Cryotherapy: Would you step into a –157°C chamber for the sake of beauty?

cryotherapy beauty

Athletes were the early adopters. Models are making it part of their pre-runway prep. High-profile actresses are doing it, too. What does it require? An open mind and an iron will—for three minutes, at least. Full-body cryotherapy, or deep-freezing yourself in a reverse sauna chilled by liquid nitrogen, is the latest anti-aging therapy to hit the beauty scene. The rather sci-fi explanation is that regular dips in a chamber brought to nearly –157°C may uniformly tighten skin, boost collagen and diminish cellulite. It’s a heady one, but is it too good to be true?

Current data doesn’t exist to back up cryotherapy’s beauty claims, yet the hopeful (Demi Moore and Jessica Stam included) turn up in droves to put themselves on ice. A prominent clientele jets into British Columbia’s Sparkling Hill Resort to experience North America’s first walk-in cryo chamber at KurSpa, often doing double sessions over five- to 10-day stays. Toronto’s Cryotherapy Health and Wellness plans to open new locations in the city, and clinics are rapidly expanding in the U.S. Manhattan’s KryoLife will have sites in 12 states this year, and Cryohealthcare is in the midst of setting up four new spots in Los Angeles. “When we opened five years ago, we had five clients a week. Now we have 100 a day—and that’s just word-of-mouth referrals,” says Emilia Kuehne, who co-founded Cryohealthcare with her husband, Dr. Jonas Kuehne.

The possible health and beauty gains aren’t without pain, however. Cryo’s Arctic cold is extreme (frostbite is a risk), causing the body to shunt blood toward the core to keep its temperature stable. Once outside the chamber, blood rushes back to the extremities and skin, creating a rosiness that lures in some fans pre-party. “It’s a definite shock to the body,” says Paul Bradshaw, KurSpa’s kinesiologist. “Having your head immersed forces you to breathe in air that’s twice as dense as room-temperature air, so you get an oxygen boost. And obviously there’s a circulatory response, so there’s potential for beauty side effects like a glow, but we focus more on the wellness aspect of reducing inflammation.”

Cryotherapy was originally developed in Japan in the late ’70s to treat rheumatoid arthritis. In some European countries it’s an accepted medical treatment, shown to alleviate inflammatory skin disorders like psoriasis and eczema. But its main claim to fame has been as an inflammation-reducing recovery tool for professional athletes. (The Toronto Raptors have a team chamber.) “Cryotherapy causes a release of cytokines, proteins we measure as blood markers in studies,” says Jonas, who notes that plastic surgeons are now regularly sending patients. “After a session, anti-inflammatory cytokines are elevated and pro-inflammatory cytokines are decreased. That’s a simplified explanation of how it fights full-body inflammation and why it’s viewed as beneficial for everything from autoimmune conditions to muscle soreness to post-surgery recovery.”

Icing after cosmetic procedures is typically recommended to hasten healing, and time in the chamber can act as a supercharged dose of it. “People don’t want to advertise that they just had plastic surgery, and the decrease in downtime is astonishing. It’s quite popular,” says Jonas, rattling off recent examples: One client with a severe hematoma after lipo improved in three days. Another came in right after a nose job with eyes all but swollen shut, and by the time she left, the swelling had gone down so much her eyes were fully open.

Filler and Botox fans also come (24 hours post-injection) to sidestep bruising. Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Dr. Leif Rogers has sent patients to the clinic and sees it as safe and effective post-op. “Pain and swelling are related to inflammation, and we know this decreases it,” he says. “One patient, an avid hiker who’d once climbed Denali, wanted to be active as soon as possible after lipo and breast reconstruction. She did six cryo sessions two weeks after surgery and was back hiking in a week. It cut her recovery time by about half.”

In the beauty world, anti-inflammatory topicals, treatments and diets are regularly used to promote youthful skin, but fighting inflammation isn’t cryo’s only anti-aging calling card. The extreme cold may trigger the growth of new collagen. “It flash-freezes the outer layers of the skin, penetrating a few millimetres to the dermis and subcutaneous layer,” says Jonas. “It’s hard to measure these things and we don’t have studies, but regulars report increased tone and elasticity with cumulative effects.” At KryoLife, demand for cryofacials has exploded in the past three months, according to co-owner and CEO Joanna Fryben. “Clients have told me their traditional facialists notice the improvements and ask what they’ve been doing,” she says. Cryohealthcare also offers the treatments, which involve directing a cold beam of pressurized nitrogen on the face, neck and scalp for a matter of minutes. Five sessions are recommended to gradually rev collagen, but the immediate takeaway—no more puffiness—draws A-listers. Committed fans swear cryofacials minimize pores, tighten skin and, in some cases, prompt hair growth. “One of my clients did a series and had amazing results. Her hair seemed fuller and her skin looked tighter and more toned,” says L.A.-based hair colourist Johnathan Gale of Sally Hershberger Salon.

Manhattan dermatologist Dr. Francesca Fusco is more circumspect. In the dermatology realm, cryotherapy typically refers to liquid nitrogen zapped in tiny bursts to remove warts, keratoses and skin cancers. “The facials would immediately take away swelling and puffiness, making the face look tighter, but otherwise I don’t know. When extremes of heat are applied to skin, as with ultrasound or radiofrequency, it can stimulate collagen remodelling through injury. So, I’m hypothesizing here, but it’s possible that when the fibroblasts in the skin are exposed to extreme cold it could do the same, but it’s questionable. Of course, if you’d said 15 years ago that we’d be using these heat modalities to remodel collagen and tighten skin, I would have said, ‘What?!’”

Cryoshaping, however, gets Fusco’s measured vote. In this case, the nitrogen is beamed onto stubborn fatty deposits and cellulite-ridden spots to freeze away fat cells (Cryolipolysis). One potential benefit over Coolsculpting: Larger areas can be uniformly treated without the skin stretching from negative-pressure suction. “Studies have proven you can destroy fat with extreme cold, but it’s easier to destroy tissue than fat, so you have to be careful with it,” says Fusco.

It’s possible these treatments may be enhanced by the subtle metabolism-boosting effects of the chamber, a draw for models in preparation for fashion week. In an effort to stay warm, the body upregulates the metabolic rate, increasing calorie burn with lasting effects that can take two to three days to return to baseline, explains Hollywood nutritionist Haylie Pomroy, who’s known for helping Jennifer Lopez maintain her age-defying shape. “But there’s another aspect that’s not often talked about. Cryotherapy’s extreme cold can increase the accessibility of your body’s growth hormone, which has whole-body anti-aging effects but diminishes as we get older.”

Hoping to rewind the clock, Gale gave cryo a try: “I didn’t get the same benefits as my client, but I was definitely euphoric afterward.” Post-session bliss—a result of endorphins flooding the body—is a happy side effect and one reason cryo is used to treat mood disorders in Europe. And isn’t happiness supremely youthful? According to Emilia, some buoyant regulars ask to bring vodka into the chambers. “We’re like a medical office, not a vodka lounge,” she laughs. “But it would probably feel great to do a shot afterward when you’re already feeling elated.”