What is best for my skin sauna or steam room?

Who doesn’t like a nice steam experience? I know I do! While the warmth can provide relaxation, how does it affect the skin on the face? Does it provide any benefit? There are pros and cons for how either a steam room or a sauna can impact the skin. For certain skin types they can be good for the skin, but for other types of skin, it actually may be doing more harm than good. In this post, I’ll go into the details of all.

First, let’s start with steam.

What’s happening to the skin while in a steam room?

  • Humidity that is given off from the steam is providing water-based hydration to the top surface layers.
  • Since steam rooms typically have temperatures of around 110 degrees, it will help to increase the skins’ internal temperature causing a dilation of capillaries, which stimulates blood circulation. This will result in the skin appearing flushed and red in most skin types.

What are the benefits to the skin from a steam room?

Since humidity of a steam room is at 100%, it makes it quite hydrating to the skin. Skin cells are like fish and need water to live so steam can be very beneficial for keeping surface layers feeling moist and looking healthy—as long as when you leave the steam room you apply a protective moisturizer to the skin to keep the hydration sealed into the skin. Through a process called osmosis, the dry air (like when you walk about of the steam room, made worse in the winter) draws moisture from wherever it can get it and this includes your skin. So if a serum or cream isn’t applied topically within 60 seconds to keep the moisture in the skin, it will evaporate out and the skin will be more dehydrated than even before you went in the steam room.

Another benefit is that of increased circulation that comes with heat. It is through the blood that oxygen and nutrients feed the cells in both our skin and body which are absolutely essential for keeping the metabolism of the cells acting young and making the repair processes function efficiently. All of this slows down with age so I’m a real advocate of stimulating blood flow to the skin.

How can steam be bad for the skin?

The drawback of a steam room is the intense heat that it gives off. For certain skin conditions like rosacea, where the skin already has a red appearance and stimulates all too easily, steam will cause a further dilation in capillaries making the skin even redder. So for anyone with a lot of redness and visible capillary damage in their skin, a steam room would not be recommended to use on a regular basis. But the good news is, if you do want to enjoy a steam experience, you can always hold an ice-cold washcloth on your face while in the room to keep the internal face temperature regulated. You might also perform a post-steam ice-cold water splash on the face to constrict capillaries and cool down the skin.

Secondly, for those prone to melasma (dark brown patches on the skin from hormones), the heat may also increase the possibility of making discoloration more prominent since heat inflames the skin, raising the skin’s internal temperature and waking up melanin cells. The goal with any type of pigmentation is to calm over-active melanin cells with soothing anti-inflammatory ingredients like licorice and stable vitamin C and so unnecessarily creating more stimulation of melanin with heat is never a good idea. If you are someone prone to pigmentation and are trying to get it to fade, an important goal is to keep the temperature of the skin as cool as possible so this would mean avoiding being outdoors on extremely hot days, steam rooms, sauna, and hot yoga.

Does steam open up the pores?

As an Esthetician, I know that steam is considered an important step in a facial to warm up the skin, soften the debris within the pores to prepare for easier removal of blackheads and provide hydration. But heat doesn’t actually open up the pores so, in a steam room, there is no cleansing occurring in this way.

Let’s now talk about a sauna. 

What’s happening to the skin while in a sauna?

  • A sauna gives off dry heat and there is very little humidity given off from the water being poured onto the hot rocks or heater.
  • Since saunas typically have temperatures between 170-212 degrees, this will significantly raise the skins’ internal temperature causing a dilation of capillaries, which increases blood circulation. This will result in the skin getting flushed and red in most all skin types.

What are the benefits to the skin from going in a sauna?

A benefit is that of increased circulation that comes with heat. It is through the blood that oxygen and nutrients feed the cells in both our skin and body which are absolutely essential for keeping the metabolism of the cells acting young and making the repair processes function efficiently. All of this slows down with age so I’m a real advocate of stimulating blood flow to the skin.

How can a sauna be bad for the skin?

The drawback of a sauna is that temperatures are much hotter than in a steam room so while they can increase blood circulation and offer the benefits as mentioned above, someone with a lot of redness in their skin should avoid using a sauna altogether. It’s important to note that since heat rises, it won’t be as hot for any type of skin if you sit on one of the lower benches versus the top bench.

Also, saunas are a drier heat because the temperatures are between 170-212 degrees making a less humid environment, anywhere from 5-20%. While they will provide a little hydration to the skin, they are considerably less beneficial for hydration than a steam room. Similar to use with a steam room, always apply a moisturizer immediately on the skin afterward to keep the hydration in the skin and prevent evaporation when the air is dry.

For those prone to melasma (dark brown patches on the skin from hormones), the heat may also increase the possibility of making discoloration more prominent since heat inflames the skin, raising the skin’s internal temperature and waking up melanin cells. The goal with any type of pigmentation is to calm over-active melanin cells. If you are prone to pigmentation and are trying to get it to fade, an important goal is to keep the temperature of the skin as cool as possible so this would mean avoiding being outdoors on extremely hot days, steam rooms, saunas, and hot yoga.

In summary, from a hydration standpoint, both steam and saunas are beneficial but there are many topical products that can provide an easier and quicker way to hydrate thirsty skin cells if that’s the goal you’re going for.

I definitely recommend both steam rooms and a sauna for my clients who have skin types that could benefit from a boost of circulation. However, as I said previously, you can always put a cold washcloth over your face to prevent putting pressure on fragile capillaries.

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