As I was scanning the Internet for recent trends, an article in the New York Times caught my eye concerning the re-emergence of oxygen and oxygen based therapies in skin care. Frankly, some of the information caused me to hold my breath. Even a review of my colleagues uncovered offerings of oxygen facials in the Chicago area, much like the oxygen bars of the 90’s which claimed to purify, revitalize, and cure hangovers. Oxygen is now touted in multiple facial and skin care products from cleansers, masks, to peels. But will it really increase skin circulation and the delivery of nutrition to the skin and give the skin energy as stated in the article?

We can start our exploration revealing just how oxygen gets to the skin in the first place. The health and nutrition of the skin is fundamentally dependent on the circulation to bring the oxygen and nutrition to it. The skin is a very effective barrier and oxygen in any form is very unlikely to penetrate it. This goes for vitamins as well, with the exception of vitamin A. We refer to the ability of the circulation to bring oxygen to the skin by the oxygen carrying capacity, and it seems that blood cells are maxed out at typical room air for healthy individuals who are smoke free. So if oxygen is depleted in the body will it result in lifeless skin? Well, if we deplete oxygen enough it will result in a lifeless you, but with the miracle of adaptation, if oxygen is reduced, say in Denver or Kathmandu, eventually our body will adjust, the blood count will rise, and within limits the carrying capacity will increase. So those of you in Denver need not worry about premature aging. Is there competition in your body as to who gets the O2? You bet, though the skin is not always last on the list. The first is your brain for good reason, liver and kidney are high on the list, though your stomach after a heavy meal, and even your skin on a warm day can move up on the priority list.

What the oxygen does to the skin once is gets there is the story of metabolism, the tissue’s ability to generate the energy it needs. In the cell, the oxygen is converted to energy through an oxidation process and releases carbon dioxide to be taken back to the lungs. This energy combined with proper nutrients and vitamins allows the skin tissue to renew itself, the youth and radiance of good health. Metabolism, as a chemical process, is imperfect and leaves impurities, waste, and oxygen free radicals, which are chemicals with extra oxygen left over they are eager to share. But, here is the downside to the oxygen story. Oxygen is a molecule which is very reactive, think rust, corrosion, and fires. Skin metabolism when everything is in balance is a ‘warm fire’ and a healthy glow; add too much oxygen and the result is a house fire. Many of the oxygen containing products in skin care use hydrogen peroxide to deliver the free oxygen to tissues, but free oxygen is actually quite toxic. Hydrogen peroxide will overwhelm a cell and cause cell death. Just ask the bacteria on the skin surface; they don’t stand a chance against these killers. This makes oxygen an effective product ingredient for cleansers and acne washes, but watch out for irritated or broken skin as you are likely to feel the fizz and burn. What the oxygen radicals do is deteriorate cell structures, and even the DNA itself.

Now that your skin is itching with oxygen free radicals from your latest facial, what is your skin to do? You do have natural defenses as your skin cells produce chemicals and peptides which will soak up the oxygen free radicals. This is your natural defense against cell damage and skin aging. The key is in these natural antioxidants. Of course, antioxidants are not new in skin care or the prevention of skin aging. The majority of skin care products have them in abundance in varying forms. Fruits acids and vitamin C comes to mind. Our understanding about vitamin C has been around a long time, and you just might recall the Nobel physicist, Linus Pauling, who spoke about it often, and was a true believer in the importance of antioxidants to reduce aging. Some doubters claim his excellent genetics, but I recall him looking pretty good when he passed away at age 94, and not looking a day over 70.

All of us like to follow trends and do the new, but you just might ask yourself before your next oxygen blast facial, or take your dip in the vitality pool at the spa what you skin will really think about it. Yes, oxygen is necessary for life, but to reduce aging follow the basics, not the trend. Rest and reduce stress, eat a diet rich in balanced nutrients and vitamins, avoid environmental contaminants, cleanse without irritation, protect yourself from the sun, and don’t smoke. It can, and should be, that simple.