There’s only one thing better than staying in your nice, warm bed on a cold winter day — and that’s the promise of the all-consuming, feel-good heat you’ll find in a hot yoga class, or your gym’s sauna or steam room. (Just thinking about it warms you up a bit, am I right?)
Within seconds of stepping into one of the heated rooms, your body temperature rises and the blustery weather outside feels like a distant memory. We can all agree it’s one of winter’s little luxuries, and the pros say it’s great for your body, too. But at what price to your skin?
If you’re going to brave the wildly elevated temps in a steam-intensive environment — which can be upward of 105°F in a hot yoga class, 110° in a steam room, and 212° in a sauna (!) — it’s important to understand the impact they can have on your complexion before kicking off your sneakers and going for a good, old-fashioned winter sweat-fest. Why? Fly too close to the sun heater and you could be looking at dehydration, breakouts, irritation, and possibly even brown spots. You read that right: Brown spots have been linked to excessive heat.To get the scoop, we consulted two skin pros: board-certified dermatologist Dendy Engelman, M.D., and one of our own resident skin experts, celebrity aesthetician Renée Rouleau. But before you panic, don’t worry, this isn’t a steam takedown article. For many skin types, steam can be incredibly beneficial, but there’s still a lot you need to know.
Here’s Why High Heat & Steam Are Good
Thanks to varied levels of moisture in the air (up to 100 percent humidity in a steam room, around 40 percent in a hot yoga class, and up to 20 percent in a sauna, depending on how much water is being poured over the hot rocks), each of these high heat/steam environments can be a great way to hydrate your skin—if you follow a few skin-care rules. “Skin cells need water to live, so steam can be very beneficial for keeping surface layers feeling moist and looking healthy,” Rouleau explains.
“Just 15 minutes in the steam room…stimulates circulation, increases perspiration, and eliminates toxins,” Dr. Engelman says. All of these are great, but it’s circulation that’s the most exciting: “When the skin gets warm, the capillaries and vessels dilate, causing nutrient-rich blood and oxygen to be brought to the cells,” Rouleau says. “Blood circulation is what feeds the skin and its cells and keeps them acting healthy, while giving the skin a glow from within.” Translation: Steam can be good in moderation.
Many skin types can benefit from it: “I recommend either saunas or steam baths for acneic or oily skin to…detoxify the skin,” Dr. Engelman says. “I have read that steam rooms are a little better for acne-prone skin because they help balance oil production, but I haven’t seen any studies to support this [yet].”
Why High Heat & Steam Have Their Drawbacks
Exposing skin to any mixture of heat and moisture can have its benefits. However, if you don’t lock that just-gained hydration into the skin using a moisturizer immediately after you steam, it could actually dehydrate your skin. “Dry air draws moisture from wherever it can get it, and this includes your skin, so if a lotion isn’t applied topically to keep the moisture in the skin, it will evaporate out, and the skin will be more dehydrated than even before [you go] in the steam room,” Rouleau says.
Bacteria and sweating can also cause issues for breakout-prone skin — so always wash, or at least rinse with clean water, before putting on your moisturizer. Both experts agree that anyone with sensitive skin should skip any kind of intense heat. “Those with rosacea or sensitive skin should avoid steam rooms because it could promote or exacerbate flushing through the dilation of capillaries, which can be quite reactive,” Dr. Engelman says. In fact, a 2010 study found that 56 percent of rosacea sufferers studied had adverse reactions to high heat and steam.
Dr. Engelman notes that anyone prone to eczema, or any kind of inflammatory skin condition, should avoid potentially irritating the skin with high heat. “There are mixed reports on this, but I think the risks for eczema flares or infection outweigh the benefits,” she says.
Perhaps the most shocking potential risk? Many doctors believe that exposure to high levels of heat could trigger melanin production, which could lead to melasma and brown spots. “For years, brown hyperpigmentation on the skin was thought to be solely from the sun,” Rouleau says. “What we now have found is that it isn’t only from direct sunlight, but heat will also increase the possibility of making discoloration more prominent, since heat inflames the skin, raising [its] internal temperature, and wakes up melanin cells.” [For the full story, head to Refinery 29!]