If you're someone who arrives early to spa appointments to maximize your steam-room time — or if you've ever simply enjoyed the warmth wafting out of a cup of just-poured tea — the concept of facial steaming is probably pretty appealing to you. Touted as a gentle, natural alternative to harsh exfoliating treatments, herbal facial steams are essentially teas for your face (no, you don't drink them). They look like potpourri and are formulated from a mix of dried herbs; you scoop some into a bowl, pour boiling water over it, drape a towel over your head, and allow all that steam envelop you for about five minutes. In addition to supposedly aiding gentle exfoliation, facial steaming can supposedly help allow active ingredients better penetrate the skin.
"I struggled with acne for a really long time, and I found that normal exfoliators were really abrasive," says Annie Tevelin, cosmetic chemist and founder of the skin-care brand Skin Owl. "Through my research, I found that when you heat the skin and steam it, that acts as an enzymatic exfoliator." So she created the Skin Owl Beauty Steam, a mixture of chamomile, rose, lavender, calendula, fennel, nettle, and comfrey. Tevelin suggests using the steam twice a week after cleansing and also recommends smoothing a face oil over skin first, which will help the ingredients penetrate.
According to Tevelin, facial steaming can also help counteract signs of aging. "Facial steaming helps to boost hydration, which means it has a soothing, smoothing effect, and it also boosts radiance," she says. But I was still a bit skeptical: I'd heard that heat can inflame (and, thereby, exacerbate) acne and rosacea, and I wasn't so sure that a little steam would be a decent enough replacement for good, old-fashioned face scrubs, so I asked Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, to weigh in.
"Facial steaming can help hydrate and soften the outer skin layer, enhancing penetration of active ingredients into the skin," says Zeichner. But it's sort of a watered-down version of those ingredients, he says. "While introducing treatments to the skin through steaming may help, concentrations of the actives will be lower and likely less potent than those directly applied to and left on the skin."
This makes it an ideal treatment for sensitive skin types that can become easily irritated from topical creams and serums. But paradoxically, Zeichner does warn that the heat and steam may trigger "facial flushing," so anyone prone to redness may want to steer clear.
In addition to the traditional practice of putting one's face over a bowl of an herbal brew, there's also the option of steaming machines, like the Dr. Dennis Gross Pro Facial Steamer. Like many steaming devices, the futuristic machine relies on distilled water and leaves out the leaves.
Like any good skin-care adventurer on a budget, I decided to give it the traditional method a shot. I followed Tevelin's directions, allowing the mixture to steep for a couple of minutes before I placed my face over it. While the idea of holding your head over a steamy bowl of coziness no doubt sounds appealing — especially when it's cold out — I actually found it somewhat unpleasant. Not only did I find the scent to be reminiscent of roast chicken (all well and good, but not the ideal aroma I'd choose for my face), but I got really hot and sweaty, and my hairline got crazy frizzy. Not to mention, sitting still for a solid five minutes without the ability to scroll through my Instagram feed was rough.
After my steaming session, my face had a pinkish flush, like I'd just worked out, but I didn't notice anything I'd even vaguely equate to exfoliation. Yes, my skin felt supple and smooth, but if any dead skin cells had sloughed away, the process was so subtle that I didn't even notice it.
Would I try facial steaming again? Sure. If I end up with a cold at some point, maybe I'll bust it out as a sinus-clearing, skin-glow-ifying treatment. But I'm not about to adopt it in place of my carefully honed skin-care routine anytime soon.
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