Oxygen: Friend Or Foe?


A little over a month ago, influencer and model Summer Dawn laid out her daily bathing ritual in great detail. That's when I learned that baths for Summer consist of a half bottle of epsom salts, and a full bottle of hydrogen peroxide. A full bottle?! “I use the whole bottle,” said Dawn, before adding, “My bath is so crazy.” She cited full-body oxygenation as her reward for this particularly interesting ingredient cocktail. Was Summer on to something great? After all, oxygenation has been popping up in spa treatments and facial creams with increasing frequency over the past few years. Or was it another case of beauty industry conjecture—at best harmless and at worst, dangerous? I enlisted a team of experts including master aesthetician Joomee Song, cosmetic chemist Marie Veronique Nadeau, and New York-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Morgan Rabach to get to the bottom of it.

First thing’s first: What does oxygen do for skin?

Quick science lesson! After your lungs breathe in oxygen, oxygenated blood is transferred to the heart, and then pumped throughout the body, which includes your skin. “Delivering oxygen directly into the skin increases cell metabolism,” explains Dr. Rabach, “which means that it helps skin shed dead cells faster and replace them with newer, healthier ones.” In other words, it speeds up cellular turnover—the same thing you’re trying to accomplish with your AHA serums and retinol treatments.

But as we get older, explains Nadeau, skin loses its ability to turn over cells as quickly. Song observes that oxygenated skin should be “visibly hydrated, bright, and tight, with fewer breakouts, less water retention, and less inflammation." On the other hand, Dr. Rabach notes that a lack of oxygen leads to dullness, breakouts, and premature aging. She cites smokers as a good example of how oxygen plays a role in this—they have less oxygen available in their bodies, which contributes to the aging effects associated with cigarettes.

Are oxygenating treatments a thing?

Medically speaking, the treatment to oxygenate your whole body is called hyperbaric oxygen therapy. It takes place in a chamber with highly pressurized air, where unlike naturally occurring air, the air is especially oxygen-rich. “This brings tons of oxygen to the skin and helps heal wounds from the inside out,” explains Dr. Rabach. But she also adds that it’s exclusively used to treat people whose veins can’t naturally carry enough oxygen to their cells—in other words, emergencies only.

Wait, lots of spas offer oxygen treatments—you know, the ones with a pen or a dome. What about those?

“There is no medical evidence at this point to support doing in-spa oxygen treatments with a pen or dome,” says Dr. Rabach.

Can I rub oxygen onto my skin? Like from a cream?

Oxygen is a gas, and in order to make it a liquid, chemists combine it with hydrogen, which in turn becomes hydrogen peroxide. Though hydrogen peroxide is a good wound healer, it may do more harm than good when applied to normal skin. Because in that case, it turns into water with an extra oxygen atom, and this extra atom starts to act like a free radical, which is bad! It oxidizes, so it can actually speed up visible signs of aging like wrinkles and pigmentation. If you put on an antioxidant serum and follow it with an oxygen treatment, you’ll net out around zero.

Still wondering about Summer’s hydrogen peroxide bath? Dr. Rabach clarifies, “In a hydrogen peroxide bath, the skin doesn’t really absorb significant amounts of oxygen.” She also underlines that using strong concentrations of the stuff can be corrosive to skin.

So there’s no way to oxygenate skin from the outside in??

All three experts agree that massage is a great way to oxygenate the skin. “Massaging releases tension in muscles to stimulate more circulation and blood flow,” says Song. Increased blood flow means more oxygen-rich blood is brought to the surface of the skin. The particular facial massage that Song is famous for includes conductive microcurrent gloves (yep, they’re a thing) and movements drawing from deep tissue Shiatsu massage techniques—but any type of massage will do the trick at home. If you’re not sure what to do with your hands, you can also use a tool—a gua sha stone, or a facial rolling tool that mimics finger movements, is great for this.

Are there any other ways to get oxygen into skin??

“When you get flushed from working out, that is your body bringing oxygen to your face,” says Dr. Rabach. A good excuse to head to the gym, if you were looking for one. Here’s one more: “Bend over at the waist and hold the pose until you can’t stand it anymore, but keep breathing,” says Nadeau. “Models often do this just before they go on-camera.” And, in a pinch (pun intended) a quick squeeze is always a good perk-up.

—Ali Oshinsky

Photo via ITG