Face Steamer Review: The Pros, Cons, and Science of Face Steaming

Monday, June 22, 2015

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As part of the Singapore Blog Awards, I was given a loan set of a bunch of Panasonic beauty products, including the Panasonic Face Steamer EH-SA31, for review. (Which reminds me - if you guys want to vote for me, you can do so here! Once a day! Every day! Until July 6!) Anyway, turns out that I also received the same Panasonic Face Steamer to review last year, so this year, instead of rehashing an old post, I'm going to talk more about the science of face steaming, which I didn't get to do in last year's entry. So, don't worry, this is not a rehash of last year's post - in fact, you'll find there is a lot that is different here!

For this review, I'll first start off with a short recap of my experience with the Panasonic Face Steamer EH-SA31 VP, and then go into what the science says about face steaming - does it really work? Is there any benefit in it? If so, what is the benefit? And is all that marketing spiel about detoxing your skin and letting you sweat all your toxins out true?


The thing about science-based posts is that as you might guess, the science isn't unanimously in favour of, or against, steaming your skin. There's some studies indicating that there could be a benefit, but of course there are some cons as well. I'm told that the "Best Beauty Blog" this year is apparently chosen by Panasonic company reps (I think?) based on these blogposts. I'm pretty sure my post, which isn't going to be all raving and "OMG THIS IS SUPER FANTASTIC IT'S THE BEST EVERYONE SHOULD USE IT", may not exactly be the desired type of post some people were hoping for. But the science says what it says, and I'm just reporting on what I've found - I'm not the one conducting the experiments, and I always believe in looking up the science and reporting on it in as unbiased a manner as I can, and that's not going to change. Also, I don't think I should blog any differently just because a post has a different context to it (in this case, the Blog Awards).

So, at the risk of annoying the very people who loaned me this product for review ("OMGZ people sent you this product for review and are using these posts as the basis for choosing a "Best Beauty Blog" and you're not going to be totally 100% positive? What's wrong with you?"), let's get this post going!

My experience with the Panasonic Face Steamer EH-SA31 VP

First, let's talk about my experiences with face steaming. I've actually blogged about this in quite a bit of detail last year, and I did find the product pretty impressive. For one, it's pretty small, and doesn't take up much space, and it's simple to use. You pour water into the water tank (one full water tank provides about 6 minutes of steaming time), and then turn the machine's switch from "0" to "1". Panasonic recommends that you steam for about 3 minutes each time, so if you so desire, it's pretty easy to incorporate a treatment like this into your daily routine. Look at all that steam coming out from the product nozzle!


I did test the Panasonic Face Steamer EH-SA31 VP a number of times. and I documented my experiences with the Face Steamer. I found it easy to use, and despite its small size, it was surprisingly effective at shooting out steam at your face. If you hold your face at the right distance from the product (Panasonic recommends 20cm), then you will get steam blowing at your face. Panasonic recommends that you use only water in the Face Steamer, not essential oils or other liquids, but at the OMY Panasonic event I went to, the instructor shared that if you did want to enjoy essential oils along with your face steaming process, then you can simply soak a cotton pad with essential oil, and tape it to the "hood" of the face steamer, thus allowing the steam to carry the scent of essential oils to your face as well.


I also took some before-and-after photos. Above, you can see the photos. Like I wrote last year, while the difference wasn't visible to my naked eye, when I took the photos I realized there was a difference in appearance in the pores of my nose before and after. I'm not sure if you can see it in the photos, but I felt like my pores looked cleaner. I also felt like the gunk was being "pushed out" of my nose - the plugs seemed to be nearer the surface or sticking out more.


Face steaming: What the science does NOT say

Now that I've gone over my experience with the product, let's take a look at the question: What does the science say about face steaming? Are there really any benefits to face steaming, or not, and if so, what benefits are there? Hopefully, this will also help me interpret my experience with the Panasonic Face Steamer better too - after all, relying on photos and personal experience is useful, but it's always nice to be able to understand what is going on in my skin, and why.

