Last updated: 04/30/2019
Author: Addictions.com Medical Review
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Bath salts have gotten their fair share of media over the last few years. Generally, news stories about bath salts feature a person who is completely divorced from reality. They may have broken into a home, run around a public place naked, or attacked another person. The stories aren’t positive and they have given bath salts quite the reputation. But, even the horrifying tales of bath salts use hasn’t stemmed the tide of users.
First of all, it is worth clarifying that bath salts have nothing to do with Epsom salts or fragranced bath additives. Those products are used to enhance bath taking. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “The term “bath salts” refers to an emerging family of drugs containing one or more synthetic chemicals related to cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant found naturally in the khat plant.” The drug also contains the chemicals methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), mephedrone and methylone. Because bath salts are a designer drug, what they are made of is not always known or consistent.
The name “bath salts” is used to avoid detection by law enforcement. Because the drug generally takes the form of a white or brown crystalline powder, it can be sold in small plastic or foil packages labeled as “plant food,” “jewelry cleaner,” or “phone screen cleaner.” None of these labels are accurate.
Users of bath salts reports the following effects.
- Increased sociability
- Increased sex drive
- hallucinatory delirium
- Suicidal thinking/behavior
- Panic attacks
- Psychotic and violent behavior
- Chest pain
- Increased pulse
- High blood pressure
- Breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue
- Kidney failure
The Effect on the Brain
Users often report effects—agitation and invigoration—that mirror those of amphetamines and cocaine, and bath salts have been marketed as affordable alternatives to these drugs. These drugs are known to raise the level of dopamine in the parts of the brain that control reward and movement. The surge causes sensations of euphoria and amplified activity. A surge of norepinephrine can also raise heart rate and blood pressure.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse asserts “a recent study found that MDPV—the most common synthetic cathinone found in the blood and urine of patients admitted to emergency departments after bath salts ingestion—raises brain dopamine in the same manner as cocaine but is at least 10 times more potent.” This makes the users of the drug more likely to experience tolerance, dependence, and strong withdrawal symptoms when not taking the drug.
Other effects on the brain are more consistent with drugs—MDMA or LSD—that raise levels of serotonin, which causes hallucinatory effects The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports: “A recent analysis of the effects in rats of mephedrone and methylone showed that these drugs raised levels of serotonin in a manner similar to MDMA.”
At the end of the last decade, bath salts had the distinction of being known as a legal high in both the US and Europe.
In October of 2011, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration placed three popular synthetic cathinones under emergency ban awaiting further investigation.
In July 2012, the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act made it against the law to possess, use, or distribute many of the chemicals used to make bath salts: including Mephedrone and MDPV. In sum, the law covers 26 chemicals, all of them ingredients in synthetic drugs. The drugs are now labeled schedule 1, which means they have a high potential for abuse and no medicinal value.
But, that doesn’t mean all possible ingredients are illegal. Producers of bath salts have been known to skirt the law by replacing schedule 1 drugs used in their products with other legal chemicals. This adaptability impairs the law’s ability to keep bath salts off of the street and out of the hands of users.
In an interview, Zane Horowitz, MD, an ER doctor and medical director of the Oregon Poison Center, comments: “there’s an ongoing battle between those trying to develop the technology to test for these chemicals and the street chemists who are trying to stay ahead of the law. Unfortunately, the law won’t make this problem disappear. We’re going to continue to see a lot of this type of thing. It will always be in the shadows.”