Extra Oxygen? Will It Help Your Skin?

do oxygen facials work
I've decided to take a risk on you, my readers. I've decided that this post, which I've been thinking about writing for a long time, is not too complicated for you. You deserve to know the reasons behind why I think you don't need extra oxygen delivered to your tissues, unless you are ill.

I'm definitely not the only doctor who thinks this, check out this great post from Dr. Benabio's Derm Blog. While I'm not a dermatologist, I'm perhaps even better suited for this discussion than Dr. Benabio. I'm an intensivist. So, I spend my days in the ICU trying to deliver oxygen to tissues basically. I can alter how you breath (I can put you on oxygen or on a ventilator if I need to), how your heart works (I have a huge selection of infusions to increase or decrease your heart rate, blood pressure, etc), and I can give you blood if I need to. While I might have a myriad of reasons to do all of these thing, it all boils down to one thing. My whole day is nothing but oxygen delivery!

I've made a little series of graphics that I think really simplify the whole oxygen delivery process and how oxygen delivery in a normal, healthy person works. Read through the graphics in order and I think you'll understand the whole process!

So, obviously how much oxygen you deliver to your body is determined by how much is in your blood and then how fast you get it there. We are talking about delivering oxygen for you, the person sitting at home right now. So, I'm supposing that your heart is healthy with a normal rate and pumping a normal amount. So, we're going to ignore your heart. People aren't changing their heart rate in "heart rate spas" in the airport, nor are they getting facials with this to improve their skin. We're talking about oxygen.

So, we're looking at that equation at the bottom, it's the one that describes how much oxygen is in the blood. There are a few things in this equation that you can't change (such as the 1.34 and 0.003) because they are based on all sorts of things like barometric pressure. Even in the ICU this is the equation I use, we ignore changing all of those factors. If you lived in Denver we might take that slightly into account, but I really don't care about that right now, so we'll move on to looking at what you can change about the content of oxygen in your blood.

So, it should be pretty obvious now that really the amount of oxygen bound to your red blood cells determines how much oxygen is in your blood. The amount dissolved into the blood (the PaO2) makes a very, very small contribution once it gets multiplied by 0.003.

When blood leaves healthy lungs, the saturation is almost always 100%. In the rare cases that it is not exactly 100% it is in the high 90's. Lung disease can decrease your saturation number, this is when a doctor will put you on oxygen.

So, now I've shown you that it's basically impossible for a healthy person to increase the amount of oxygen in their blood to an extent that the increase is actually substantial.

Let's see why even if you did manage to dramatically increase the amount of oxygen, your body actually won't even notice the difference.

The best thing to look at is how much oxygen your tissues actually use. In order to directly measure that you need to do all sort of crazy calculations, measure how much heat your body puts off, how much water you breath out, etc. Much too complicated for me. We intensivists are simple people, so we look at how much oxygen each tissue takes out of the blood.

It's even easier to look at the amount of oxygen in the blood returning from a tissue. Compare that to the amount of oxygen in the blood you delivered and you can see how much oxygen the tissues are taking out. Each tissue is different, the hard working organs like the heart and brain take out more oxygen, while organs like your lymph nodes and skin take out less. Actually, a lot less. There is a huge amount of oxygen delivered to the skin that it doesn't even take out of the blood. Deliver more oxygen to those tissues and they frankly won't care. They already have 2-3 times more oxygen than they need.

So, why am I mentioning oxygen delivery to tissues? Because people pay a lot of money for extra oxygen. It's delivered a couple of different ways:

1) Inhaled Oxygen: You go to a spa, they put a nasal cannula under your nose for $20 and you pick the flavor you want to smell. They may tell you that it is 100% oxygen (minus that orange scent of course), and that is in fact what is in their tanks. However, in a nasal cannula you are also breathing in the regular room air (21% oxygen) around those little plastic prongs. No matter how fast that nasal cannula is flowing it's pretty tough to get over 30% oxygen with a cannula. We even have special masks that prevent you from "rebreathing" air. They can't get much above 40% oxygen.

So, paying to have a mask or cannula put on for extra oxygen really doesn't make a difference because you aren't breathing enough oxygen. You'll only increase your PaO2 up into the 500 range with 100%, and you would NOT be going to a spa to have them sedate you and put you on a ventilator for that. It's too risky.

As well, ignore all of that bunk about extra pollutants in the air and such making oxygen spas necessary. The air in incredibly polluted areas is still 21% oxygen, that's all that matters.

