For many, the daily shower is a sacred ritual, a time to disconnect and relax with pampering products under a steady water flow.
I like to use eucalyptus mist and listen to calming music to create a spa environment. Sometimes I even do a cold rinse at the end to mimic that spa cold plunge experience.
But recently, I learned about another way to incorporate temperature changes into my shower routine: the contrast shower.
What is a contrast shower?
“A contrast shower is when you change the temperature of the water from hot to cold and then back again,” said Dr. Nina Vasan, a psychiatrist and chief medical officer at the mental wellness platform Real. “Typically, it consists of multiple cycles of switching between hot and cold water and lasts anywhere from 5-10 minutes total.”
Also known as contrast hydrotherapy, the contrast shower is pretty straightforward, with different ways to execute it. You might use hot water for about three minutes, then switch to one minute of cold water, or you could alternate shorter increments of 15 seconds.
So long as you stick to the general concept of therapeutic switching between hot and cold, you’re taking a contrast shower. Most literature about the topic recommends you end on cold, however.
What are the benefits?
“Contrast showers have the potential to increase your energy,” Vasan said. “The shocking quality of alternating from hot water to cold water can provide a quick burst of energy and alertness.”
If you’ve ever gone from a hot tub or sauna to a cold plunge, you’ve certainly experienced that kind of jolt.
“Our bodies tend to adapt to water temperature to become comfortable, so a contrast shower ‘shocks’ the system by switching temperatures just as our body begins to adapt to the previous temperature,” said dermatologist Dr. Lauren Ploch.
“People also report feeling more focused after taking a contrast shower,” she added. “We know that contrast showers increase blood flow throughout the body, and increasing blood flow to the brain could impact the ability to focus.”
The idea is that hot water causes blood vessels to dilate and increase blood flow to the skin’s surface, while cold water constricts blood vessels and pushes the blood to the organs.
The potential benefits of a contrast shower have not yet been fully studied in a scientifically meaningful way, however.
“The benefits are anecdotally reported by not proven,” Ploch said. “Much of the data is from cold plunges, which is a different technique that involves sitting in very cold water for three minutes. Some of the reported benefits include improvement of circulation, enhanced immune system function, and decreased muscle soreness.”
Dr. Adam Friedman, professor and chair of dermatology at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, also pointed to the limited science around contrast showers and warned against the potential for thermal burns if you aren’t careful.
“I don’t know how big a problem this is, but I would be concerned about the potential for burning the skin,” he said. “Cold showers can have a mild anesthetic component, so when you flip the switch and turn to hot water, you could potentially expose yourself to water that is hotter than you realize.”
Friedman noted that the cycling of extremes puts stress on the body, which could have potentially negative consequences.
“All in all, I don’t see the biological benefit,” he said. “However, a big part of healthcare and treatment is also placebo, so if someone thinks it’s doing something, then maybe it is doing something. Everyone is unique, and if someone found a routine they think helps them, I’m not going to discredit that or say they’re making it up. There are so many factors that go into why this could help one individual or a handful. It’s complicated.”
Indeed, a 2014 study out of Australia found that although contrast showers did not accelerate recovery in athletes, their perceptions of recovery after contrast showers were superior compared to their perceptions after more traditional methods.
“The findings indicate contrast water therapy and contrast showers did not accelerate physical recovery in elite netballers after a netball specific circuit,” the researchers noted. ”[H]owever, the psychological benefit from both interventions should be considered when determining the suitability of these recovery interventions in team sport.”
How can you implement a contrast shower into your routine?
“A contrast shower is best in the morning as the cold temperatures are stimulating,” Ploch said. “Many people use this technique after a stressful workout because it can decrease muscle soreness.”
That being said, there are no hard and fast rules around the best time to take a contrast shower ― or just a regular shower, for that matter.
“I believe this comes down to personal preference of when you shower,” Vasan said. “For some people, a contrast shower in the morning to wake up is preferable. For others, taking this type of shower in the evening to help wind down is best.”
Although people have reported positive results from contrast showers, that doesn’t mean they’re for everyone.
“Very hot showers can dry out the skin, so I don’t recommend hot showers or contrast showers in people with dry skin or atopic dermatitis ― eczema,” Ploch said. “Because the benefits are not proven, it’s fun to try but not essential to incorporate into your routine unless you enjoy how you feel after.”