Updated 11/01/21. I’ve been using face steamers in my professional facials for over 30 years. Recently, I’ve noticed that they have become popular for at-home use, too. While it’s true that your skin can certainly benefit from the use of a steamer, you could end up causing more harm than good if you use it incorrectly. That’s why, in this post, I thought I’d shed some light, sharing everything you need to know about the potential benefits and drawbacks of these at-home tools, as well as proper usage.
The Benefits of Steaming Your Face
There are two things that occur when you steam your face. The first is that the internal temperature of your skin is increased. The second is that hydration is delivered to the outer layers of your skin. With these two things in mind, keep scrolling to see the three major benefits of using an at-home face steamer.
Benefit #1: It Increases Blood Flow
By raising the skin’s internal temperature, steam allows capillaries to expand. Capillaries are tiny blood vessels that carry oxygen and vital nutrients to our cells. When they’re expanded from heat, they can deliver more of both. So, in short, heating the skin via steam increases circulation and delivers nutrients, which results in a fresh, glowing complexion.
Benefit #2: It Makes It Easier to Get Rid of Clogged Pores
Contrary to popular belief, face steamers can’t “open” pores (they’re not like doors!) or even clean them out. When a pore is clogged, it’s filled with a blockage of hardened oil. Steam doesn’t magically make this blockage disappear. The only way to truly unclog a pore is to manually remove the hardened oil by performing an extraction.
Face steamers can soften or “melt” the hardened oil that’s blocking the pore, which makes extractions easier! This protects the skin against stress and damage from manual extractions, which is why estheticians use steamers any time they perform extractions. (On that note, if you’re planning on performing your own extractions at home, make sure you know how to do so safely. Read this step-by-step guide).
I’ve also heard people ask whether steaming your face without extracting blockages can make pores stretch out. The short answer? No! Pores don’t really stretch much, so if you want to steam your face without performing extractions, go for it!
Benefit #3: It Provides Hydration
Since steam is simply water, using an at-home face steamer can be a great way to provide hydration to dehydrated skin. That is if you seal in all that moisture with an occlusive skincare product once you’re done steaming. Otherwise, due to a process called Transepidermal Water Loss (TEWL), you could actually end up drying out your skin even more.
TEWL happens when the surrounding air has less moisture than your skin. As a response, it will actually start pulling water out of your skin. You have a 60-second window to prevent this, in which you must apply a serum and/or moisturizer to seal in the hydration and protect it from being pulled out by the surrounding air. I call this the “Golden Minute,” and it’s one of my favorite skincare tips.
What You Should Know About Face Steamers and Certain Skin Conditions
While I consider face steamers to be generally safe for at-home use, there are a few instances in which they could end up causing more harm than good. Here’s when you should take precautions when steaming your face.
If You’re Prone to Rosacea, Redness, or Broken Capillaries
As I mentioned before, the heat from steam dilates capillaries and boosts oxygen and nutrient delivery to the skin. While this is a good thing if you’re skin is looking a little dull, it can cause problems if you’re prone to rosacea, flushing (redness), and/or broken capillaries. Increasing the internal temperature of the skin is a trigger for all of these conditions. (As for broken capillaries, specifically, heat causes them to expand and constrict. Over time, expansion and constriction weaken the capillaries until, eventually, they won’t spring back. This causes them to remain visible just under the surface of the skin. Learn more about broken capillaries.)
If you deal with any of these skin conditions, you can still steam your face, but I would recommend investing in a handheld steamer. Sure, everyone’s skin is different, and some might be able to handle steam more than others, but why risk it? Plus, there are other ways to increase circulation in the skin and provide hydration without turning to a face steamer (and they won’t risk a flare-up of rosacea or broken capillaries).
If You Have Melasma
Melasma, a type of pigmentation that looks like brown or grey-brown patches on the skin, can often be triggered by heat. When you have melasma, you should always be working to suppress overactive melanin cells. Unfortunately, heating the skin has the opposite effect, “waking” these cells and causing even more pigmentation. This is another instance in which I’d recommend avoiding the use of a face steamer.
If You Have Sensitive Skin
Having sensitive skin doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t use a face steamer, but I would recommend erring on the side of caution by steaming your face once a week and seeing how it goes. Something that I strongly caution against, though, is using essential oils for face steaming. I know this is popular in some circles, but exposing the skin to such high concentrations of essential oils can prove irritating to anyone’s skin, especially if it’s already sensitive.
