The most buzzed-about wellness trend du jour may come as a surprise. It has nothing to do with diet, isn’t fitness related, and doesn’t even fall into the mindfulness realm. In 2023, health influencers and wellness amateurs alike are dipping their toes into the practice of cold water therapy—submerging themselves in freezing cold water in pursuit of everything from improved circulation to reduced inflammation. And while you may be seeing cold plunges popping up in many LA backyards, it’s possible to reap the benefits minus the investment. That DIY approach is exactly why folks are wondering: cold vs hot showers—does the temp really make a difference?
Featured image from our interview with Ariel Kaye by Teal Thomsen.
Cold vs. Hot Showers
Turns out, yes. According to Sharon Hame, MD, a UCLA Health orthopedic surgeon, a cold shower—even a brief one—can mimic the benefits of cold therapy. Recently, in the name of a boosted mood and a dewy glow, I’ve sought all the information I can find on cold water therapy. But still… when I turn the handle down to cold, I can’t last more than five seconds. So in the debate of cold vs hot showers, is it possible that the latter can be a solid choice for other reasons? We’re diving into the effects of each on the body and whether or not we really have to endure this freezing-cold routine.
Editor’s note: This article is not meant to be used in place of medical care. Please consult your medical provider before beginning any treatment.
Cold Shower Benefits
Does a cold shower sound like a wellness-inspired version of hell? Same. However, the hype surrounding cold water immersion—and, in turn, cold showers—is merited and backed up with science-based evidence. A cold shower is defined as ranging between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit and is associated with the following benefits:
Strengthen hair, skin, and nails
In contrast to hot showers, which open our pores, cold showers constrict them, allowing hair and skin to hold onto their natural oils. For this reason, if you’ve ever heard that even rinsing your hair in cold water promotes shiny locks—believe it! By laying your hair cuticle flat, hair is left healthier.
It’s true—while it may feel challenging (re: terrible) in the moment, a cold shower can improve your mental state. A 2008 study found that by generating chemical reactions that send electrical impulses from our nerve endings to our brains, exposure to cold water can have an antidepressant effect.
Think about the last time you jumped into cold water or stepped in the shower before it heated up. Did you feel your heart rate quicken? That’s your body switching into survival mode. Our bodies react to cold water by ramping up our circulatory system, leading to our heart pumping more efficiently, and stimulating blood flow throughout the body.
May help boost weight loss
If you’ve taken a cold shower before, then you know: you step out of the shower feeling energized and invigorated. Because your body is working hard to stay warm, your metabolism will be temporarily boosted. However, it’s more impactful to engage in exercise and follow a healthy diet if weight loss is your goal.
Who might benefit from cold showers:
Because cold showers are effective at energizing the body, improving mood, and boosting metabolism, it may make sense to turn your water down to cold if you prefer morning showers. If you’re also prone to dry skin conditions or dry hair, rinsing off in cold water may be a helpful strategy.
Hot Shower Benefits
There’s no denying that hot showers feel incredible. In high school, I remember craving a hot shower after every cross-country ski practice. Not only were my (practically numb) fingers and toes brought back to my life, but the warm water relieved any tension I felt in my body or muscle soreness. Turns out, there’s evidence to back my 16-year-old self’s favorite form of pampering. Let’s dive into the benefits of hot showers.
Promote muscle relaxation
Just as I experienced post-practice, if you have muscle fatigue after a workout, step into a hot shower. Hot water can improve blood flow, helping to release tension and soothe sore muscles.
Just as a hot shower promotes muscle relaxation, you might find yourself ready to snooze after toweling off. The relaxation the body experiences after taking a hot shower, combined with the drop in body temperature post-shower, may improve sleep quality. What’s more, as Gerrit Keferstein, MD shared with Healthline, cold showers activate the parasympathetic nervous system, making us tired.
As shared above, hot showers open our pores. Interviewed for Well and Good, NYC-based cosmetic dermatologist Michele Green, MD shared that this “[…] makes it easier for dirt and toxin build-up to be cleaned out, leading to reduced blemishes and clearer skin.”
Who might benefit from hot showers:
In contrast to a cold shower, if you prefer to wash up before bed, you might consider making a hot or warm shower your go-to. What’s more, if you work out at night, a hot shower can aid in post-workout recovery.
Cold vs Hot Showers: Which Is Better?
Time for the takeaway. Ultimately, while we’ll always encourage you to listen to your body and follow what feels best, in settling the cold vs hot showers debate, the former reigns supreme. Yes, both come with their own separate benefits. And though hot showers are more pleasurable, they can cause damage to the hair and skin.
If you can’t stomach the idea of a 10-minute cold shower, simply opt for warm water throughout the majority of your shower and rinse off with cold water at the end. Who knows, you might find that you like the challenge.