Whole body cryotherapy can be hazardous to your skin

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Woman entering a whole body cryotherapy chamber.

Whole body cryotherapy (WBC) involves exposing your body to subzero temperatures for 2 to 4 minutes while nearly naked. Temperatures can exceed -200° Fahrenheit.

If you’re wondering why anyone would do this, most people try it for the alleged health benefits. You may have seen claims that WBC can clear acne, eczema, and psoriasis — as well as give you younger-looking skin.

Staff at spas, gyms, and other places that offer WBC claim that it can alleviate sore muscles and joints after a workout, allowing you to recover faster. It’s even being offered as a way to lose weight and improve your mood.

As more WBC spas open, the list of WBC benefits seems to grow. Fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis are frequently promoted as conditions that WBC can treat.

Despite these claims, research studies have yet to prove that WBC can deliver any of these benefits.

WBC proven to injure skin

While the benefits of using WBC to treat sore muscles and diseases remain unproven, there’s evidence that the extreme cold can injure your skin.

Reported skin injuries due to WBC include:

  • Frostbite
  • A frozen limb
  • Rashes

Frostbite: This is the most common skin injury. American sprinter and 2004 Olympic champion Justin Gatlin developed frostbite on both feet during a WBC session, according to ESPN1. He’s not the only one. Researchers in Finland reported that 16% of the participants in a WBC research study developed mild frostbite.

Frostbite occurs when your skin (and sometimes the tissue beneath your skin) freezes. This can lead to permanent tissue damage.

Frozen limb: While trying WBC for the first time, one woman finished her 3-minute session with a frozen arm, according to the Dallas Observer. As her arm thawed, she developed painful swelling, blisters, and third-degree burns2. This is a type of severe frostbite.

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Cold panniculitis: This rash developed after 8 whole body cryotherapy sessions.

Rash (aka cold panniculitis): After having 8 WBC sessions within 2 weeks at a local gym, a 47-year-old man developed a rash. It started on his lower legs and spread to his thighs, belly, and arms. As the rash spread, it became somewhat itchy and painful.

Feeling very concerned, he saw a dermatologist and was diagnosed with cold panniculitis (pah-nick-you-lie-tis). This occurs when cold injures the deepest layer of skin — the fatty tissue.

People who develop cold panniculitis often have a rash of:

  • Tiny, hard bumps
  • Raised and scaly patches
  • Deep lumps in their skin

To get rid of this rash, you must stop injuring your skin. This allows the skin to heal on its own. When this man stopped WBC, it took several weeks for his skin to heal.

As the rash fades, some people see darker (or lighter) patches of skin where the rash once was. These patches can last for months before clearing.

WBC can injure more than your skin

Reports of other problems due to WBC include suffocating, sudden and temporary loss of memory, and eye injuries.

One woman who worked at a WBC center in Las Vegas suffocated while inside a chamber. She reportedly used the chamber after business hours when no one was around. The next day, fellow staffers found her body3.

Cryotherapy and WBC differ

If you’ve seen a board-certified dermatologist about a wart, pre-cancerous growth, or other skin condition, you may have had cryotherapy. This treatment has been used for more than 100 years to treat skin disease.

Unlike WBC, cryotherapy treats a specific spot on your skin. It uses extremely low temperatures to freeze and kill the diseased area on your skin. After one or more treatments, the wart or other lesion falls off.

Also unlike WBC, cryotherapy is an accepted medical procedure. When performed by a person skilled in cryotherapy, such as a board-certified dermatologist, cryotherapy is very effective and safe.

The cold facts: WBC benefits remain unproven, WBC unapproved by the FDA

While you may see links to studies on websites of businesses that offer WBC, these studies raise doubts among scientists. When scientists from the FDA reviewed the studies, they said, “We found very little evidence about its safety or effectiveness in treating the conditions for which it is being promoted.”

As a result, the FDA has not cleared or approved WBC as safe or effective to treat any medical condition.

In fact, the FDA is concerned that people using WBC may:

  • Injure themselves
  • Have no improvement (or worsening) of their medical conditions
  • Develop a new medical problem

Dermatologists share the FDA’s concern

Dermatologists agree that WBC poses risks. They also understand that claims, such as WBC can clear acne and give you younger-looking skin, can make it tempting to try WBC.

Dermatologists don’t recommend that anyone try WBC. If you’re tempted, dermatologists say that you should proceed with caution. See your doctor first. Some people have a medical condition, such as nerve damage or heart disease, which can worsen with WBC.


Images

  • Getty Images
  • Used with permission of Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology: J Am Acad Dermatol. 2002;47:608-10.
  • Used with permission of JAAD Case Reports: JAAD Case Reports. 2018;4:344-5.

References
Andrews MD. “Cryosurgery for common skin conditions.” Am Fam Physician. 2004;69(10):2365-72.

Associated Press. “Justin Gatlin dealing with frostbite.” ESPN. August 24, 2011.

Greenwald E, Christman M, et al. “Cold panniculitis: Adverse cutaneous effect of whole-body cryotherapy. JAAD Case Reports 2018;4:344-5.

Klimenko T, Ahvenainen S, et al. “Research letter: Whole-body cryotherapy in atopic dermatitis.” Arch Dermatol. 2008;144(6):806-8.

Nicholson E. “A Dallas cryotherapy center accidentally froze a woman's arm, lawsuit says.” Dallas Observer, December 2, 2013.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “Whole body cryotherapy (WBC): A ‘cool’ trend that lacks evidence, poses risks.” July 5, 2015. Last accessed May 30, 2018.

1 Associated Press. “Justin Gatlin dealing with frostbite.” ESPN. August 24, 2011.
2 Nicholson E. “A Dallas cryotherapy center accidentally froze a woman's arm, lawsuit says.” Dallas Observer, December 2, 2013.