COLD PLUNGING AND THE SKIN
In recent years, the practice of cold plunging, also known as cold water immersion (CWI), has gained immense popularity as a wellness and rejuvenation technique. This ancient practice, embraced by various cultures across the world, involves submerging oneself in ice cold water for a short period. Advocates of cold plunging tout its potential benefitsfor mental clarity, immune system enhancement, and even skin health. Particularly intriguing is the relationship between cold exposure and blood flow, which directly influences the health and vitality of the skin. Below, we examine the literature on the relationship between CWI and facial skin.
COLD EXPOSURE AND BLOOD FLOW
The human body is remarkably adaptable and responds to external stimuli in intricate ways. When exposed to the cold, the body initiates a series of physiological responses aimed at maintaining its core temperature. One of the most prominent reactions is vasoconstriction – the narrowing of blood vessels - . As the body senses the cold, it redirects blood flow from the extremities towards vital organs to preserve heat and sustain essential bodily functions.
Simultaneously, the body triggers a stress response that activates the release of various hormones, including norepinephrine . This hormonal surge not only provides a burst of energy but also serves to constrict blood vessels, further limiting blood flow to the skin's surface. However, the body’s response doesn’t stop there: researchers have identified a cyclical pattern of vasoconstriction followed by vasodilation that they have yet to fully understand. The phenomenon is called cold-induced vasodilation (CIVD) which means that after a certain drop in body temperature or duration of cold exposure, the blood vessels expand again to allow blood to flow back into the exposed area [2,3]. This is to preventtoo much heat loss.
Interestingly, it has been estimated that the rate of blood circulation under normal circumstances provides 10 times the amount of nutrients and oxygen necessary for skin maintenance; this has led researchers to hypothesize that the main role of circulation in the skin is thermoregulation, not nutrition . If this is true, this means that the skin can experience cold stress while still receiving the nutrients it needs for homeostasis.
FACIAL SKIN AND COLD EXPOSURE
The intricate relationship between cold exposure and facial skin is a fascinating dance of controlled stress. As blood vessels constrict due to the body's survival mechanisms, blood flow to the skin's surface diminishes. This temporary reduction in blood circulation can lead to a pale and cooler appearance, often accompanied by a sensation of tightness.
Unfortunately, there is no concrete evidence supporting claims that the rebound of blood flow back into the skin after cold exposure provides additional nutrients to the skin. This goes back to the earlier point that under normal conditions, there is already an excess of nutrients and oxygen present to support skin health .
Interestingly, most studies about CWI have been done on the feet, hands, or whole body. However, it is well known that when the head is submerged in water, a phenomenon known as the diver’s response is triggered . The diver’s response is characterized by reduced blood flow (vasoconstriction) in the extremities but also bradycardia, or a slowed heart rate. This cardiovascular effect is opposite of CWI on the rest of the body. Thus, it is difficult to extend the sparse findings of current CWI studies to the facial skin since such unique mechanisms are at play.
WHAT DO WE KNOW?
While the findings on CWI and skin complexion are slim, there are still a few responses that we know occur but the consequences of which are not deeply understood:
- The combination of vasoconstriction and subsequent vasodilation serves as a natural way to stimulate blood circulation
- Improved blood flow means better oxygenation and elimination of waste products, which are vital for maintaining healthy, glowing skin
- Alternating constriction and dilation of blood vessels provide a gentle form of exfoliation, helping to slough off dead skin cells and promote cell turnover
- CWI triggers the release of endorphins, which contribute to the feeling of rejuvenation and might even have a positive impact on stress-related skin conditions
Cold plunging's impact on skin health is a testament to the body's remarkable ability to adapt and respond to various stressors. While the initial effects of vasoconstriction might give the appearance of reduced blood flow and pale skin, the subsequent vasodilation and nutrient-rich blood surge are key factors in revitalizing facial skin. The controlled stress of cold exposure may help improve blood circulation, encourage cell turnover, and regulate our nervous system. More studies need to be done to understand the specific effects of CWI on the facial skin but currently, moderate CWI may provide skin benefits.
 Espeland D, de Weerd L, Mercer JB Health effects of voluntary exposure to cold water – a continuing subject of debate.Int J Circumpolar Health 81, 2111789.
 O’Brien C (2005) Reproducibility of the cold-induced vasodilation response in the human finger.Journal of Applied Physiology 98, 1334–1340.
 Tsoutsoubi L, Ioannou LG, Mantzios K, Ziaka S, Nybo L, Flouris AD (2022) Cardiovascular Stress and Characteristics of Cold-Induced Vasodilation in Women and Men during Cold-Water Immersion: A Randomized Control Study.Biology 11, 1054.
 Lehmuskallio E, Hassi J, Kettunen P (2002) The skin in the cold.International Journal of Circumpolar Health 61, 277–286.
 Godek D, Freeman AM (2023) Physiology, Diving Reflex. InStatPearls StatPearls Publishing, Treasure Island (FL).