Cryotherapy or cold water therapy has been flooding (and freezing) our Instagram feeds recently. From taking ice baths or going cold water swimming to focus the mind and boost circulation, to using an ice mask to firm up your skin , fans of submitting their faces and bodies to ultra-low temperatures report many health and skincare benefits.
But it’s ice dunking, or submerging your face in a bowl of ice or icy water for up to 30 seconds, that is the latest chilly activity that’s got social media talking and peoples’ blood pumping. And for once, this isn’t just a viral influencer trend. The simple hack comes recommended by supermodels and politicians that we actually like and does seem to be rooted in science.
Bella Hadid recently shared a video of herself ice dunking at a photo shoot. No, not a request by a sadistic snapper but a skincare hack she relies on to de-puff her face after an early wake-up call. Bella went for the more extreme option of using only ice cubes. Meanwhile, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (aka the most relatable politician on the planet) revealed that both she and her boyfriend had dunked their faces in icy water to combat stress.
The American congresswoman said she understood that “dunking your face in a bowl of ice water can force your body to do a kind of reset of your parasympathetic nervous system,” and shared a video of herself doing just that. The result? AOC declared her icy face plant was indeed a pretty good way to instantly relieve tension.
Images: Instagram @bellahadid @aoc
The premise of ice dunking is pretty simple. Hold your breath and stick your head in a bowl of ice-filled water (some people use just ice, but more about that later) for around 20 to 30 seconds; no need to trek to the lido or invest in an expensive cryotherapy facial tool.
What are the proven benefits? I spoke to consultant dermatologist at Sk:n Clinics Dr Sidra Shakir and to Dr Noel Young, clinical innovation associate at healthcare company Thriva , to get all of the facts. And, naturally, I got in on the ice action myself.
How does cold water therapy work on the skin?
“When our skin is exposed to the cold our facial capillaries constrict and lymph function is boosted, which soothes the skin, reduces redness, and tightens facial tissues,” says Dr Shakir. "After this initial constricting stage, the effects of the cold rev up blood circulation. This brings oxygen and nutrients to the skin which is good for an instant radiant glow." Ace if you routinely wake up with a pale, puffy face, or get off a long-haul flight looking less than sprightly.
But there are more potential skin benefits to ice dunking. “Ice is a good natural exfoliator,” Dr Shakir tells me. “It can help to speed up the removal of unwanted dead skin cells and stimulate the production of new ones.”
Before you ditch your exfoliating wash and brightening serum, both Dr Shakir and Dr Young are keen to point out that the effects of ice water on the skin are mild and temporary. Dr Shakir advises that you stick to your usual skincare routine and use the odd spot of ice dunking as a glow booster.
MORE GLOSS: Does ice help a spot heal faster?
While we wouldn’t recommend using cold water therapy as a solution for serious skin conditions such as acne and rosacea , Dr Shakir notes that it can temporarily reduce inflammation, which is associated with these conditions. How? there’s a vacuum-like effect that happens when you come into contact with the cold, says Dr Shakir. “This is because in the initial stage of cold therapy, blood flow to the face is reduced and fluids are withdrawn from the skin’s surface." Just think about how tight your face feels when you're outside in cold temperatures! “This vacuum-like effect reduces redness, while the cold also temporarily constricts pores. It has the added benefit of limiting excessive oil production, associated with acne, blackheads and blemishes,” says Shakir.
Can cold water therapy reduce stress and anxiety?
Cold water facial immersion triggers a series of nerve signals to the vagus nerve – which regulates your parasympathetic (or relaxation) nervous system response and heart rate. When the vagus is activated in this way, it signals your heart rate to slow down.
“Stress and anxiety activate the sympathetic nervous system, which increases your heart rate,” says Dr Young. “So lowering your heart rate by sending calming feedback to the vagus nerve can help assuage these panicky surges, providing quick relief from tension.
A small trial on eight volunteers who dunked their faces in a variety of water temperatures as well as no water, with and without breath-holding showed that the only significant increase in parasympathetic activity happened when they held their breath in cold water.
