What Is a Facial Steamer? Here’s What You Need to Know

Updated: Apr. 12, 2021

A facial steamer produces a warm mist that can help target skin issues like clogged pores. Here's how to use on, benefits, risks, and the best facial steamers to buy.

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Why facial steamers are having a moment

Steamers are great at releasing wrinkles from clothes and removing grime from floors. And as it turns out, they’re also pretty effective at getting gunk out of your pores.

Considering their long association with spa services, it’s no surprise that interest in facial steamers rose in 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic. Mask-wearing, housebound people started searching for solutions for maskne (acne from wearing a mask) and at-home spa-like experiences. The answer, for many, was a personal facial steamer.

(Here are some more DIY facial treatments to try at home.)

How a facial steamer works

A facial steamer does exactly what its name suggests: It heats a tank of water until steamy. The device emits this warm mist through a face- or cone-shaped steamer opening so it can pass over the face, says Channa Ovits, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Westmed Medical Group in Westchester, New York.

The goal is to soften and moisten the oil and debris in the pores, allowing for easier removal as you cleanse. (Here are some skin care tips for oily skin.)

“Facial steamers are often a part of an aesthetic facial, used before performing extractions,” she says. One very important caveat: leave the extractions to the pros. “When done improperly, extractions can lead to irritation, scarring, or even infections,” Dr. Ovits says.

The benefits of using a facial steamer

While facial steaming can make it easier to eliminate oil and buildup within your pores, the benefits go beyond that.

Facial steamers can be especially beneficial for men who shave frequently. “The steam can soften the hair on the face before they shave, which can allow for easier removal, leading to less tugging and pulling of the shaver over the skin,” Dr. Ovits says.

For all facial steamer users, the warm vapor increases blood flow to the skin and results in a temporary dewy, flushed look. It can also boost the skin’s ability to soak up serums and topical treatments and may aid in the skin’s collagen and elastin replenishment process, resulting in fewer signs of aging.

The downside of using a facial steamer

The extra blood flow to the skin may make your skin glow, but it could have the unintended effect of increasing inflammation. As a result, prolonged exposure to heat can exacerbate certain skin conditions like acne, rosacea, hyperpigmentation, redness, or melasma. That’s why knowing your skin is so important, Dr. Ovits says.

If you and your dermatologist decide it’s safe to steam, be sure to do so in moderation. “Steaming your skin too frequently or for too long can actually dry it out, much like a hot shower, as more water ultimately leaves the softened skin—thus the need to apply moisturizer immediately,” she says.

Asian woman with facial steamerSetsukoN/Getty Images

What a facial steamer won’t do

“Steamers can be a nice, occasional addition to a skin-care regimen for someone concerned about blackheads or seeking a relaxing spa experience at home,” Dr. Ovits says. What they can’t do is work miracles on your pores.

For instance, because pores don’t actually open or close, a facial steamer can’t “open the pores,” she says. And while a steamer can loosen up the oils in your skin, it cannot “detoxify” your pores. “Pores don’t contain toxins, and sweating is done by a gland in the skin that is separate from the pore,” Dr. Ovits says. (If you’re curious, here’s what your sweat can reveal about your health.)

In fact, steaming won’t change the look of your pores at all. Other factors, such as sun damage, genetics, and collagen supply around the pores, are more likely to affect the appearance of the size of the pores. (Here are the myths and facts about large pores.)

How to use a facial steamer

Start by cleaning your skin of makeup, accumulated dirt, oil, or any other pollutants, says Stacy Chimento, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology in Miami.

Exfoliate gently. You can do this with a scrub or with a chemical exfoliant such as alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA), beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), or polyhydroxy acid (PHA), Dr. Chimento says. You can find these chemical exfoliants in products like:

Next, fill the facial steamer tank with water (some machines require distilled), turn it on, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions to steam your face. At this point, you may want to adjust the temperature and output of the steam (if your machine allows you to do so).

“Once the steamer starts emitting the heated mist, you can begin applying the steam to your face. After the steaming, put on a soothing face mask or a hydrating serum to nourish the face and bring that moisture to the skin cells,” Dr. Chimento says.

Facial steamer safely tips

Be sure to follow all product manual instructions, and as with any machine that uses heat, use with caution and keep kids and pets at a safe distance when doing so. Also be sure to clean the tool often, as explained in the instructions; good hygiene is crucial to avoid mildew or other contamination within the facial steamer.

In terms of the safety of your skin as you steam, follow these best practices from Dr. Ovits and Dr. Chimento:

  • Within one minute of stopping the steamer, immediately apply a fragrance-free moisturizer to lock in moisture and hydrate the skin. Since anything you apply at this point can penetrate deeper, moisturizers with fragrances can lead to irritation or flare-ups of conditions like eczema.

  • After you moisturize, apply a fragrance-free SPF to protect your skin from potential sun damage. (Yes, even if you’re staying inside all day.)

  • Note that most topical skin medications are formulated to be applied to dry skin, so be sure to read medication instructions and avoid use after steaming, if necessary.

  • Less is more in terms of how long you steam. Opt for 10-15 minutes and stay a little bit away from the steamer to avoid steam burns which may occur.

If you have any uncertainty about whether you should use a facial steamer, be sure to consult with a dermatologist before doing so.

What to look for in a facial steamer

Be sure to investigate the facial steamer’s specs to ensure it fits your goals. Here are some questions to keep in mind:

  • How long does it run—and does that sound like an amount of time you’re willing to carve out of your day and add to your skin-care routine?

  • How does the machine create its steam? It should be clearly explained, including details about the start-to-steam time.

  • Are the controls intuitive and easy to use?

  • Is the facial steamer easy to clean?

  • Does the size of the facial steamer fit comfortably within your space?

Here are five top-rated models to consider

Next, these are the anti-aging secrets dermatologists won’t tell you for free.

Teenage Girl Applying Facial Mask While Looking In Mirror At BathroomArtem Varnitsin / EyeEm/Getty Images

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