While modern-day steaming is largely focused on the beauty and pampering aspect of cleansing the face and body, the treatment goes back thousands of years and used to be rooted in ritual. References to steaming can be found in Native American culture, as well as in the ancient Mayan society and, like so many therapies, it was the ancient Greeks and Romans who expanded upon the concept.
The two civilisations used to build huge, elaborate steam baths where people would gather to detoxify the body, at a time when cleanliness was seen as a way to honour the gods. Botanicals, oils, clay and minerals were also introduced for medicinal and aromatherapy purposes.
The concept of steam baths still exists, and the modern spa has become the place to get your steaming fix. It is a treatment that has many benefits and plenty of variations to treat all manner of ailments and conditions.
As well as the hot steam, there is also cold steam, which is used to treat inflammation, lock in moisture and keep the skin hydrated.
What does steaming actually do?
So how does steaming work? “As the soothing warm steam starts to work on the skin, it causes it to sweat, allowing the natural oils within the skin to flow,” explains Naomi Bell, beauty therapist and chief executive of Dubai salon NRBeauty. “This helps to soften the surface layer of dead skin, and supports the release of dirt, oil and bacteria from the pores.”
Loosening the skin, in particular opening up the pores, has myriad benefits, especially when it comes to removing stubborn blackheads and acne-causing bacteria.
Edwige Gandin, beautician at Pastels Salon Jumeirah, says: “The combination of warm steam and an increase in perspiration dilates your blood vessels and increases circulation.” This resultant increase in oxygen intake makes the skin look and feel healthier.
Steaming for absorption and hydration
As well as helping to release bacteria and impurities, steaming can also help with absorption.
“It helps your skin better absorb skincare products,” says Dr Eman Kotb, specialist dermatologist at Medcare Medical Centre in Sharjah. “Steam increases the skin’s permeability, enabling it to better absorb topical creams.
“The increased blood flow experienced during a steam facial promotes collagen and elastin production. This results in firmer, younger-looking skin.”
And it’s not only the absorption of face and body creams that steaming encourages; it also works on aiding natural moisture, hydrating the skin by increasing oil production.
Inversely, Bell warns of the dangers of over-steaming or using water that is too hot for the process, as this can dehydrate the skin.
“Always steam with caution,” she advises. “A steam burn is more damaging than a burn from boiling water. Try to limit each steam session to under eight minutes once a week. Over-steaming can cause dehydration and dryness.”
Best for… and bad for
Dr Shadan Naji, dermatologist at Dr Kayle Aesthetic Clinic, says acne-prone skin can “really benefit from hot steaming”.
Experts agree that people with oily skin and outbreaks have much to gain from regular steaming sessions. “Steaming will help to kill bacteria on the surface and increase the skin’s natural detox process,” says Bell. “In time this will help eliminate the build-up of bacteria and blocked sebum, gradually clearing and restoring healthier, balanced skin.”
However, she advises that anyone with “active acne” should avoid the treatment until their skin has calmed, to avoid further inflammation.
Those with eczema and rosacea should avoid steam treatments, as should anyone with sensitive skin or thread veins, and those suffering from inflammatory diseases, such as psoriasis. “Hot temperatures at the surface of the skin cause dilation of the blood vessels, while greater circulation in the face can increase inflammation and redness,” explains Gandin.
Eda Gungor, co-founder of Seva Experience, says: “It can aggravate sensitive skin. The heat and steam may trigger ‘facial flushing’.”
Steaming hair for growth, healing and circulation
Steaming has benefits beyond use on the face and body, with treatments also available for hair.
“It releases trapped sebum,” says Gungor. “This naturally occurring oil is produced by the skin's sebaceous glands to lubricate skin and hair. When sebum gets trapped beneath the skin’s surface, it creates a breeding ground for bacteria.”
The benefits for the hair and scalp are numerous, particularly when it comes to hair types that don’t easily absorb moisture.
Kotb says: “Steaming helps with deeper conditioning; the steam lifts the hair cuticle allowing your treatments to penetrate deeply into the hair shaft helping to heal damaged hair. It allows you to get a deeper clean and is good for low porosity hair.
"This hair type struggles to absorb moisture because the cuticle doesn’t open easily. The steam opens the cuticle and helps the hair with absorption. It also encourages blood flow and circulation, which promotes hair growth too.”
Cool steam for moisture retention
While warm steam treatments are popular, less is known about the soothing and smoothing effects of cool steam, which can be used on any skin type.
“Many people would not know that cold steam, also referred to as cold vapour or cold facial misting, can be beneficial for the skin,” says Bell. “This technique is used after hot steaming. The main benefits to this method include reduced redness and inflammation, reduced appearance of the pores and brighter looking skin.
“Cold steam helps with moisture retention and is a great way to end a facial treatment or home skincare routine.”
Softer and smoother skin, as well as a more even skin tone, can result from cool steam, which is often used at the end of hot steam treatments to close the pores and aid moisture retention. Plus, the coolness of the steam increases circulation and activates cells.
“Reducing the appearance of pores means skin looks softer and smoother,” says Kotb. “It also maximises moisture retention before a moisturiser is applied and plumps the surface of the skin for a more youthful appearance.”
If you're steaming at home rather than as part of a facial at a salon, Bell lists the best ways to carry out the treatment.
“There are three ways to hot steam: over a bowl of hot water, by making a hot compress steam with warm towels or by using a facial steamer,” she says.
After steaming, the skin will be more receptive to topical creams and serums, but gentleness is vital.
“Rinse with lukewarm water and pat dry,” advises Gandin. “Your skin will be extra-sensitive, so you don't want to irritate it by rubbing with a towel. Next, apply a moisturising cream or serum. The effects of your moisturiser or serum will be enhanced after a steam, so use something that is nourishing. For the ultimate soothing effect, try massaging your face post-steam.”
Another option is to apply a face mask and leave it on for the suggested length of time.
“Apply a mask that is suited to your skin type, for instance, if you have an oily skin type, a clay mask would be a great choice after hot steaming,” says Naji. “For optimum benefits after cool steaming, apply a hydrating mask.”
Beyond beauty: steaming for colds and sinus issues
While steaming benefits your skin’s health, it can also be used to tackle a wide range of ailments.
“Not only is it good for your skin and body, it also helps with sinus congestion caused by the flu and colds,” says Gungor. “Steam can help relieve sinus congestion and headaches caused by congestion.”
The addition of essential oils, such as peppermint or eucalyptus for sinus headaches, can also help to boost the effects of the steam.
Gandin says of the stress-busting effects of steaming: “In terms of benefits to the skin, steaming cleans and detoxes, while the act of steaming relaxes and relieves tension, too, making it a great way to dissipate stress.”