Does steam do anything for your skin?
Once upon a time, many of us were adrift in a sea of magazine articles telling us how to get better skin — albeit not with scientifically proven methods but with those that seemed, somehow, logical. If a pore strip attaches to blackheads and pulls them out, and that’s good, right? Wrong. Pore strips actually stretch out your pores — Yikes!
That’s made me question all sorts of beauty treatments. Steam is said to “open your pores” and it’s popular for spa facials. Well, steaming does have benefits for skin, but it may not work exactly the way we think.
[Read More: Are Facials a Worthwhile Investment?]
Steam DOESN’T Open Pores
Your pores are, generally speaking, a pretty set size. While you can cause them to stretch with the aforementioned pore strips, the old hot-then-cold water trick doesn’t do much besides overcomplicate cleaning your face. And they appear larger where the most oil is excreted; hence, larger pores on your forehead and nose.
Particularly if you’re acne prone, you could be causing more problems for your skin if you’re steaming your skin every day in an attempt to clean it, according to esthetician Melanie Vasseur (Under My Skin).
It’s a myth that steaming your skin will open up your pores and make it easier to clean out dirt and oils. In fact, according to dermatologist Dr. Mary Lupo, steam can actually have the opposite effect and stimulate the oil glands.
However, Vasseur explains that weekly steaming before acne lesion extractions can be helpful for skin. Here’s why…
Steam DOES Soften Skin and Improve Blood Flow
What steam does do is softens the skin and improve blood flow, which, in conjunction with other treatments, can be beneficial for skin. In the same way skin absorbs water in the shower and becomes softer, steam softens the first layers of skin. This makes for better exfoliation (gently, please!) and permeation of ingredients.
In fact, a study on topically applied Lidocaine found that using a steam towel for five minutes helped to increase the permeability of the skin. The lidocaine penetrated, and subsequently worked, better for those who’d had the steam towel application (Anesthesia and Analgesia).
Another study worked to develop a heat ablative device using steam to prepare skin for topically applied drugs. Transdermal delivery systems worked better on steam-softened skin (Journal of Control and Release).
Heating the skin also increases blood flow, which helps bring oxygen and nutrients to the skin, and also promotes healing.
What Else Does Steam Do?
It’s possible that steam, particularly steam heat ablation could have even more uses for skin care: taking care of varicose veins. Varicose veins are veins that function improperly and are filled with more blood than usual. These veins can be painful and also very apparent on the skin, which leads some to surgical measure to remove them.
In a study on both sheep and humans, researchers used a steam ablative device to treat varicose veins. In the nineteen human patients, the steam ablation closed 13 of the 20 veins, and seven were slightly re-canalized after six months, but the study notes that they were not clinically relevant.
There were no profoundly negative side effects and participants rate pain very low — around a one on a 1-10 scale — and rated satisfaction high — around a 9.25 on a 1-10 scale (Journal of Vascular Surgery).
Steam won’t make your pores open to clean them better, in fact, it may stimulate oil glands, which could be worse for those with acne. But it can have a bevy of other benefits on skin.
It softens the outermost layers of skin, making skin better to exfoliate and increasing permeation of topically applied ingredients. Steam can also improve blood flow, which promotes healthy skin and healing.
The general recommendation for steam usage is about once a week, as more could have negative effects on skin. Be sure not to use steam that’s too hot, as it may cause a burn to skin.
Finally, steam may have future uses thanks to ablative steam therapy, which has great effects on varicose veins with minimal invasiveness.
Editor and Contributing Writer Natalie K. Bell spent years mining the depths of the Internet, asking doctors absurd questions, and experiencing the unfortunate trial-and-error of adolescence to accumulate beauty and make-up knowledge. Natalie holds a degree in English Writing and Cultural Anthropology. She enjoys cooking and eating exotic food, spoon collecting, both high-brow and trashy literature, unrealistic romantic comedies, bad horror movies, and vintage jewelry.View all Natalie Bell posts.
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