Is Steam Bad For Your Skin?

Photo: Getty Images.
"Do you want to go take a steam?" The question conjures up images of spa days, hotels, and white robes — so glamorous, right? But aesthetician Mary Schook says it takes her back to her time as a lifeguard — when she started noticing the serial steamers and their increasingly “droopy” skin.

This was years ago, but lately we’ve been hearing rumblings of the sentiment that steam is not so good for your skin. From saunas to facials, steam has been an integral part of skin-care culture forever. Could this be true?

There are varying viewpoints on the subject. Schook has remained firmly anti-steam since her poolside days. She's pretty much anti-heat altogether, using only cold and room-temperature water on her clients and advocating for cold therapy and icy face masks. “When I got into aesthetics school, I fought the system by stating I would not use steam in my applications (or chemical peels for that matter),” she writes on her site. “I was a firm believer that heat did something to cause the skin to relax in the wrong way. I didn't know until the recent reports emerged stating heat slowly destroys collagen strands and causes premature aging.”

Other pros are anti-steam because of its effects on sensitive skin. “I’m not a huge steam fan because I see a lot of facial redness with rosacea in the office,” says dermatologist Elizabeth Tanzi, MD. “Hot, steamy things on the face [are] not great if you have any tendency towards redness or sensitivity, [because they dilate] the blood vessels in the skin. If...your skin is more sallow, and you want a rosy glow to the skin, then I guess that’s fine. But if you have any redness, steam is just going to make it worse.”

But others — like New York City facialist Cecilia Wong — use steam in their treatments. “Steaming helps in dilating the pores,” Wong says. "This makes it easier for extractions, and removing blackheads and dirt. It's also a great tool for promoting blood circulation. It encourages better product absorption and releases toxins.”

Wong recommends steam for those with clogged pores and blackhead problems. If you have oily or acne-prone skin and are getting a deep-pore cleansing facial, she says steam is key. But she, too, agrees that it can aggravate sensitive skin. If that's your skin type, or you suffer from rosacea, eczema, or fungal infections, she says you should limit steaming to a few minutes. Dr. Tanzi advises nixing it altogether, and she follows her own advice: “For my sensitive skin, I avoid ‘hot and steamy’ at all costs,” she says. “No very hot water, no steam rooms, no saunas, and no steam facials.”

Celebrity facialist Joanna Vargas is a fan of steam for its relaxing abilities. “Steam softens the sebum inside your pores, so it is easier to clean your skin,” she says. “It’s also great because clients find it relaxing and can fall asleep, so they don't even have to feel the extractions very much.” She also uses a steamer to activate products on the skin. “For example, I use enzymes on the skin and the steam is great to make them super-active,” she says.

When it comes to steaming at home, Vargas warns to be careful because putting your face too close to the steamer could cause burns. “I would also caution people on following steam with a session of picking at breakouts,” she says. “Just because you steam the face doesn't mean you have license to pick at every bump. Never use fingers, only Q-tips. It's very difficult to get a good angle for real extraction on one’s own face, and going too vigorously on softened, steamed skin could lead to scars.” Wong adds: “If the face is not prepped and cleansed properly, bacteria can spread due to the moisture and heat.”
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