Nothing simultaneously soothes and thaws out the soul during cold, winter months quite like a hot cup of tea. Black, green, white, oolong, chai, or chamomille — it doesn’t matter. Each tea boasts an impressive nutritional profile, so it’s no surprise January is unofficially recognized as National Hot Tea Month.

Next to water, tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world; it can be found in almost 80 percent of households in the United States. In 2012, The Tea Association of the U.S.A. reported Americans consumed well over 79 billion servings of tea. On any given day, millions of Americans have their pinkies up.

Medical Daily has previously covered the gamut of tea drinking’s benefits. And when we were thinking of ways to pay homage to the “holiday,” we thought it might be helpful to go further into the ways one can maximize their super healthy hot tea. From choosing non-toxic brands to working a tea bag into your beauty routine, here’s everything you need to know to enjoy your healthiest cup of hot tea yet.

But First…

Just because we’ve reported on tea’s many health benefits doesn’t mean we won’t take the opportunity to gently remind you of them. A study analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCT) found tea, in conjunction with a healthy diet and exercise, promotes weight loss. Dutch researchers found its main ingredients — catechins and caffeine — help increase a person's energy expenditure, or the calories they burn just by being. They also increase the breakdown of fat.

Tea contains polyphenols, too. These are antioxidants that protect the lining of blood vessels in your heart, thus making your morning mug great for heart health. A separate study published in AJCT found black tea stabilizes blood pressure when participants were also on a low-flavo2noid diet. This means they maintained low amounts of additional tea, red wine, and dark chocolate.

In addition to a healthier heart, the polyphenols in tea have been linked to cancer prevention. Science has yet to prove tea directly causes fewer cases of cancer, but single sips are considered therapeutic and rejuvenating. And in a study presented during the 2014 European Society of Cardiology Congress (ESC) in Barcelona, Spain, researchers reported that drinking at least a cup of tea a day cuts risk for premature death by a quarter.

Increased energy, mental health, brain power, and gut bacteria (which is a good thing), as well as reduced menstrual pain and bad breath are added benefits of drinking tea.

Some Toxic Truths

The thing is, loose-leaf and packaged tea aren’t healthy by default; preparation and packaging matters. Collective Evolution and popular food blogger Food Babe have both revealed major toxic news regarding certain tea brands.  Food Babe found most teas aren't washed before they're put into bags, so “if the tea was sprayed with cancer-causing pesticides, those pesticides go directly into your cup.” In fact, 91 percent of Celestial Seasonings tea tested had pesticide residues exceeding the U.S. limits. Additionally, Celestial has been sued in a class-action lawsuit based on the mislabeling of pesticides as 100 percent natural ingredients. These numbers were equally high when testing loose-leaf alternatives from Teavana — 100 percent of it was found to contain pesticides. Teavana, as well as other tea brands, also contain artificial and “natural” flavoring,” and hidden GMOs.

Plastic and paper bag packaging are problematic, too. While commonly made from allegedly healthy and sustainable materials, such as food grade nylon and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the molecules in these materials can break down and seep into tea water. The temperature then breaks these molecules down further, potentially leaking out harmful phthalates and carcinogens.

Ready, Set, Steep!

The idea of toxic tea is scary — but this information should empower your daily mug, not ruin it. Follow these steps to brew a perfect, healthy cup of tea every time.

1. Bring the heat. January is all about hot tea, but when the temperature rises in a couple months, people may opt for iced, bottled varieties instead. Brewing hot tea is the one way to preserve tea’s high levels of antioxidants. Bottled tea has been found to dumb these levels down with sugar (assuming it contains the advertised amount of antioxidants at all). Though, to be fair, especially if you’re in a hurry, unsweetened iced tea can almost compete with its brewed counterpart.

2. Buy organic. Though a bit more expensive than brands like Celestial, organic tea brands reduce risk of both tea being sprayed with pesticides and its packaging breaking down in your cup. Numi Organic Tea (also available in loose-leaf) and Traditional Medicinals Organic Herbal Tea are two brands celebrated for their nutrition and packaging, while Rishi Tea is one loose-leaf variety drinkers trust. We can personally vouch for Numi’s Breakfast Blend, Gunpowder Green, and Golden Chai.

You can see where what you currently have in your cabinet stacks up, health-wise, here.

3. Moo-ve away from milk. Milk is a staple for English tea drinkers, but a study published in The European Heart Journal found the health benefits of brewed black tea are stunted when drinkers add milk. Filtered water, on the other hand, significantly doesn’t touch these benefits. And the fact it is filtered leaves out some questionable sources of tap water.  

4. Cinnamon sticks make everything nice…including tea! Some spice sweetens the health benefits better than a dollop of honey or sugar. Cinnamon, of course, is healthy in its own right. Research has shown cinnamon can help lower blood sugar, cholesterol, and other diseases. Ginger and turmeric are also great options.

If spice isn’t your thing, consider citrus. A lemon’s high levels of vitamin C can maximize the benefits of tea’s antioxidants. Check more foods that are healthier when paired together here.

5.  Maintain the four-cup rule. It is possible to have too much of a good thing. Drinking more than seven cups of tea per day increases risk for prostate cancer, while some green teas can block high blood pressure medication. A French study found four cups will do the deed.

6. Boost beauty with tea bags. The caffeine from cooled bags of black tea helps constrict blood vessels. So when you place them on your eyes, it reduces swelling, making your eyes look refreshed and awake. This is but one way you can repurpose tea bags for your beauty routine. Get all six ideas here.