Ice baths are all the rage on TikTok, with many people hopping – or more accurately edging themselves – into a tub of cold water chilled with ice, or just taking a very cold shower.
Their aim is often to experience some sort of wellbeing boost, once the ordeal is safely over.
But before ice bath amateurs take the plunge, it is important to be aware that submerging yourself into any body of cold water can come with notable risks. Cold water dips might be a big trend right now – but they can pose dangers for those who aren’t aware of cold water shock and don’t follow safety advice, or who have pre-existing health conditions.
What are the benefits of ice baths thought to be?
On a physical level, ice baths and exposure to extreme cold therapy are said to help “ease sore and aching inflamed muscles, tendons and joints,” explains Helena Eflerova, an aquatic bodywork therapist and founder of HE AQUATICS. “Ice baths also help the central nervous system by assisting in sleep and relaxation, and help to reduce tiredness.”
They can have other, perhaps unexpected, beauty benefits too, adds Eflerova. “Ice baths can also help [with] your overall skin tightening, pores and cuticles, prevent dirt from going in, protect natural skin oils, make your hair look stronger and shinier,” she says.
Many fans of cold water and ice baths also swear by the mental health boosting benefits, as even a short burst of immersion can alter brain chemistry. But, what should you think about before giving it a go?
The DOs and DON’TS of ice baths
DO build up slowly. Diving in at the deep end might not be the best idea – and Anna Gough, a breath facilitator and cold water therapist at Breathing Tree, recommends turning down the temperature for the last minute during your shower, where you can more safely work on controlling your breathing when the cold shock hits (which can naturally cause an involuntary gasp reaction, followed by rapid breathing). When it comes to actual ice baths, Eflerova says you “could start off by gradually introducing your body to the ice water – feet, then legs, then torso and so on. Don’t feel like you have to fully submerge on your first few attempts.”
DO be mindful of your breathing. As mentioned, learning to control your breath is a big part of being in cold water. “How we breathe is often a very accurate indicator of how we are in our mind. So if we’re breathing fast and rapidly, then that means we’re feeling quite frantic in our heads. If our breath is nice and slow and smooth and deep, we are maintaining an element of homeostasis in our body, which keeps us calm,” says Gough.
DON’T try going into the cold water alone. This is an important safety point. Gough says: “Make sure you have somebody there, or find a coach or practitioner,” who can give guidance and help if needed.
DO take your experience into account when deciding what temperature to set your ice bath. For those who have never been exposed to any sort of cold water, Gough says she would put the bath at around 10 degrees Celsius.
DON’T use an ice bath if you are suffering from pre-existing cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure. “The decrease in core temperature and body immersion in ice constricts blood vessels and slows the flow of blood in the body. People with type one and type two diabetes also need to be careful as they may have reduced ability to maintain core temperature,” warns Eflerova.
DO know your limits and don’t stay in too long. “You’ll get those mental health benefits in the first two to three minutes, so there’s no need to stay in for a long time,” says Dr Rhianna McClymont, lead GP at Livi. Even people with long-established cold water routines might just stay in for a few minutes, and for ice baths, Healthline warns to stay submerged for only 10 to 15 minutes maximum.
Everyone needs to be wary of the effects of cold shock too, and ignoring warning signs and safety guidance can be dangerous. Some of these dangers, says Dr McClymont, include “cardiac arrest or stroke, especially for anyone suffering from pre-existing cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure”.
Remember to check with your doctor before trying ice baths to make sure it is safe for you.