Taking a cold plunge—basically, submerging yourself in ice cold water—has become a trending practice touted as therapeutic for everything from skin to mental health. While the practice of dipping into icy depths is nothing new, having been practiced among some cultures for thousands of years, its popularity has boomed due to social media.1
To find out if taking a cold plunge is worth it and what the potential benefits are, we talked to several medical experts. Read their opinions ahead.
MEET THE EXPERT
- Sandra Gail Frayna is a New Jersey-based physical therapist and founder of Hudson Premier Physical Therapy & Sports.
- Dr. Jeannette Graf is a board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
- Dr. Reid Maclellan is the Founder and CEO of Cortina. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Harvard Medical School and the director of Proactive Dermatology Group.
- Naiylah Warren, LMFT, is a therapist and clinical content manager at Real.
Relieves Muscle Soreness
After a workout, a cold plunge is a great way to relieve potential muscle soreness, according to Frayna. “This is due to the cold water restricting blood vessels which will, in turn, reduce inflammation. It can also help cool you down after a workout and keep you energized for the day,” she says.
Research shows that cold plunges can improve blood flow to and from your muscles.2 This effect may help bring nutrients through the bloodstream to muscles, boosting recovery.
If your gym does not provide a cold plunge pool, you could do it at home if you have a bathtub. Simply ensure your tub is at 55 degrees and sit in it for a few seconds.
Improves Appearance of Skin
Cold plunges are highly recommended for improving skin. “Due to the cold temperatures in a cold plunge pool, the blood vessels in the skin will be constricted, thus promoting blood circulation.
When the blood vessels dilate again, the skin will be more oxygenated than before and give the patient a natural glow,” says Maclellan. The benefits, he says, include a decrease in inflammation and tightness of the skin, which can also reduce the appearance of wrinkles.
Strengthens the Nervous System
Dunking into cold water may activate your sympathetic nervous system, which is the one regulating your flight or fight response (aka stress response). By doing so, you get a rush of the hormone noradrenaline, increasing your heart rate and blood pressure in a controlled way.3
This effect helps strengthen and tone one of the primary nerves in the nervous system—the vagus nerve. “This nerve runs down your whole body and controls many of one’s daily activities such as digestion, heart rate, immune system, and mood disorders,” explains Maclellan. “Cold water immersion helps stimulate this nerve since the stress response forces the body to work on returning to its normal temperature.”
Helps Treat Skin Conditions
Skin conditions like eczema can also benefit from cold plunges as they aid in reducing itchiness and will not strip the skin from its natural oils as a warm shower or bath would, according to Graf.
“A cold plunge also helps remove dead skin cells and stimulate skin regeneration by boosting the production of collagen in the skin,” says Graf. “This will also help ease the look of fine lines on the face and give an overall smoother, glowing look.”
Graf also explains that cold water immersion can also help the absorption of skincare products since the pores are tightened, thus making products more effective, a huge plus.
May Boost Mental Health
Strengthening the nervous system with a cold plunge may help improve mental health symptoms such as mood, anxiety, stress, and depression.4 The research is limited but promising.
“Some research suggests that taking a cold plunge can help alleviate stress, provide an experience of mental clarity, assist in decreasing experiences of anxiety, and activate the areas of the brain-body associated with depression,” says Warren.
The theory suggests that a cold plunge jumpstarts the body’s stress response, filling us with endorphins, ultimately alleviating some of the symptoms of anxiety and depression.5
“Unfortunately, there is not enough conclusive evidence to make an all-encompassing claim,” explains Warren. “However, when people share individual experiences, they state claims of experiencing an elevated mood at best and shock at its worst.”
If you’re convinced taking a cold plunge will be worth it, there are some safety considerations to be aware of. First, discuss the practice with your doctor beforehand, especially if you have a heart condition.6
“While it may be tempting to enjoy the cold water after a long workout, it is important to note that a cold plunge should be done quickly and briefly (around 20 seconds) to avoid the risks of hypothermia,” adds Frayna.
Another issue of concern is hygiene related. “Something to be wary of when doing cold plunges is to ensure you wash your face afterward as the cold temperature can tighten pores, trapping dirt and debris, which in turn could cause breakouts,” says Graf.
Taking a cold plunge could pay off in many ways—brighter, healthier skin, better post-workout recovery, increased mood, and strengthened nervous system. However, there are risks involved, so it’s essential to see your doctor before giving yourself an icy bath.