To start, let's touch on what the science does not say. There are some popular notions about face steaming that don't hold water if you look at the science, so I thought it would help for me to clarify some popular myths, before going on to what the science does say.

1. Face Steaming doesn't actually help you to open or close your pores.
While most people believe that steam can open your pores and get the gunk out, the truth is there isn't actually science backing this view up. In fact, pores don't really have any structures in them to open or close or shrink, so you can't actually change the size of your pores.

2. Face Steaming doesn't actually help your skin to "detox".
The concept of "detoxing" your skin, or, for that matter your body, is not really a proper scientific concept. In the context of cosmetic and beauty products particularly, it really is more of a marketing gimmick to describe virtually any and every product these days. A cleanser removes oil and dirt from your skin? It helps your skin detox! Some mask supposedly has antioxidants and helps absorb oil? Helps your skin detox! Some product has some plant extracts and is "natural"? Now you can detox naturally too!

Ben Goldacre in his book Bad Science happens to address the concept of detox very nicely in his book, and I think he said it better than I ever can, so I'll proceed to his explanation:
"In terms of basic human biochemistry, detox is a meaningless concept. It doesn’t cleave nature at the joints. There is nothing on the ‘detox system’ in a medical textbook. That burgers and beer can have negative effects on your body is certainly true, for a number of reasons; but the notion that they leave a specific residue, which can be extruded by a specific process, a physiological system called detox, is a marketing invention.

If you look at a metabolic flow chart, the gigantic wall-sized maps of all the molecules in your body, detailing the way that food is broken down into its constituent parts, and then those components are converted between each other, and then those new building blocks are assembled into muscle, and bone, and tongue, and bile, and sweat, and bogey, and hair, and skin, and sperm, and brain, and everything that makes you you, it’s hard to pick out one thing that is the ‘detox system’."


Face steaming: What the science DOES say

So if steaming your face doesn't actually help your skin "detox", or help to open or close your pores, what does it do? Looking at the published literature, I can highlight a few pros and cons.

First, let's start with the pros. There is some science showing that steaming can increase hydration of the skin, and thus increase its permeability. In other words, it could potentially enhance the absorption of products. There is a study showing that steaming skin at 45°C for 5 minutes enhances the topical anesthetic effect of lidocaine. Also, in a study looking at sauna-frequenters versus people with no previous exposure to saunas, the researchers reported "a more stable epidermal barrier function, an increase in stratum corneum hydration, a faster recovery of both elevated water loss and skin pH after exposure to 2 × 15 min sauna at 80°C" in sauna-frequenters versus those who had no exposure to saunas.

It also seems that you can heat your skin at much hotter temperatures and still get some benefit, provided the time period is short - a study looked at temperatures ranging from 100°C to 315°C for times ranging from 100 ms to 5 s and found that "skin permeability was shown to be a very strong function of temperature" and that skin permeability was increased up to three orders of magnitude, depending on the temperature and duration. Also, a study looking at thermal ablation of the skin using a jet of superheated steam at the skin for a really short period of time (around 100 μs, in microseconds) found that the process dramatically increased increase skin permeability to the drugs sulforhodamine B and bovine serum albumin.

So yes, there could be some benefit conferred from steaming your skin - at both lower and higher temperatures, it could increase your skin's permeability to drugs and other products that you might apply on your skin.

