You’ve heard all the fuss about cold water exposure and how ice baths have so many benefits, but why can’t you just take a cold shower instead? Surely it’s more convenient and just as good right?
Well there are benefits and drawbacks to both methods and really it comes down to what your goals are.
First, let’s talk about the differences in the actual methods:
A cold shower is essentially when you take a shower with water between the temperatures of 10-21°C (50-70°F). This is usually done for a few minutes at a time and you can go straight into an already cold shower, but most people will gradually decrease the temperature starting from warm to ease into it.
An ice bath on the other hand involves immersing yourself into a tub or pool of cold water and staying submerged for a period of time. People will often stay in an ice bath for around 10 minutes, but this will vary depending on the temperature.
Cold showers: the main reason these can be considered less effective is due to the fact that it’s very difficult if not impossible to ensure you’re getting enough cold water across your entire body to reduce your body temperature. You’re not able to fully immerse yourself in the cold and so in a way you’re only truly targeting parts of your body at a time. This makes it difficult to really reduce your overall temperature and see the benefits of the cold.
However this is not to say that cold showers don’t bring benefits. A study in the Journal of Circumpolar health found that a 2-3 minute cold shower (at around 20°C) led to a reduced level of perceived stress and heightened wellbeing. Another one in Japan found that daily cold showers at 20°C significantly reduced people’s work-related fatigue symptoms.
Even spot cold therapy (i.e. just targeting one body part) can be beneficial, in this study published by the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research they found that cold water face immersion (again at 20°C) led to reduced perceived stress and improved alertness.
Ice baths: with an ice bath you are fully immersed in the cold water, and so it's difficult for any part of you to escape the cold. This makes it far more intense especially at lower temperatures, and leads to much more effective full body temperature reduction.
There are myriad benefits to cold water immersion, and the bottom line here is that with increased exposure across your entire body you’ll simply reap more of the benefits. Read more about these here.
Cold showers: of course you can stay in a cold shower for as long as you want, but for a variety of reasons cold showers will typically last between 3 and 5 minutes. If you were to have a warm shower and then stay in a cold shower for an extended period of time you would start to get into the realm of wasting water.
Ice baths: due to the fact that you have a body of water that can be re-used multiple times, you can essentially stay in an ice bath for much longer and get more value out of the water you’re using. For this reason ice baths typically last around 10 minutes, meaning you are likely getting more benefits from the session.
Cold showers: it's tough to make a case against cold showers in this instance. Nearly everybody has a shower and even when you don’t have hot running water, you’ll certainly have cold water. All you need to start your journey is a willing mind!
Ice baths: this is one of the main reasons we started Submerge Ice Baths. We wanted to increase accessibility to the power of cold water to anyone in the world. Having an ice bath at home really reduces the barrier to entry for this wellness practice. Having said this there is certainly still some preparation that is required.
Depending on where you live and the temperature of your cold water taps at home, you might need a few things to get started. If you’re in a hot country and/or your tap water isn’t already quite cold then you’ll need to cool down the water in your ice bath with some ice. However once this is done thankfully the insulated exterior of the ice bath and the weather-proof lid will keep your water colder for longer.
Cold showers: once again it's tough to find a fault here. Cold showers are generally safe for most people as long as you start slowly and listen to your body. If it ever gets a bit too much you can simply step backwards out of the water, turn the tap off, or get out of the shower to the warm embrace of your towel.
Ice baths: with an ice bath and the lower temperatures, it’s advised to have someone with you and of course once again listen to your body and how it reacts to the cold. You can definitely just get out if things become too intense for you, but be careful stepping out of the ice bath as there is a potential to fall and injure yourself especially if the cold has affected your legs.
It's important to note that ice baths can be uncomfortable and even dangerous if not done properly. We recommend that you consult with a healthcare professional before starting an ice bath routine, and to start with shorter immersion times and gradually build up to longer durations.
In summary, both of these cold exposure therapies have been shown to have numerous health and wellness benefits including reduced inflammation, improved immune functioning, enhanced recovery and general mental wellbeing. Ice baths are usually colder and more intense requiring full body immersion and a longer duration but resulting in a deeper set of benefits, but cold showers are incredibly practical and easy to incorporate into your daily routine.
As we said at the beginning a lot of this comes down to your personal goals, available resources, and individual preferences. Both of these methods can be powerful tools for improving both your physical and mental health.