“Cold water activates the trigeminal nerve which triggers the mammalian diving reflex,” says Dr Young. It's an evolutionary hack that helps us to survive under water for longer (God love our ancestors). The act of holding your breath, like the cold water itself, sends signals to the vagus nerve to slow down the heart rate. “When your heart rate is slower, blood is diverted from your limbs so your brain and organs get more blood flow,” Dr Young notes.
A randomised control tria l on 61 participants, showed that it wasn't just cold water on the face that created this response. In fact, there was an even greater effect on heart rate variability (a measure of how well the body regulates stress) response when cold was applied to the side of the neck. An ice collar wearable is sure to be coming soon.
That's where the nervous system benefits are compounded by benefits for the skin, our biggest organ. Basically: slower heart rate, less stress, better skin. Are you with me?
How to do an at-home ice facial or ice dunking
Bella Hadid may have sunk her face into a full bowl of ice chips but the pros recommend that you dilute your ice to avoid the real risk of freezer burns. So grab a bowl big enough to put your face in, chuck in some ice in and top up with water. “The water doesn’t have to be ice cold, just cooler than the surrounding air,” says Dr Young, “ten to-20 degrees Celsius is a good temperature to aim for.”
You then submerge your face in the water for 20 to 30 seconds. Sounds simple but there is one important thing to note: you mustn't take too deep a breath before you dunk - just a normal inhale will do. “Your heart rate slows within ten to 30 seconds of holding your breath,” says Dr Young. “But if you breathe in too deeply, this may take longer.”
The pros say it's safe to do an ice cube facial daily if you fancy it; Dr Young suggests doing a quick dunk before or after brushing your teeth in the morning to help you develop a de-puffing routine. But don't go overboard; icing more than once a day can lead to irritation.
If you don't want to stick your face in a bowl, use a cool massage tool such as an ice roller or ice globes instead. Stored in the freezer, they have an icy touch as intense as an ice bath. You could also get very Blue Peter and wrap some ice cubes in a tea towel before gently massaging it over your face, eye area, neck and decolletage.
For some energising full-body and face ice therapy, Dr Shakir suggests washing your face in the shower as you normally do then following with a “cold-water rinse to tighten pores and promote blood circulation.”
Are there any downsides or risks to skin icing?
If you have a low heart rate or underlying health conditions, the doctors recommend that you consult your health practitioner before going anywhere near skin icing. And always make sure you don’t put ice directly on your face: ice burns may not involve fire, but the irritation and discomfort are just as real.
I tried ice dunking every day for a week and here’s what happened…
A couple of months ago I attempted taking an icy cold shower every day for a week (anything for a story) and while it made me feel slightly more alert, I didn’t really notice other benefits. So I was dubious about trying ice dunking, which sounds like a face-only version of an icy shower, right? Wrong.
I opted to do it at around 3pm each day: I was working from home and taking an ice break instead of a tea break is totally legit, I say. Three pm is the time when I usually feel most stressed, mainly because I’ve procrastinated and left myself three hours to do all of my work. Cry me (an icy) river.
Each day I took a big plastic mixing bowl and shook in a few handfuls of ice. I then topped the bowl up with water, just enough so that it wouldn’t overflow when I put my, admittedly quite large, head in. Then I added a bit more ice, enough so that the top layer was all ice, set my timer and under I went.
Once I got the hang of it, quite a weird thing happened: after five or so seconds I felt incredibly calm. you can only concentrate on feeling cold, so your brain does get a real dose of relief from the day’s stresses. Once I came up for air, the calm remained.
Yes, my skin did look brighter and felt tighter and I'd turn to this as a pick-me-up for hungover, tired or jet-lagged skin. But the way ice dunking slowed my body down was the real revelation. It felt, as AOC said, like a total reset for my mind. I always knew she was trustworthy. Now, it has become a kind of crutch for powering me through the rest of the day. Come 3pm I’m reaching for the ice bucket, not the biscuits.
Get more gloss: This is how Fearne Cotton beats brain fog