Hollywood Cryotherapy Center on Woman Who Froze to Death: "She Clearly Got a Tad Too Comfortable"

Jessica Tezak/Knoxville News Sentinel, via AP

The gruesome accident has sent a shockwave through Hollywood.

The horrific death of Chelsea Ake-Salvacion — a cryotherapy attendant trapped for 10 hours inside an isolation chamber chilled to minus 240 degrees Fahrenheit — has sent shockwaves through Hollywood, where the experimental cure-all has grown exponentially in popularity among actors, athletes and entertainment-types.

Ake-Salvacion, 24, was discovered Oct. 20 inside a tank at the Rejuvenice spa in Henderson, Nev., a Las Vegas suburb. According to one account, she was found by a co-worker "frozen in solid ice." The Hawaii native had stayed past closing hours to subject herself to a session, which should never exceed three minutes.

How she ended up trapped inside the chamber and "accidentally" froze to death, as Henderson police put it, remains a mystery.

An investigation by the local coroner's office is currently underway to determine the cause of death. On Tuesday, the Nevada State Board of Cosmetology ordered Rejuvenice to shut down because it didn't have the proper licensing to perform the kinds of dermatological and aesthetician services it advertises. 

In September 2014, this reporter tried cryotherapy as part of a larger report on emerging longevity techniques. On the recommendation of TV writer Jhoni Marchinko (2 Broke Girls), a self-described "walking billboard" for the service, I visited Cryohealthcare on La Cienega Boulevard, one of the first commercial cryotherapy clinics in the U.S. The technique, which originated in Japan in the late 1970s as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, was brought to Los Angeles from Germany by Dr. Jonas Kuehne.

For $65 per session, male visitors strip to their underwear (women go completely naked), then don a robe, white athletic socks, gloves and a surgical mask. They are then ordered by an employee to enter a chamber outfitted with a small window and digital readout, resembling a time machine. Once the door is closed, a cloud of vapor engulfs you and the temperature inside plummets to minus 220 degrees Fahrenheit. (By contrast, the lowest natural temperature ever recorded was minus 128.5 degrees Fahrenheit, registered in Antarctica.) 

According to Kuehne, the low temperatures stimulate cells to produce proteins called cytokines, which are thought to fight inflammation. But the claims do not end there. Among the purported benefits of the therapy, reads the Rejuvenice website, cryotherapy "accelerates tissue healing, strengthens [the] immune system, improves blood circulation." It also claims to have "anti-aging" benefits, "burns 500-800 calories" and can be "beneficial against depression."

I experienced none of those benefits, however, after subjecting myself to back-to-back treatments. Rather, I experienced burning sensation on my legs that lasted approximately 24 hours, accompanied by a mild feeling of nauseousness.

Nevertheless, cryotherapy's celebrity adherents are legion. Mandy Moore has captured her treatments with pal Minka Kelly on Instagram, and Demi Moore has been snapped by paparazzi strolling out of the Cryohealthcare facility. A number of "sponsored" professional athletes are listed on the Cryohealthcare website, including UFC fighter Alan Jouban, Olympic swimmer Jessica Hardy and Olympic hurdler Lashinda Demus. Floyd Mayweather began treatments ahead of his "fight of the century" against Manny Pacquiao last May.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration "has not cleared or approved any whole body cryogenic devices," according to FDA press officer Deborah Kotz. She goes on to say that the regulatory body would step in if the "manufacturer promotes the device for medical purpose claims."

But since the machine that took the life of Ake-Salvacion was touted as a "product for non-medical purpose claims, for example, being used only for comfort, soothing or relief," Kotz continues, then it "would not meet the definition of a medical device" and therefore does not fall under the FDA's jurisdiction.

According to Leah Hardy, a former Marketing Director for Cryohealthcare and a consultant in the Whole Body Cryotherapy space, the service remains safe. Rather, it was Ake-Salvacion's decision to ignore procedure that led to her death.

"The reason why the state of Nevada is attributing this tragedy to 'operator error' is because there is strict operating protocol across the whole cryotherapy industry: No staff member or client is ever to freeze alone as temperatures in the machine are below minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit," Hardy tells The Hollywood Reporter.

"This young woman would know that as manager of a cryotherapy retail shop, as anyone trained on these machines is aware of that rule. She clearly got a tad too comfortable with the machine and made the costly decision to break the rules and freeze alone," she continues.

Hardy stresses that cryotherapy "does not cause healthy individuals to lose consciousness," adding that we will likely never learn why Ake-Salvacion remained inside the chamber.

"No one will ever know why she lost consciousness ... but she did," says Hardy. "This is why the protocol is in place. Something could happen — that one-in-a-million chance — and if it does you need to have someone there to get you out because otherwise you will freeze to death."

"It is also important to note, that to my knowledge, this is the first recorded death ever associated with Whole Body Cryoptherapy in four decades with millions of people doing the treatment over that same time period across the globe," adds Hardy.

Dr. Kuehne did not respond to requests to comment for this story.