Now, for the cons. Firstly, there is the obvious potential risk that you can subject yourself to a steam burn, which csould be worse than a burn caused by boiling water of the same temperature. So some caution while steaming your face is required. Secondly, there may be longterm issues with indiscriminately steaming your face. While oen of the studies seemed to agree that steaming your face can increase skin permeability, it's important to note that "These permeability changes were attributed to (I) disordering of stratum corneum lipid structure, (II) disruption of stratum corneum keratin network structure and (III) decomposition and vaporization of keratin to create micron-scale holes in the stratum corneum, respectively. We conclude that heating the skin with short, high temperature pulses can increase skin permeability by orders of magnitude due to structural disruption and removal of stratum corneum." So in effect, the increased permeability is attributed to the fact that there is disruption of the keratin network structure and lipid structure in the skin. After all, the primary function of the skin is to act as a barrier, to keep bacteria and other nasties out. So in the case of steaming, increasing the permeability of the skin is a result of disrupting the skin's barrier function. For people with very dry or sensitive skin, or where the skin is already suffering from a weakened skin barrier function, then steaming your skin may, over the long term, make some of these issues worse.

Face Steaming: Conclusion from my experience and the science

Although initially I was very impressed by the seeming oil plugs coming out of my nose pores, after looking at the science, I had a question: if steaming didn't seem to influence oil production, then what was happening to my skin when I steamed? I couldn't find any published studies, but I did find an article on Futurederm (a site with science-based beauty articles), the article notes that "It’s a myth that steaming your skin will open up your pores and make it easier to clean out dirt and oils. In fact, according to dermatologist Dr. Mary Lupo, steam can actually have the opposite effect and stimulate the oil glands." While the Futurederm article cites Dr. Mary Lupo, who is a legitimate dermatologist, I couldn't find the original source for the quote (perhaps the quote was given to Futurederm directly). So I'm not sure if the steaming process resulted in my oil plugs being pushed out of my face, or whether it was the result of my oil glands being stimulated to produce more oil. It's hard to tell from just pure observation, without any way to measure.

So, after experiencing the Panasonic Face Steamer, and reading up on the science, would I recommend steaming your face? While there could be some benefits to face steaming, like increased permeability of the skin, but this could be offset by other issues, such as the risk of steam burns, as well as the fact that the increased permeability is derived from a disruption of the lipid and keratin structures in the skin, which essentially is, in other words, damaging the skin. If you do steam your skin, it seems like a moderate approach is best - not for too hot, and not for too long. And it's probably best to follow up with something to moisturize your skin and repair its barrier function.

That's it for my face steamer review (in this case, it's a review of both the product and the science)! If you liked this post, please feel free to vote for me here! If you want to learn more about the product, you can check out the Panasonic official site and Panasonic FB page.
Recommended? Maybe, depending on skin type, and to be used with caution
The Bottom Line: While steaming your face may help to improve the permeability of the skin, this could come at the expense of the skin's barrier function, so if you choose to steam your face, approach with moderation.

(Product was sent for review. Review is my complete and honest opinion. I am not affiliated with/compensated by the company.)

5 comments:

  1. I'd been skeptical about face steaming as a means to "open" up pores for a while. According to this post (http://powdered-peach.blogspot.de/2011/11/warning-about-steaming-your-face-to.html), I think Paula's Choice as well as another German blog I read hot steam mainly causes the skin to swell. So basically, this could even aggravate pore clogging if the skin is not properly cleansed beforehand since the swelling can even cause pores to *tighten* for the duration of the steaming.

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  2. Thank you for your thorough and honest review! Blogs like yours make life so much easier for those of us who research every. Single. THING. that we use. Much love from reddit <3

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  3. Just outta curiosity, would this be good for when stuffed nose? Like a substitute for holding your head over steamy water with a towel over your head. :)

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    1. @zoey: Ooh I didn't think of that, but I wish I did! I think it would work!

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  4. I have to commend you for doing research and sharing the science (or lack of science) behind the hype, and not just plugging a product. It's really difficult to know nowadays whether a product has amazing reviews because it is effective, or whether the reviews are elevated due to the manufacturer bribing reviewers with free or discounted items. Kudos to you for your integrity, and for the intelligence to research the actual science and distill that info into an honest, smart blog post. I can't tell you how refreshing (and rare) that is!

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