If you want to go all out via MJ and pay someone to stick you in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber then more power to you. I wish I had that much extra money! Truthfully this will increase that PaO2 number to the ~1000 range, but multiply that by 0.003 and you'll see that you didn't really increase the overall amount of oxygen in your blood by much. Then when you remember how much extra oxygen is in your blood and goes unused by tissues you'll feel pretty ripped off.

2) Topical Oxygen: The final way that people pay for extra oxygen is via facials. Your skin can't absorb oxygen. We aren't frogs. It can't diffuse or filter down into your skin (the epidermis is too tightly bound to itself), and there are no receptors to let it in. Oxygen from facials at best just sits on the surface of your skin. At worst it might increase free radicals in the very outer surface of the skin. The skin is designed to get it's oxygen supply from all of the blood delivery options I've already mentioned above.

I hope that this incredibly long and scientific review has helped you understand why oxygen isn't something you need to include in your skin care routine. Frankly, I think it's a waste of time and money. You would be much better served by making sure your heart, lungs and blood are all healthy.

Images: Oxygen, Vascular Man, Red Blood Cell, heart

Note: I just wanted to say quickly that there are very legit reasons that us doctors will put you on oxygen or even into Michael's hyperbaric oxygen chamber.
• Usually we'll put you on oxygen when something is wrong and the blood leaving for your body isn't 100% saturated. Typically this is in the case of a lung problem (like infection) or a heart problem (if you have a congenital heart disease with extra holes in your heart).
• Hyperbaric oxygen we use not to increase your PaO2 but to compete for those 4 binding sites on each red blood cell. Carbon Monoxide for example really loves being bound to RBCs and will push oxygen off of the cells. Then you have no spots for oxygen, and you can quickly see how very little oxygen is delivered to your organs. So, we aren't trying to raise PaO2, but to compete for those spots.


  1. That was awesome. I love this blog! Thanks Christine!

  2. Thank you very much for this interesting article! In fact I love it even better when bloggers do explain why something works and whyy it doesn't.
    There is a whole bunch of blogs where people review some products in terms of "i liked/disliked smth"
    But what really is priseless - is when really educated people explain things in scientific terms.
    Being a scientist myself (a physisist not a physition) I hope that you'll continue to share information in that profound manner, just like today:)

  3. Thank you for this post! You explained everything in a very clear and understandable way!

  4. I love this explanation! It reminds me of how one of the intensivists on my unit explained why it was BETTER for a patient to be on 30% Oxygen to one of my families :)

  5. I tend to forget that you're a doctor. *grin* I loved this post and would like to see more like it! The science and medical side of beauty!

    I'm a nurse and I worked for over a year as an intern in a cardiac ICU so this was right up my alley. I will say that when I used to run nights as a volunteer EMT I would lie in the ambulance and pop on a nasal cannula, telling my partner I was pretending I was at a fancy spa. I felt better, but that could be a placebo effect or more related to the deep breathing/relaxation exercises I'd do.

  6. YAY for Christine!

    That's just what I've been trying to hammer into women who go for "oxygen facials" or buy "oxygen enriched cream".

    Not to mention the sheer idiocy of going nuts for "antioxidants" and then trying to "oxygenate". -_-

    But I'm not a doctor, so no one listens to me. =P Great article, I really enjoyed it!

    Beauty blogger @ So Loverly

  7. Thanks for the great comments everyone!

    I have problems coming up with new topics for these scientific reviews, plus they take a while, plus I'm drowning in products to review! :D

    So, if you have a topic you'd like me to review like this, just shoot me an e-mail or even just comment on any random post. I'll see it then.

  8. My favorite part: "We intensivists are simple people." Because when I think of *simple* things, keeping people alive on vents and pressors definitely comes to mind! ;)

  9. Oh how funny that you posted this! Just a few days ago I was looking for a mask and a sales girl kept telling me how great this oxygen mask was and how my skin needs it. All I could think was not to start laughing in her face! Oxygen in a mask? Not to name brands, but I've has samples of very pricey oxygen creams that were nothing special, kind of sticky actually. I can't believe what some companies will come up with just to find a buyer.

  10. Excellent blog, Christine, very informative, thank you!!

    Hmm, now that you asked: how about vitamine delivery to skin (c and e, e.g.); when and in what amount do we really need them?

  11. Oh wow, I just stumbled on this post. What a fascinating article Christine! Thank you for explaining it so well! I just started HBOT for an illness. Sort of experimental, but I hope it will be beneficial! :)

  12. Amber- there are some things that the extra oxygen actually does help for! Just... not in anti-aging creams usually :D

  13. I never really believed the oxygen in skin care hype! :)
    I'm curious if I will have any unexpected side effects with my Hyperbaric oxygen therapy. I had my second session today and I know it's doing something.


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