If Your Skin Is Peeling From a Professional Chemical Peel or Prescription Retinoid
If you’ve ever had a professional chemical peel or used a prescription retinoid, you’re probably no stranger to a little peeling. The skin can become visibly flaky, and it can be really tempting to try to remove these flakes since they create such an uneven texture (but do your best to resist that temptation!).
If that’s the current state of your skin, you should be extra careful when using an at-home face steamer. The steam will soften and moisten the dead skin cells that are creating the visible flaking, which will make it easier to manually slough off the flakes. The problem is, these dead skin cells are often attached to live skin cells. So, if you steam your face then rub it, you could be removing cells before they’re ready. In other words, you could be rubbing off live skin (yikes!). This is what happened to me the first time I got my hands on a professional-grade glycolic acid peel in 1992. I was so excited to see my skin sloughing off that I ended up taking off live skin cells! You can read the whole story, here.
The same is true for post-breakout scabs. Steam will soften them up and make it seem like you can easily scrub them away, but doing this too early means you run the risk of creating a whole new scab underneath. The bottom line is that you should never use a post-steam physical exfoliant on blemishes or peeling skin. Trust me on this!
At-Home Face Steaming FAQs
Here’s what you need to know before using an at-home face steamer, based on my 30+ years of experience in the facial room.
How often should you steam your face, and for how long?
My personal recommendation would be to use a face steamer once a week during an at-home facial. That said, everyone’s skin is different. If you like the results you get from using a face steamer, you can use it a few times a week. The most important thing is to listen to your skin. Pull back if you start to notice anything like dryness, increased redness, or sensitivity.
At what point in your routine should you use a face steamer?
If you’re steaming as part of your nightly skincare routine, I suggest doing it after cleansing. You should cleanse, steam, tone, apply serum, and finish with a moisturizer.
If you’re steaming as part of an at-home facial, I suggest doing it after you exfoliate. So, cleanse, apply an exfoliating enzyme or acid peel, rinse it off, and then use the face steamer. Since the exfoliating enzyme or acid peel will remove dead skin cells, the subsequent steam will be able to do a better job of hydrating the skin. Once you’re done steaming, immediately follow up with an alcohol-free toner, serum, and moisturizer.
You can steam your face for up to 10 minutes (again, listen to your skin). Regardless of how often you use a steamer in your routine, be sure not to hold your face too close to the device! This could overheat your skin. Instead, keep your face at a slight distance. @aishabeau demonstrates the perfect distance for face steaming in the photo above!
Should I have anything on my skin while I’m steaming?
You shouldn’t have anything on your skin while you’re steaming. Steam is just water, so it will have a smaller molecule size than that of any skincare product. If you apply a product to your skin and then steam, you could block that hydration from getting into the skin. Wait until you’re done steaming to apply your next product. This will seal all the hydration into your skin.
I’ve seen a number of people on social media use face steamers while wearing enzyme or acid peels. That’s not something I recommend doing at home. It’s true that steam makes these products more potent because the constant moisture keeps the enzymes/exfoliating acids active. In fact, this technique is often used during professional peels in the facial room. However, in that case, it’s being done under the guidance of a licensed professional. It doesn’t take much to overdo it with these types of products, causing irritation and damage to your skin’s moisture barrier.
Does steam from the shower have the same effect as an at-home face steamer?
Steam from the shower will still warm the skin and increase its internal temperature, which is why post-shower redness is not uncommon. It will also soften the skin, which helps with extractions. However, the effect won’t be as strong as what you’d get from a face steamer.
For a more targeted steaming experience, you could opt for the old-fashioned approach of holding your face over a pot on the stove with a towel over your head. Doing this will definitely hydrate the skin and increase its internal temperature—especially since the towel will trap the heat and the steam close to the skin. Just be sure that if you choose this method, you check the temperature of the steam before putting your face over it. The last thing you want is to irritate (or worse, damage) your skin from excessive heat.
The Bottom Line
As someone who has used a steamer for over 30 years, I’m no stranger to this tool and the benefits it can provide—namely, increasing circulation and delivering hydration. However, there are a number of ways to get these benefits, so I don’t think anyone necessarily needs to be rushing out to buy a face steamer. That said, if you enjoy using one, I hope you found these tips helpful. I also hope you learned how to use your steamer safely and to its full potential!
Special thanks to @aishabeau for letting us use her beautiful image!
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”