There’s a new trend in town called face icing, which, unfortunately, doesn’t involve spreading a delicious, sugary substance over your skin. Instead, face icing is when one wraps an ice cube in a thin cloth, before rubbing the tiny block of sub-zero substance across their skin.
Proponents of face icing, including supermodel Kate Moss, claim that the process gives them a “post sleigh-ride glow.” (Though, there’s no word on how to avoid that public transit-in-sub-zero-temps pallor.)
Jokes aside, the trend left us wondering: What exactly are the benefits of washing your face with cold water? Is it possible that, with so many beauty products vying for your attention, something as simple as a chilly rinse could benefit your complexion?
A Refreshing Look At Your Pores
Beauty experts, including HighYa’s very own Olga Belous, usually recommend washing your face with lukewarm water. That’s because the skin on your face is generally considered to be only slightly less finicky than Goldilocks when it comes to what feels just right.
Water temperatures that are too hot can irritate your skin, causing inflammation, dryness, and induce an excess of sebum production.
Turn the tap too far the other way, and conventional wisdom states that cold water will fail to open your pores. This supposedly makes it more likely that stubborn dirt and sebum will cling on to clog another day.
Here’s a good time to point out that the idea of cold water causing pores to slam shut is actually a myth.
Each pore houses a hair follicle and sebaceous gland. Its purpose is to serve as a gateway for sebum, your skin’s natural oil. However, a pore is just a channel for these things to reach your skin’s surface—they lack the muscle that would allow them to open and close.
So, what causes your skin to become smooth and taut when it’s subjected to cold? While pores lack the ability to contract, cold water does temporarily tighten your skin by restricting blood flow.
Cold Showers Might Provide Benefits Beyond Skin Deep
The face icing trend might not shrink your pores, but braving a full-body blast by taking cold showers is said to have head-to-toe benefits—some of which could also affect the appearance of your face.
However, if we’ve learned anything at HighYa, it’s that scientific statements can easily be taken out of context. Before you resign yourself to a freezing morning routine, here’s a look at how the claims in cold water’s corner stack up against evidence:
Claim 1: Cold Water Improves Your Lymphatic Circulation
Your lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that help your body to remove waste, bacteria, and other unwanted materials by transporting a fluid made of white blood cells throughout your body.
Unlike your circulatory system, which is constantly moved through your body by the heart, your lymph fluid doesn’t have a central pump. Instead, your lymphatic system depends on your movement to get things flowing. Or, rather, the muscles attached to your skeleton force this fluid through your system as they contract.
But, what if that flow is constricted due to sickness or allergies? Poor lymphatic drainage can result in puffiness below your eyes—otherwise known as eye bags—and pressure behind your sinuses.
The verdict: Cold water can potentially combat under eye puffiness by causing your lymph vessels to contract, which then forces your lymphatic system to pump lymph fluids throughout your body.
However, if you’re constantly waking up with puffy eyes that shrink throughout the day, consider that something in your environment might be causing an allergic reaction. By eliminating the cause, you can potentially return to more comfortable shower temperatures.
Claim 2: Cold Shower Boosts Your Metabolism
Despite its reputation, not all fat is bad. There are two kinds of fat in your body: white fat and brown fat.
What’s white fat? That’s the stuff we try to get rid of, which tends to accumulate at your waist, lower back, neck, and thighs.
But, brown fat is essentially the good stuff—it behaves more like muscle and can even help to burn white fat when activated. One thing that activates brown fat is extreme cold, as it’s responsible for burning calories to keep you warm.
How much could a cold shower help? NPR reports that Scandinavian researchers studied brown fat activity in 24 young men—10 of them lean and the others overweight.
The good news: Those researchers found that exposure to chilly temperatures caused a 15-fold increase in the metabolic rate of brown fat in their adult volunteers. They then figured that, if a way could be found to activate the typical person's stores of brown fat, it would burn off at least nine pounds of white fat a year.
The not-so-good news is that those subjects spent two hours in a mildly chilly room—61 degrees Fahrenheit—to see the measured increase in their metabolic rate.
The verdict: It does appear that brown fat can boost your metabolism when your body needs to warm up. However, while researchers have high hopes that brown fat could one day be activated by targeted medication, we’re far less hopeful that you’re willing to spend two hours every day enduring an uncomfortably cold shower.
Claim 3: Cold Water Speeds Up Muscle Soreness & Recovery
Assuming that you’ve decided to forgo those two hours in the shower, and try old fashioned exercise as a part of your fitness plan instead, the chances are that you’ll experience soreness the next day.
But first, what is that feeling and why does your body insist on punishing you for doing a good deed?
Any activity that pushes your muscles beyond the limits they are accustomed to can lead to microscopic tears in the fibers and inflammation in the tissue.
That physical discomfort is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and, if you were a little too enthusiastic at the gym, it can be painful enough to make you wish you’d stayed home. Further, there are claims that cold water helps to relieve next-day muscle discomfort.
The verdict: Anyone who’s felt the sweet relief of ice on an injury can attest that applying cold to the area can help ease the burn of inflammation. Similarly, this is why you so often see an athlete soaking in an ice bath following a strenuous workout.
Thankfully, you don’t have to immerse your lower half in freezing water after spin class. Instead, simply taking a cold shower post-workout does appear to help reduce your chances of soreness and inflammation from whatever physical activity you completed. And, while relieving the ramifications of a new fitness routine doesn’t directly affect your face, it does improve your circulation—giving your skin a longer-lasting glow than face icing.
Claim 4: Cold Showers Help Improve Your Mood
It might be secondary to smoothed out pores, but everyone looks better when they’re feeling alert and in a positive mood.
How do cold showers help? The idea being that when cold water pours over your body, your breathing deepens in response. That’s your body trying to keep you warm by increasing overall oxygen intake. Additionally, a cold shower causes your heart rate to increase.
Fans of a cold shower claim that the resulting rush of blood through your body creates an immediate boost in your mood, and that it will keep you energized throughout the day.
It’s easy to imagine how the shock of a cold rinse first thing in the morning could help perk you up post-snooze alarm. However, what about these claims that cold showers can affect a longer term boost in your happiness levels?
The verdict: One study in 2008 explored cold showers as a possible treatment for depression, based on the idea that exposure to cold is known to activate your nervous system into increasing endorphin and adrenaline levels. While researchers state that further studies are needed, data showed that taking cold showers did result in an anti-depressant effect.
What if you’re just not a morning person? Another study analyzed the effects of regular winter swimming on the mood of swimmers, and showed that after four months of routine cold water swimming, the subjects felt more energetic, active, and spritely than the control group. Basically, think of it like the rush you got after polar bear swimming in summer camp—elated and ready to seize the day.
Starting Your Cold Shower Routine
Splashing your face with cold water might not shrink pores, but the potential to reduce puffiness, boost your mood, and increase circulation might inspire you to give it a shot. Thankfully, you don’t have to endure freezing waters throughout your entire scrub down to get the same effects.
Break into the habit by taking an alternating shower—just switch your water temperature from hot to cold every 10-20 seconds. Don’t think you have to go too low, either. The benefits we’ve listed can be achieved by a tepid 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
When you’re feeling brave enough to survive the shivering (or it’s gotten a little bit warmer), try a full-blast cold shower on for size. Just remember to keep it short, roughly three to five minutes, otherwise you risk your new routine feeling like torture.