Dial it in to combat dry skin and promote better mental and physical health.
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"You're hot then you're cold / You're yes then you're no / You're in then you're out / You're up then you're down …"

In addition to being an earworm circa 2008, thanks to Katy Perry, this is often how we fine-tune our showers. Some days, we're so sweaty post-workout that it's icy. On other days we are frozen to the bone and turn the spigot to summer-in-Las-Vegas levels of scorching.

But as we try to find our happy clean-off climate, we start wondering, is there a best shower temperature for health? Turns out, there absolutely is—and dialing this in can be a boon if you aim to score a better night's sleep, combat dry skin, reduce post-workout soreness and more. (There's even a term for this, "hydrotherapy," in which you use water to soothe pain and/or treat certain medical conditions.)

Read on for the cold, hard truth about your shower habits, plus how to optimize them to improve your well-being.

a photo of a steamy shower
Credit: Getty Images

The Pros and Cons of Hot Showers

"Hot water is typically described as approximately 110 to 140 degrees," says Channa Ovits, M.D., FAAD, a Westchester, New York-based board-certified dermatologist at Westmed Medical Group, a Summit Health Company.

But in terms of a shower, you should never tiptoe over 120 degrees, due to the chance of a burn injury.

The benefits of hot showers include the following:

  • Possible heart-health boost thanks to increased blood flow via wider blood vessels and less arterial stiffness
  • Less joint or muscle pain, especially among those with osteoarthritis, due to enhanced blood flow
  • Improved sleep, since a cozy temperature can help promote relaxation

"Hot showers are a nearly universal pleasure and wash away dirt and bacteria easily," Ovits says. But nodding to the drawbacks, she continues: "Very hot water will cause the protective lipid barrier on the skin to essentially melt and be washed away, leaving the skin dry, tight and uncomfortable. The water should never feel uncomfortably hot on your skin, and erring on the side of tepid is good practice."

Anyone with eczema and other inflammation-related skin conditions should steer clear because "hot water is also quite irritating to the skin, causing local inflammation," explains Olga Bunimovich, M.D., a dermatologist at UPMC in Pittsburgh and an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

The Pros and Cons of Cold Showers

"Cold water is generally defined as 60 to 80 degrees, though it can be even lower," Ovits says.

While it might not be exactly pleasant to step into, think of a cold shower as a twist on the ice bath concept. Since the H2O is below body temp, the possible benefits of cold showers include:

  • Less inflammation, pain and swelling, as well as fewer muscle spasms due to improved circulation
  • Potential increased metabolism, when taken at around 57 degrees
  • Lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol

"Cold showers are described as invigorating," Ovits adds. "A rinse of cold water over the hair can smooth the cuticle, leading to better reflection of light and shiny appearance. Athletes are also known to use very cold showers to prevent injury, but the data has not supported its efficacy."

Still, a shower that's too cold (below the normal body temperature of 97 to 99 degrees) for too long can put you at risk for an abnormal heart rate and hypothermia.

The Best Shower Temperature and Time for Health

"Lukewarm water, usually water temperature between 98 to 105 degrees, is best," Bunimovich says.

A warm, but not hot, shower is the way to go, Ovits agrees, because this is toasty enough to feel relaxed without scorching the skin or compromising its health and ability to retain moisture.

An easy way to tell if you've cranked up the heat a little too high? Any water that is hot enough to turn your skin red is too harsh.

In music to our shower-singing ears, Ovits explains, "Despite what most people are taught by many primary care physicians and pediatricians, long showers are actually not bad for the skin. In fact, spending some time in the water allows the skin to soak up the water." Bear in mind, though, that long showers are not the best for your water use, so keep them occasional and consider a low-flow shower head.

Bunimovich advises her patients to aim for no longer than a 20-minute shower. Immediately after the shower, she says, apply an ointment like Vaseline or Aquaphor to "allow the water to be trapped in the skin. You can think about skin like a sponge: a dry sponge needs to be well soaked to regain its water content, and if you then dip that sponge in a thick coating of an ointment, it will retain that water."

The Bottom Line

As a general rule, a lukewarm shower is best and can definitely be part of a soothing bedtime routine, but "an occasional hotter or colder shower, as per personal preference, is not a problem," Ovits says. This is true unless you are pregnant or have a heart condition—in that case, aim to keep things more moderate.

"People who are prone to eczema have difficulty retaining water in the skin as the result of increased transepidermal water loss. Daily lukewarm baths, followed by application of an ointment, helps their skin hold on to that moisture and decrease the TEWL, much like a dry sponge," Bunimovich continues.

As the years go on, you may want to leave things closer to lukewarm, too. "As we age, the lipid barrier of the skin replenishes more slowly which impacts how well our skin can bounce back and retain moisture after a hot shower. That means a young person can take occasional hot showers without getting dry patches, but an older person wouldn't tolerate it as well," Ovits adds.

If you notice an increase in dryness, don't forget to slather on a thick layer of a moisturizing ointment, as mentioned above (and try this texture-smoothing and hydrating serum on your face for a bonus boost!).