Oxygen Paradox: Good or Bad for Your Skin?

The other day I had a patient come to me and say, “Doctor, I’m confused. Is oxygen good or bad for the skin? You’re always talking about how beneficial antioxidants are for the skin, to get rid of the oxygen, right? So why are you also recommending oxygen facials to add even more oxygen to it? Don’t they cancel each other out?”

Excellent question. What’s happening here is that there are two different physiological actions – oxygenation and oxidation – that are easy to confuse because they sound so similar.

Oxygenation has to do with breathing and blood flow. On and in the skin, as for other tissues in the body, oxygen is essential to the health and maintenance of the cells. Young skin gets plenty oxygen from the environment because it still works efficiently enough to process what’s on offer. With age however, skin loses its ability to retain and utilize oxygen for normal metabolic processes. Repair and regeneration of collagen and elastin tissue that provide the skin’s structural integrity are two of these.

What an oxygen facial treatment does is enhance the available oxygen to the skin, boosting circulation, stimulating cell turnover, and leaving the complexion hydrated, plump and revitalized. High concentrations of oxygen also trigger the body’s own healing functions. Furthermore, in an oxygen-rich environment, bacteria, viruses, and fungal infections simply do not survive. Done on a monthly basis, the subtle – but very real – rejuvenation effects are cumulative. And full disclosure: I get monthly oxygen facials myself and love the way my skin looks and feels every time.

Oxidation, however, is the decaying process that occurs when cells metabolize oxygen. An apple turning brown, steel turning rusty and skin showing sun damage and pigmentation are all signs of oxidation. While oxidation is natural and vital to cell turnover, 1% to 2% of cells get damaged in the process and turn into free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecular particles and can trigger a cascade of molecular instability. In front of your mirror, this translates into progressively worsening lines, wrinkles, age spots and tissue laxity.

We prescribe antioxidants to neutralize and mop up these harmful, aging free radicals. Antioxidants can be delivered to skin in two ways; topically in products such as serums or moisturizers, or internally as food or supplements. Fresh produce such as berries and leafy greens are particularly antioxidant- rich. A general rule is that the brighter the color of the plant, the higher its antioxidant concentration. As for supplements, I particularly like those containing the antioxidant pycnogenol (but remember, you have to take it religiously each and every day for continuous rejuvenation.)

Like so many things in this life, oxygen has both an upside and a downside. On the one hand, enhanced oxygenation is really doing your complexion a favor. On the other, oxidation happens but it doesn’t have to show up on your skin.

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