It seems impossible to get online or even go to the grocery store these days without reading or overhearing something about cold therapy. In the last few years, in particular, everybody seems to be lauding the benefits of things like cold plunges, cold showers, and other types of cold therapy.
If you’ve never done cold plunges before, you may be wondering if cold therapy really lives up to all the hype and if so, whether it would be just as beneficial to stand in a cold shower.
As it turns out, even though there are benefits to both, there are some key differences between taking a cold shower and doing a cold plunge, as well as differences between a cold plunge and an ice bath. Today, we’ll go over those differences, the benefits of cold water therapy in general, and answer your frequently asked questions on the subject.
What’s the Difference Between a Cold Shower and a Cold Plunge?
Cold showers and cold plunges have a lot of similarities in terms of benefits, but they differ in terms of what exactly they are.
A cold shower, as you might imagine, is just standing in the shower for two or three minutes with the water below 60 degrees Fahrenheit1. To put this into perspective, when you take a regular shower, the temperature is likely somewhere between 98 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit2. So, 60 degrees or lower is going to feel a lot colder.
Experts with UCLA Health recommend easing into cold showers.1 Start by lowering the water temperature for just 30 seconds, and then work your way up. If you’re an athlete, they say you can take a cold shower post-workout every day if you want, but you may prefer to alternate hot and cold water to get the full benefits of both increasing blood flow and reducing inflammation.1
This is one key difference between a cold shower and a cold plunge – in a shower, you can more quickly adjust the temperature and even alternate between cold and hot if you prefer. Also, since you’re standing beneath running water and not submerged, it is easier to simply end the experience if it becomes too much. After all, turning off a faucet is much easier than lifting your entire body up and out of a tub.
A cold plunge, on the other hand, involves submerging everything but your head and neck into cold water.1 These days, cold plunge tubs are a popular option for this, as you can set it to the exact temperature you want ahead of time. For optimal results, studies show3 you should set the temperature somewhere between 51 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit, and stay in the water for somewhere between 11 and 15 minutes. To put this into perspective, the average swimming pool that you’d jump into is about 78 to 82 degrees4.
Generally speaking, a cold plunge involves more time and likely lower temperatures than a cold shower. You’re also fully submerging all of your body at once, which research says can help alleviate sore muscles, among other things.3 Plus, you’d be seated or lying down in a cold plunge, whereas in a shower you’d have to stand up.
A cold plunge is more of a commitment, in terms of time, energy, and in the case of buying your own cold plunge tub or paying for access to one, money.
Both cold showers and plunges seem to have some benefits, but because of the fully submerged nature of a cold plunge and the colder temperatures, the plunge seems to have more risks5, which we will explain in detail further below.
Cold Plunge vs. Ice Bath
According to Cold Home Recovery6, a company specializing in cold therapy, cold plunge therapy is typically done in something called a cold plunge tub or pool. The water in this tub is cooled by a chiller or refrigerator unit, so you can set the tub to the exact temperature that you want beforehand. Also, the water in cold plunges is continuously circulating.6
An ice bath, on the other hand, is simply a bath or tub filled with water and lots of ice.6 This means that you won’t have as much control of the temperature, and likely, the water will be much colder since ice is just 32 degrees Fahrenheit7.
In a cold plunge, you can spend more time in the water as it will tend to be warmer, and in an ice bath, you’ll need to get out much more quickly8. Even though there are benefits to both, again, the colder the water is, the riskier it is as well.5
What are the Benefits of Cold Water Therapy?
According to Dr. Tracy Zaslow9, a sports medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai, there are currently a lot of hypotheses around the benefits of cold water therapy, but as yet, not a whole lot of research.
