Let’s Be Real: Is Oxygen Good — or Bad — in Skin Care?

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There are ingredients you know are great, nearly all of the time, in skin care: Retinol, vitamin C, vitamin E, niacinamide, sunscreen. And then there are ingredients you’ve heard mixed reviews about. Put best in the words of Dr. Leslie Baumann, M.D., a renowned dermatologist in an exclusive FutureDerm interview, “Many active ingredients that are used as buzz words in skin care cannot penetrate the skin, leaving them useless, for instance: Oxygen, Stem cells, Hyaluronic acid…”

Here, I’ll break down the science behind oxygen-containing products and procedures. We’ll start with what is proven to work, and make our way down, so you really “get” the logic behind it.

What Really Works: Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy

Madonna Oxygen Facials

Let’s start with what really works.

There is a procedure known as hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which is used to increase the amount of oxygen your blood can carry. Typically recommended for conditions such as carbon monoxide poisoning, decompression sickness, or a wound that won’t heal, hyperbaric oxygen therapy promotes tissue healing and fights infection (Mayo Clinic).

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber. Within this chamber, the air pressure is raised up to three times higher than normal air pressure. In effect, your lungs will get up to three times more oxygen. Your blood then carries this oxygen throughout your body, which stimulates the release of growth factors and stem cells (Mayo Clinic).

Unfortunately, hyperbaric oxygen therapy isn’t something you can just go and get in the name of better skin and vanity. At the same time, this idea holds promise for the future of skin care treatments.


Oxygen Facials: Not The Same

oxygen facial

Manufacturers of oxygen facial machines claim that because they are blowing oxygen under pressure onto the face the treatment resembles a hyperbaric treatment and thus will produce the results of hyperbaric therapy. There is one 2010 study in support of this: “Topical dissolved oxygen can penetrate skin and may be useful to aid chronic wound healing.”

However, most scientific studies and medical experts say the benefits of oxygen therapy are an exaggeration, since they aren’t fully recreating a true, hyperbaric environment. A review of the existing scientific data supporting oxygen facial treatments was found to be scarce, anecdotal, and not well-documented (Aesthetic Plastic Surgery journal, 2011).

Dr. Ellen Marmur, M.D., of the Mount Sinai Medical Center says of oxygen facials, “Although I’m sure that an oxygen facial makes your skin glowing and radiant; the effect has nothing to do with oxygen. The machine used for this facial treatment has a hose-like attachment that discharges pressurized oxygen along with a hydrating hyaluronic acid serum. The moisturizing mist is what plumps the skin and makes it temporarily look and feel dewy.”

She continues, “The use of oxygen cosmetically claims to have a wound-healing effect on the skin. This may stem from the fact that hyperbaric oxygen treatment has been proven to help heal wounds, but placing a patient in a pressurized hyperbaric chamber to increase the amount of oxygen in the lungs, which in turn delivers it through the blood to injured tissue, is not the same as having air sprayed onto your face.”

Therefore, oxygen facials likely not increasing the delivery of oxygen and hence stimulating growth factors and stem cells within your skin. Instead, if anything, it seems the moisturization from the hyaluronic acid is giving your skin a temporary glow.

The Bottom of the Barrel: Topical Treatments Containing Hydrogen Peroxide

Hydrogen Peroxide is a Free Radical


There is a whole lot of additional controversy surrounding the use of hydrogen peroxide in skin care.

Keep in mind that antioxidants are used to combat oxidation. On the other hand, hydrogen peroxide is a significant oxidizing agent, meaning that it causes oxidation, or the release of free radicals, into your skin. In fact, the oxidizing capacity of hydrogen peroxide is so strong that it itself considered a highly reactive oxygen species – a free radical!

In addition, Paula Begoun states, “There is a great deal of current research showing that hydrogen peroxide is problematic as a topical disinfectant because it can […] reduce the production of healthy new skin cells (Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery).”

There is one company out of San Diego called Aura Research that claims to have introduced the first “stabilized emulsion of hydrogen peroxide”. They claim that their exclusive form of hydrogen peroxide emulsion delivers oxygen to the skin in this way:

“When hydrogen peroxide meets the skin, it always breaks down to water and oxygen. Instead of the oxygen being released on the skin, and escaping back into the atmosphere, the oxygen released from the emulsion penetrates the skin.

Why this happens is very simple. The oil phase of the emulsion offers a resistance to the oxygen, and the skin becomes the path of least resistance. When hydrogen peroxide changes from a liquid to a gas, which is instantaneously, it increases in volume 22.4 times. This increase in volume is what causes the pressure and why it penetrates the skin.”

However, this sounds quite complicated, and a bit dubious (if I am completely honest). I need to see more research in order to evaluate this properly.

Therefore, any products that are claiming to be “oxygenating” because they contain hydrogen peroxide are likely not providing the benefits we associate with oxygen, including the generation of new growth factors, stem cells, and (eventually) skin cells.

You Can’t Put Oxygen in a Jar

A cream or lotion cannot contain oxygen, which is a gas. Furthermore, any oxygen that is put into a product must be stabilized. I have absolutely no idea what most products that list “oxygen” on the ingredients list are actually including in their product.

One Oxygenated Product with Promise

Oxygen Botanics

Unlike most products that contain oxygen, which often contain hydrogen peroxide and other oxides that can be detrimental to the skin, Oxygen Botanicals Oxygen Super Hydrating Cream merely infuses, or treats, each individual ingredient with oxygen before adding it to the jar. On the one hand, this probably doesn’t do that much, but on the other hand, this product contains so many good hydrators, I don’t care. It goes on the skin thick, but dries quickly and evenly. Best for normal to dry skin types. These hydrators include orchid oil (which has been found to increase UVB protection (Archives of Dermatology, 1980)), vitamin E, and sodium hyaluronate.

I really like Oxygen Botanicals Oxygen Super Hydrating Cream for use nightly. It can be used after a retinoid or AHA treatment, and during the day after an antioxidant serum and before a sunscreen. Orchid oil is one of the few “hip” ingredients I really love! With UVB protection, hydrating ability, and a pretty high safety/non-irritating potential, it is a solid “natural” ingredient I support. For the full review on this product, click here.

Bottom Line

Keep in mind the following:

  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy stimulates blood flow up to 3x, which in turn stimulates growth factors and stem cells within the skin.
  • Oxygen facials are just “OK.” The increased “glow” is mostly attributable to hyaluronic acid, not oxygen. (Sorry!)
  • Avoid products containing hydrogen peroxide with a passion! These are pro-oxidant.
  • If you absolutely must-have an oxygen-containing product, Oxygen Botanicals Oxygen Super Hydrating Cream contains oxygenated hydrating ingredients, including orchid oil, vitamin E, and sodium hyaluronate, which makes it the best oxygen-containing treatment I have found.

Got questions? Let me know in Comments!

Looking for the best skin care? FutureDerm is committed to having its customers find — and create — the best skin care for their individual skin type, concern, and based on your ingredient preferences. Learn more by visiting the FutureDerm shop

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About Myself

Nicki Zevola is the founder and editor-in-chief of FutureDerm.com. Named one of the top 30 beauty bloggers in the world by Konector.com since 2009, Nicki