Regularly applying warm steam to the face is a truly beneficial beauty treatment available to anyone. Whether applied during a professional facial in a spa or at home under a tented bath towel, facial steam applications give you multiple skin health and beauty benefits.
Receptors on the skin alert the brain when the ambient temperature rises. In response to rising temperatures, the body initiates a thermoregulating response. As part of that response, blood vessels in the skin dilate so more blood can flow to the skin to let off heat. In addition to letting off heat, blood delivers oxygen and nutrients to tissue. This increased blood flow in the skin is one of the benefits of using steam on your face.
While pores do not really “open and close” -- they have no muscles around the pore opening to accomplish this feat -- facial steam does increase perspiration, and this has a cleansing effect on skin. Perspiration is about 99 percent water, according to the Department of Physiology at Indiana University’s Medical School. When perspiration flows from the skin, it lifts dirt, dead skin cells and other debris that may be trapped in pores to the surface of skin, where it can easily be removed.
Sebum, the natural skin oil that moisturizes, protects and lubricates hair and skin, is produced by sebaceous glands in the hair follicles. When sebum becomes trapped in a follicle, ether because of excessive sebum production or because the follicular opening has become clogged, acne breakouts result. One form of breakout, a blackhead, is helped when steam is applied to the face. The steam softens blackhead plugs so they will easily and gently release from follicular openings. The buildup of sebum inside the follicle can then flow naturally.
Visible skin is dead skin; to produce new skin, cells divide in a process called mitosis. When they are new, skin cells are plump and firm. Over time, these cells migrate up through the layers of skin and undergo profound physiological changes. By the time they reach the uppermost layer of skin, the cells are flat, hard and dead. They are bound to each other and to the living tissue below via a type of cellular cement. These dead skin cells provide a protective barrier function for the body to keep environmental, bacterial, fungal and viral aggressors from entering and to keep too much moisture from escaping. In youth, cellular turnover takes, on average, 28 days. As people age, however, they do not shed the dead cells as quickly, and skin begins to look old, depleted and tired. Steam helps loosen the cellular cement that binds too many dead skin cells to the surface of skin. After a facial steam, skin appears fresher and younger-looking.
Katherine Mariaca is a professional freelance journalist who specializes in alternative and complementary medicine, and skin and body care treatments. A longtime spa director and VP of skin care companies, Mariaca developed products and services for the spa industry. She earned a B.S. from Tufts and an M.F.A. from Lesley.