One of the benefits, though, that has been the most vetted is reducing inflammation and soothing sore muscles.9 This is because cold water constricts blood vessels, so there is less blood flow to the sore areas. This means less swelling and inflammation, which ultimately means less pain.9
There is some scientific (and much anecdotal) evidence that cold water therapy can help boost the immune system, improve mood, increase the metabolism, minimize localized pain, and improve circulation.1. However, Zaslow emphasizes that more research is needed, and in certain populations, cold water therapy is more dangerous than it is beneficial.9
Cold Water Therapy Risks
The people who should avoid cold water therapy include those with heart disease (as the shock of cold water puts temporary strain on the heart), those with Raynaud’s syndrome, or people prone to hives due to cold.1 Even if you are healthy, you should gradually build up your tolerance to cold water and warm up afterward by putting on dry, warm layers and drinking something warm. Experts don’t recommend going from something as intense as a cold plunge or ice bath straight into a hot tub, sauna, or hot shower as this could be dangerous.9
Always speak to your doctor if you have any questions or concerns about introducing a new health practice like cold water therapy.
FAQs About Cold Plunges vs. Cold Showers
Is a cold shower as good as a cold plunge?
A cold shower has many of the same benefits as a cold plunge, including reducing inflammation and muscle soreness.9 However, a cold plunge is going to be a more heightened experience. The water temperature can be lower in a cold plunge, and you’ll have the benefit of being able to sit or lie down and submerge your entire body at once as opposed to standing in the shower.
You might start out by taking cold showers to see if cold therapy is a good fit for you. If you end up loving the benefits of cold showers but are seeking something a little more intense, you can then invest in a cold plunge.
Is a cold plunge better than cryotherapy?
Unlike a cold plunge, which uses water, cryotherapy exposes the body to very cold vapors.1 According to Harvard Health10, the research behind cryotherapy is lacking, but people report positive results when using it to help treat inflammation, arthritis, chronic pain, and other ailments.
Both cold plunges and cryotherapy use cold temperatures to treat some of the same problems, but the key difference is the cold plunge involves submerging your body into cold water, whereas in cryotherapy, you’ll likely be sitting or lying down in a very, very cold room or enclosure.10 Since they can be used to treat similar conditions, it comes down to a matter of preference. If you are claustrophobic11 or don’t like enclosed spaces, for example, it is not recommended that you do cryotherapy, and if you’d prefer not to be wet, we wouldn’t recommend a cold plunge.
How often should you do a cold water plunge?
Denver Sports Recovery12 recommends doing a cold water plunge two or three times a week at most since the body needs time to recover between sessions. They also recommend starting with just one or two minutes, and then gradually working your way up if you’d like to.12
Natalie is a content writer for Sleep Advisor with a deep passion for all things health and a fascination with the mysterious activity that is sleep. Outside of writing about sleep, she is a bestselling author, improviser, and creative writing teacher based out of Austin.
- “6 cold shower benefits to consider”. UCLA Health. https://www.uclahealth.org/news/6-cold-shower-benefits-consider. 2023.
- Valenti, Lauren. “This Is the Ideal Shower Temperature to Keep Your Skin Soft, Smooth, and Glowing”. Vogue. https://www.vogue.com/article/what-should-shower-temperature-be. 2022.
- Machado, Aryane F., Ferreira, Paulo H., et al. “Can Water Temperature and Immersion Time Influence the Effect of Cold Water Immersion on Muscle Soreness? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”. Springer Link. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40279-015-0431-7. 2016.
- “Managing Swimming Pool Temperature for Energy Efficiency”. U.S. Department of Energy. Webpage accessed October 2, 2023. https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/managing-swimming-pool-temperature-energy-efficiency.
- Williamson, Laura. “You’re not a polar bear: The plunge into cold water comes with risks”. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/news/2022/12/09/youre-not-a-polar-bear-the-plunge-into-cold-water-comes-with-risks. 2022.
- Hounsell, Connor. “Ice Bath vs. Cold Plunge”. Comfort Home Recovery. https://comforthomerecovery.com/blogs/news/ice-bath-vs-cold-plunge. 2023.
- “Ice”. National Geographic. Webpage accessed October 2, 2023. https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/ice/.
- “Cold Plunge vs. Ice Bath”. Zuda Yoga. https://zudayoga.com/cold-plunge-vs-ice-bath-zuda-yoga. 2023.
- Fields, Lisa. “Taking the Plunge: Is Cold Exposure Worthwhile?”. Cedars-Sinai. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/blog/cold-exposure-therapy.html. 2022.
- “Is whole-body cryotherapy effective and safe?”. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/is-whole-body-cryotherapy-effective-and-safe. 2018.