Should you wash your skin with hot or cold water?
Warm, cool, or cold water is fine, but avoid hot water
Many people wonder whether they should wash their skin with hot or cold water and which is better for acne. Let's take a look at the available evidence. From what you'll see, it is probably best to avoid very hot water when washing but warm or cool water is most likely fine.
A few isolated studies suggest exposing the skin to heat above 42°C (107.6° F) has effects such as drying the skin, increasing sebum (skin oil) excretion, and causing changes to the skin that are similar to those that happen when the skin ages. All of this leads us to believe that washing with hot water is most likely not ideal. However, one study showed that warmer temperatures--but not hot--might improve skin healing. In other words, while it is probably best to avoid hot water, warm water is likely safe.
When it comes to cold water, we have no studies looking at the effects of cold-water washing on acne or skin health, but we do know that ice is dramatically anti-inflammatory and may help heal acne. Would cold water do the same? Probably not to the same degree, but it probably also wouldn’t hurt. The bottom line is we need more studies before we can draw any conclusions on cold or cool water, but washing with either is likely safe.
The bottom line: Washing with warm water that does not scald or burn the skin is a good and safe idea. If you prefer to wash with cold water, or do a cold rinse after washing with warm water, feel free.
The Science: Hotter Temperatures
One study suggests warm temperatures may promote skin barrier healing and actually be beneficial for the skin. This is important because damaging the skin's barrier may be detrimental for acne. However, isolated studies show that hot temperatures may cause skin dryness, sebum buildup, increased topical drug absorption, and perhaps skin damage and wrinkling. Let's have a look at this mixed bag.
Increased Absorption of Topical Drugs
Skin Damage and Wrinkling
While there are no studies examining the effects of cold or cool water when applied to the skin, cold temperatures can reduce swelling and inflammation,8,9and many acne sufferers report that treating acne lesions with ice helps reduce swelling. Cryosurgery, the practice of removing a lesion by freezing it off, can successfully treat acne lesions and acne scars.10Cryotherapy, the well-known practice of applying cold to an injury site like a sprained ankle, effectively reduces swelling and inflammation. However, cryotherapy is effective only once the skin temperature is reduced all the way down to 10°C to 15°C (50°F to 59°F).9This can take 10–20 minutes on major joints of the body but happens more quickly on the surface areas of the face, in as little as 5 minutes. Still, that is far more time that anyone takes washing their skin, and cold water from the faucet is much warmer than the cold that is used in cryotherapy, like ice for example.
One study shows that cryotherapy might also help reduce sebum production, which could help acne sufferers since most people who have acne have an increased level of sebum production:
However, again, washing with cool or cold water for only a few seconds is highly unlikely to have the same effect.
So, when it comes to cool temperatures, we know that icing an acne lesion can help heal it more quickly, but whether washing with cool water for only a few seconds would approximate anything close to the application of ice or not is unlikely.
Right now, there is not enough information to advocate for washing with warmer or cooler water. However, washing in hot water may cause damage to the skin over time and could disrupt the important skin barrier. Ice can reduce swelling, inflammation, and sebum production, but cold tap water is unlikely to achieve the same effects. If you wash with warm water, feel free to continue. If you prefer cold, that’s fine too.
- Popkin, B. M., D’Anci, K. E. & Rosenberg, I. H. Water, hydration, and health. Nutr. Rev. 68, 439–58 (2010).
- Cunliffe, W. J. et al. Pilo-sebaceous duct physiology. Br. J. Dermatol. 95, 153–156 (1976).
- Shahzad, Y., Louw, R., Gerber, M. & du Plessis, J. Breaching the skin barrier through temperature modulations. J. Control. Release 202, 1–13 (2015).
- Kellogg, D. L. In vivo mechanisms of cutaneous vasodilation and vasoconstriction in humans during thermoregulatory challenges. J Appl Physiol. 100(5), 1709-1718 (2006).
- Denda, M., Sokabe, T., Fukumi-Tominaga, T. & Tominaga, M. Effects of Skin Surface Temperature on Epidermal Permeability Barrier Homeostasis. d. 127, 654–659 (2007).
- Cho, S. et al. Effects of Infrared Radiation and Heat on Human Skin Aging in vivo. J. Investig. Dermatology Symp. Proc. 14, 15–19 (2009).
- Cales, L. & Weber, R. A. Effect of water temperature on skin wrinkling. J Hand Surg Am 22, 747–749 (1997).
- Schaser, K. D. et al. Prolonged superficial local cryotherapy attenuates microcirculatory impairment, regional inflammation, and muscle necrosis after closed soft tissue injury in rats. Am J Sports Med 35, 93–102 (2007).
- Greenstein, G. Therapeutic efficacy of cold therapy after intraoral surgical procedures: a literature review. J Periodontol 78, 790–800 (2007).
- Thai, K. E. & Sinclair, R. D. Cryosurgery of benign skin lesions. Australas J Dermatol 40, 175–184; quiz 185–176 (1999).
- Jalian, H. R. et al. Selective Cryolysis of Sebaceous Glands. J Invest Dermatol 135, 2173–2180 (2015).