Applying ice to your pimples can make them less angry, swollen and painful – but why and (from a skin science point of view) how is best to do it? When we apply ice to skin, the cold causes vasoconstriction of blood capillaries (they narrow), decreases the metabolic rate of certain cells (the slow down) and the level of both pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines and anabolic hormones (compounds responsible for localised inflammation). The result is a temporary reduction in localised swelling (swelling is a result of the inflammatory process), redness (redness is caused by blood flow) and the perception of pain. These effects are well documented in medical studies (1).
What icing does not do is reduce the size or close a pore. This is a myth. Pores are tubes in the skin without any means of constricting and do not change size in response to drop in temperature. Any perceived change in pore size after ice is due to the colour change of the skin around the pore rather than the pore size itself. Acne is an inflammatory condition, so it would make sense that the anti-inflammatory of icing should help calm the symptoms of acne. Well the ‘common sense’ stacks up but unfortunately, there are currently no studies available to indicate that ice is an effective treatment for inflammatory acne. Icing is unlikely to offer any benefit for noninflammatory acne. It also isn’t anything more than a temporary solution – within minutes of stopping the body will heat the area back up again and the inflammatory process will continue.
But icing can help temporarily relieve acne symptoms and so what’s the best way?
Often, we’re told to wrap the ice in a cloth or paper towel to avoid frost bite. This, to a degree, is a myth. In some 35 studies documentating the application of ice directly to the skin, there were no recorded skin injuries in clinical application for short duration (less than 10 minutes). For icing a pimple, the duration is likely to be less than 10 minutes with an ice cube and so wrapping isn’t necessary, especially if the cube is continually moved over the face. But do as you feel comfortable, and always check the skin for adverse reaction every minute or so to be safe.
And, never ever ever use an ice pack as these can be much colder than an ice cube and cause a cold burn.
(1) Effects of Topical Icing on Inflammation, Angiogenesis, Revascularization, and Myofiber Regeneration in Skeletal Muscle Following Contusion Injury Front Physiol. 2017; 8: 93. Daniel P. Singh,1 Zohreh Barani Lonbani,1 Maria A. Woodruff,2 Tony J. Parker,1,3 Roland Steck,4 and Jonathan M. Peake1,3 Published online 2017 Mar 7. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2017.00093 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5339266/