapy for hypomagnesemia.
  • Magnesium sulfate is the first-line antiarrhythmic agent for torsades de pointes in cardiac arrest under the 2005 ECC guidelines and for managing quinidine-induced arrhythmias.
  • As a bronchodilator after beta-agonist and anticholinergic agents have been tried, e.g. in severe exacerbations of asthma. Recent studies have revealed that magnesium sulfate can be nebulized to reduce the symptoms of acute asthma. It is commonly administered via the intravenous route for the management of severe asthma attacks.

External use

Epsom salt is also available in a gel form for topical application in treating aches, pains and skin conditions.  The evidence for its efficacy here is [surprisingly given the number of products using magnesium sulphate], not very clear cut.

In 2000, Bos and Meinardi argued that a small enough molecule, smaller than 500 Daltons, can drift through the skin corneum — the 500 Dalton rule. And the Magnesium ions in an Epsom salt bath are way smaller than 500 Daltons, at a barely-there atomic mass of just 24 Daltons.  So theoretically they can go through the skin barrier; once there, however, it is unclear what positive effect they might produce [although some antiviral and anti-bacterial action is known to exist]

In one odd experiment that involved skin samples harvested from tummy tucks, the research convincingly showed that magnesium ions can diffuse through the stratum corneum, and that hair follicles facilitate that movement, but it did not establish that they do so in clinically meaningful numbers, especially in the conditions of a typical Epsom salts bath.  But in many skin conditions, it is the hair follicles that are attacked, as such the efficacy may be due to anti-bacterial, anti-viral or even anti-parasitic action via the follicles.

There is also evidence that magnesium is found in the blood stream after flotation therapy.  One of the most plausible explanations is that it diffuses across the epithelium in the anus if the rectum relaxes to some degree in the warm water.  In other words, magnesium is actually absorbed via “mucus membranes,” a completely different and much more permeable layer than skin.  The question of whether the vagina is also a route of entry has not been naswered by any research.

A 2004 research study showed that both magnesium and sulfate are absorbed through the skin when bathing in 1% w/v solution

A paper [see observations] by Dr Rosemary Waring from Birmingham has been very helpful in assessing the benefits that might be obtained from skin absorption. She did experiments with people looking at the absorption of Epsom Salts in the bath. A 12 minute bath at 50-55ºC with a 1% solution of Epsom Salts caused significant rises in plasma magnesium and sulphate levels together with an increase in magnesium excretion in the urine. It should be noted that sulphur is also helpful for skin problems.

To achieve a 1% solution, a standard UK bath of 15 gallons requires 600grams, (just over a 1lb) of Epsom Salts. The water should feel slightly soapy.  In this experiment there were no adverse effects, indeed 2 of the volunteers who were over 60 years of age commented without prompting that their rheumatic pains had disappeared.

If you are in the UK, Epsom salts can be obtained in bulk quantities, as an example, Just a soap epsom salts will even deliver a sack to your door! Or you could order from companies like Bittersalz on Amazon. And Westlab Dead Sea Salts also supply salts via Amazon.  Please note we have no connection with any of these companies, the purpose of providing examples is to show that bulk quantities for use in flotation therapy etc can be obtained.

Related observations