Steam Facials: Do They Help Or Harm Skin?

by beautifulwithbrains

steam facial good for skin

Have you ever steamed your face?

Come on now, I now you did. We all did.

Like most of you, I first heard about steam facials from a magazine (it was in the pre-internet days – do you still remember those?). The article said that steam was this awesome thing that opened up the pores, making it easier to remove all the crap that accumulates in them every day.

Remember those pimples we always used to get before that all important first date with our first crush or the day before the yearly class photo would be taken? No wonder we were willing to try anything to get rid of them.

Boiling a pot of water, covering our heads with a towel, and placing our faces above said pot didn’t seem particularly weird. Not that it was something we would do in front of another human being (the horror!), but it wasn’t one of the weirdest things we tried in the name of beauty – like, you know, putting toothpaste on a pimple.

Did it work? I never could tell. It seemed to do some good, but whether it was the placebo effect or not, who could say?

Well, I couldn’t then, but I can now (thanks, science!). Here’s what Lady Science says:

Steam Can’t Open Pores

Come on, you knew this was coming, didn’t you? Nothing can open pores.

Pores can be stretched: all that crap that causes breakouts stretches them. That’s why if you have oily and acne-prone skin, your pores are so large. Excess oil, dead skin cells and any other impurity accumulating in there take up so much space, your pores swell to accommodate them (why don’t they just send them away, I’ll never know).

But opened (or closed, for that matter)? Nope. Pores aren’t doors. They don’t open nor close. Their size is genetically determined and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Unless your pores are being stretched by gunk. If you get rid of it, your pores will shrink…. to their genetically determined size!

Related: 3 Science-Backed Ways To Shrink Large Pores

What Steam Really Does For The Skin

If steam facials can’t open pores, what the heck can they do? Have we all been steaming our faces in vain? Maybe not…

1. Steam Helps Skincare Products Better Penetrate The Skin

What steam can really do is soften skin. When skin is softened, it’s more permeable. That’s a fancy way of saying your skincare products can penetrate the skin more easily. The deeper they go, the better – and faster – they work.

You don’t have to steam your face for hours on end, either. Studies show that using a steam towel for even just 5 minutes does the trick.

Related: 4 Ways To Enhance The Penetration Of Skincare Products

2. Steam Increases Blood Flow

Ok, this isn’t exactly a benefit of steam itself, but of the heat that generates it. Basically, heating the skin increases blood flow and that helps bring nutrients and oxygen to the skin. This is SO important for its health: it helps skin fight off infections and the bacteria it comes in contact with.

Great! But, Are There Any Side Effects?

Yes. Remember how I mentioned that steam can make skincare products better penetrate the skin? Well, there’s a catch.

Steam is able to do that only because it disrupts the skin’s protective barrier. That’s not really a good thing. When this barrier is compromised, your skin becomes dry and more prone to irritations.

Don’t get me wrong. You won’t destroy your skin if you steam it once. Just don’t do it every day. Once a week is more than enough.

And, don’t overdo it! If the steam is too hot, or you steam your face for too long, you could burn yourself. Ouch!

One more thing. If you have acne or sensitive skin, never steam your face without discussing it with your doctor first. I know it seems like a silly thing, but better be safe than sorry, no?

Beware of steam facials! They help products better penetrate the skin by disrupting its protective barrier. Not good.Click to Tweet

The Bottom Line

Steam may help skincare products better penetrate the skin, but that comes at the expense of the skin’s protective barrier. No more steaming for this girl. If you want to keep on doing it, do it carefully.

Do you enjoy steam facials, or have you given up on them too? Share your experience in the comments below.



Laurie May 23, 2016 - 10:54 pm

I generally find steam facials unpleasant, although I like you, I did them as a teen. My aesthetician uses steam when I get a facial once every few months, but to be honest it’s not my favorite part! Fortunately it’s not too strong and it’s only for a few minutes while I’m wearing a mask.

Gio May 24, 2016 - 10:50 pm

Laurie, we all did them, didn’t we? I agree, it’s not the most pleasant thing, and definitely something you don’t want to do too often.

Klau June 15, 2016 - 10:28 pm

Hi. Do you have a degree in biology?

Gio June 16, 2016 - 10:22 pm

Klau, no I don’t. But I have been studying the science behind skincare for 8 years now. Such a fascinating topic!

Barbara June 2, 2016 - 2:12 pm

What?! Toothpaste on pimples work!!!! Somewhat…

Ok, steaming. I don´t know. It doesn´t have to be actual steaming, but like you said, a hot cloth or even warm water, I feel like these “loosen” the skin and it´s easier to extract that stuff that was stuck inside. At least for me.

Here´s a question. What´s your opinion on herbal tea steaming? Apparently it gives your skin nutrients?

Gio June 2, 2016 - 11:01 pm

Barbara, it’s true, a bit of heat can loosen stuff up. The problem is when this heat is too hot. Then it just disrupts the skin’s protective barrier. That’s why it’s best to do it in moderation.

As for herbal tea steaming, it’d be cool if it worked. But, sometimes, I haven’t seen any proof it does.

Me January 2, 2020 - 1:53 am

You do realize that washing your face with most any traditional cleanser will disrupt the barrier – right? So does exfoliating…even ‘toner’. The key isn’t to never ever disrupt the barrier – the key is to not disrupt it so often it can’t recover (which varies by person), and when you do disrupt it, that disruption must be compensated for.. ie:.moisturize with something. When the derm office does a laser treatment or something harsh like that, which obviously disrupts the barrier, the patient usually leaves with a thick layer of something to protect the skin (ie: Aquaphor or something that will protect the skin for a short period of time) until the skin barrier can recover.

Conditions such as eczema are the result of a body that (for whatever reason) has lost the ability to keep the skin barrier. When this happens the barrier is lost and the skin is left ‘naked’ with no way to defend itself from the harsh dry world. A common treatment for eczema (that is out of control) is to soak in a lukewarm bath for 10-15 min, then cover the skin with an ointment or oil based product (oils soak in, ointments both soak in deeper than lotions and sit on top and keep water from getting out, so basically an artificial skin barrier). Something known as ‘weekend’ therapy is when an eczema patient, once a week, soaks in the lukewarm bath for 10-15 min (no soap) and then gets out to only pat dry the skin, then covers the skin in a medication steroid ointment, then covers the skin to keep the ointment from wiping off – then goes to bed. They do this once a week and usually this is enough to keep the skin under control.

So, the barrier is something to be cherished but it is also allowed to be disrupted – just make sure after you disrupt it, you give it what it needs to recover.


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