It’s at the spa and in your moisturizer, and you can even get it from a canister. Is oxygen therapy really good for your skin – or is it just a lot of hot air?
By Michelle Villett
Clearly, oxygen is in the air. In his spring collection for Nina Ricci, Olivier Theyskens featured a selection of breezy creations, while Alber Elbaz draped fabrics for a lightweight effect at Lanvin. Now you can bring this airy feeling to your beauty regimen, thanks to oxygen therapy in the form of spa treatments, skin care creams and even inhalation devices. As trend-driven as always –from her Ashtanga yoga routines to her myriad “beauty” injections – Madonna’s quest to stay young has been much criticized. Still, there’s no arguing that, at the age of 49, she looks incredible. Her biggest indulgence? Oxygen. According to her facialist, Los Angeles-based Michelle Peck, Madonna gets an oxygen facial before every show when she’s on tour; she even purchased oxygen machines from Australian company Intraceuticals for each of her three homes.
Madonna’s facial, called the Intraceuticals Oxygen Infusion, involves spraying a hyaluronic-acid-based serum over the skin using a stream of therapeutic-grade oxygen (about 95 percent versus the 21 percent that is found naturally in the atmosphere). Other bold devotees of Peck’s oxygen facial include Gwyneth Paltrow and Molly Sims, yet Peck was initially skeptical about the procedure. “More than 98 percent of what’s out there doesn’t work, but I was astounded by the results of this facial,” she says. “It lifts, firms and tightens skin, minimizes fine lines and stimulates new collagen and elastin.” She believes that its popularity – at least, among celebrities – stems from the advent of high-definition television, which magnifies skin imperfections. “HDTV shows everything,” says Peck. “With this, you get immediate results.”
Closer to home, dermatologist Sandy Skotnicki-Grant recently began offering the treatment – which takes about an hour – at her Toronto dermatology clinic. Before each session, clients choose one of two serums: Rejuvenation (for its general antiaging benefits) or Opulence (which also brightens the skin). After the skin is cleansed well, the serum – along with oxygen – is dispensed in ice-cold puffs from a wand not much bigger than a pencil. As the wand is moved around the face, the serum absorbs quickly because the stream of oxygen helps push it into the deeper layers of the skin.
While not as relaxing as a traditional facial, it’s not uncomfortable – and Peck is right about the instant results: Afterwards, skin looks noticeably plumper and even, and the effect lasts about three weeks. But that isn’t the only reason Skotnicki-Grant decided to invest in the Intraceuticals technology. “I decided to get a Fraxel laser, which injures the skin and stimulates collagen, and I read that some [well-known] dermatologists in the United States combine therapies [such as the Fraxel laser] with oxygen facials to speed recovery,” she says. “Oxygen – along with vitamins A, C and E in the serum – is healing, and it reduces free radicals.”
Dr. Neil Sadick, a New York dermatologist, uses oxygen therapy to calm patients’ skin after cosmetic procedures and help those with acne. “It reduces inflammation,” he says.
Besides the oxygen facial, there are a growing number of oxygen-based skincare products, including cult favourite Oxygen Plasma Potion from New York-based Ling Skin Care. “Oxygen plasma is a microscopic carbon molecule – called ‘perfluorocarbon’ – that mimics the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to the skin cells,” says Patrick Chan, chief executive officer for Ling Skin Care. “It was used by the U.S. military to treat burns during the Second World War.”
According to Chan, when the molecule is applied topically, it transports oxygen to the lower layers of the skin, resulting in increased elastin and collagen production and a clearer complexion. While Oxygen Plasma Potion is suitable for any skin type, other oxygen products target either wrinkles or blemishes: Oxygen Face Cream from Karin Herzog counteracts the aging process, which is exacerbated by a lack of oxygen in skin cells, says Noëlle Palmisano-Herzog, the company’s research and development director, while the new Oxygen Puractive+ line from G.M. Collin employs an oxygen complex to inhibit and prevent the growth of acne-causing bacteria, says product manager Karoline Kanani.
You can also get a dose of oxygen the old-fashioned way: by inhaling it. Although oxygen bars were popular in the late 1990s – the trend originated in Japan and quickly spread around the globe – they had limited appeal because many users found visiting them inconvenient; the fad eventually ended. Now, a number of companies are offering personal oxygen tanks for use at home or in transit. Vancouver-based Oxia sells portable, refillable canisters that supply 90 percent pure oxygen in concentrated form. According to Bryce Margetts, Oxia’s chief executive officer and founder, people are using them for a range of ailments, including jet lag and asthma. And for home use, Bliss, a New York-based spa and skin-care company, sells the O2hi Personal Oxygen Machine, which reportedly improves alertness and mental acuity. Douglas McCullough, the product’s distributor, says that the O2hi has skin-care benefits too. “If you’re increasing your oxygen [intake], you’re increasing your skin’s resilience,” he says.
But whether oxygen is applied to the skin or directly inhaled, many dermatologists – including Dr. Jaggi Rao, an associate clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton – think that it’s purely a fad. “Skin cells do need oxygen to carry out their functions,” he says, “and oxygen therapy plays a role in some things, such as wound healing.” But he doesn’t believe it can actually deliver skin-care benefits. He claims that it’s the pressure of the delivery system – not the oxygen itself – that results in the short-term, plumped-up look provided by oxygen facials. “You see an immediate effect from inflammation,” he says. “Your skin is reacting to the force of air striking it. But you have to be concerned with inflammation. In the long term, some experts believe that it’s not a good thing.” Sadick and Skotnicki-Grant concede that there is no evidence of long-term results. “Theoretically, when oxygen is introduced to the skin, it increases blood supply and cell metabolism, so it could slow down the aging process,” says Sadick, “but
there are no studies to confirm this.”
Another skeptic is Dr. Lisa Kellett, a dermatologist and director of DLK On Avenue in Toronto, who expresses concern that many people are seeking out oxygen because they see it as a safer alternative to other, more-proven products and procedures. “There is a trend toward products that are perceived as being more natural, but these are cosmetic products, not treatments,” she says. “Any product that treats the skin is a drug and, therefore, held to a higher standard of product claims.”
Still, while there’s no concrete evidence that oxygen will give you a glow, most dermatologists say that oxygen facials, products and inhalation devices can be used safely – as long as you have realistic expectations of the results. “[The facials] may feel nice, so they can be beneficial in that sense,” says Dr. Peter Vignjevic, a dermatologist based in Hamilton, Ont. “They’re a temporary fix, and I think they make people feel good,” adds Rao. Plus, with the growing perception of impurity – both in the air we breathe and the water we drink – oxygen therapies can be a compelling purchase. (Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment issued 13 smog warnings last year, compared to just six in 1995, indicating that air quality is indeed worsening.) “The trend right now is about overall health and well-being,” says Margetts. “People are looking for ways to make themselves feel better.”