Air Supply

Life as we know it would not be possible without oxygen. Of the five basic elements that make up all life on Earth (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur, and oxygen), oxygen is the most prevalent. It accounts for 65 percent of our bodies in weight, 50 percent of the Earth's crust, and 85 percent of all seawater. Every function of the body requires oxygen and the energy it creates—from the ability to move and think to the ability to sleep. Oxygen is even essential to the health of our skin, which is why many spas offer treatments that aim to deliver a topical dose straight to the face.

The medical community has been using supplemental oxygen for years now. Hyperbaric medicine, which involves the use of oxygen at higher-than-atmospheric pressure, was first developed to treat scuba divers suffering from decompression sickness and air embolisms. More recently, several professional football and basketball players have admitted to using hyperbaric chambers, claiming that spending time inside these oxygen-rich tents helps them recover faster from injuries and strenuous workouts. Hyperbaric medicine is even recognized by Medicare as a reimbursable treatment for 14 approved conditions and has been found to help those suffering from multiple sclerosis, autism, and severe anemia. But the "off label" use of hyperbaric oxygen that is most interesting to spa professionals is its ability to speed up healing in certain chronic wounds. Pressurized oxygen is thought to speed up wound recovery by boosting collagen production and delivering more of the essential element to the blood vessels.

Though there are plenty of studies to support these health benefits of hyperbaric oxygen, they all involve systemic delivery, meaning the oxygen has to be inhaled. Very little evidence exists to show the efficacy of topically applied oxygen, but that hasn't stopped many spas the world over from offering services in which oxygen is misted or sprayed over the skin. (Spas never claim to offer medical benefits from their oxygen treatments, so clinical evidence isn't required.) The proof that it works, according to many spa professionals, is evident on the faces of happy spa-goers.

Madonna was so pleased with the results she saw after receiving an Intraceuticals hyperbaric oxygen facial that she had an esthetician administer the treatment before every concert during her 2006 tour. "It really does give you instant gratification, and I think that's why the facial was embraced by celebrities," says Deirdre Burke, national sales manager for Intraceuticals in the U.S. An Australian brand, Intraceuticals introduced its oxygen compressor machines and coordinating skincare line to American spas and dermatologist offices about two years ago. Instead of asking Intraceuticals distributors to purchase tank after tank of oxygen for use in their facials, the company sells a $10,000 machine that draws in air (which comprises around 21 percent oxygen) and then filters out the different gases until all that's left is concentrated 95 percent oxygen. The oxygen is also infused with an Intraceuticals serum; three serums offer different benefits and are loaded with skincare ingredients like hyaluronic acid, antioxidants, and skin brighteners. As the pressurized oxygen leaves the handheld nozzle of the compressor, it creates what the brand calls a "pressure bubble" that drives the serums further into the skin. "The machine isn't all that's important," says Burke. "The serums and their formulas are also key to the outstanding results of the facial."

And just what are those results? Proponents say skin looks plump and dewy after the service, making it popular with guests who want to look more youthful and camera-ready for special events like weddings. "Many of our clients have generally dehydrated skin, and this facial offers them instant nourishment and hydration," says Alison Kirsten, director of spa for the Sports Club Company, which offers the Intraceuticals Infusion Treatments ($195, 50 minutes) at many of its locations. And it's not just the guests who enjoy the facials. Estheticians often feel more relaxed while performing oxygen treatments as the additional oxygen in the room can have a calming effect. "When therapists get enthusiastic about the treatment, it makes it fun and easy for them to talk about it with clients," says Burke.

ECHO2Plus is another popular oxygen delivery system that has been around since the early '90s and is seen by many as the pioneer of oxygen spa treatments. The brand's name is an anagram that stands for Exfoliation, Cleansing, Hydration, and Oxygenation. During the oxygenation phase of an ECHO2Plus treatment, vitamin- and mineral-enriched oxygen is sprayed onto the skin in a cooling mist. The Double Oxygen De-Aging Facial ($150, 90 minutes) at the nationwide Mona Spa and Laser Centers is often recommended to clients receiving microdermabrasion, peels, or dermal fillers, as the oxygen may help speed up recovery time and can be refreshing and calming for irritated skin. The ECHO2Plus system is also used during the Oxygen Facial ($150, 50 minutes) at the Spa at One Ocean (Atlantic Beach, FL). The nebulizer on the oxygen tank is filled with an activating liquid and additional vitamins, and the resulting mixture is then sprayed over the face and neck for 15 minutes toward the end of the service. Because there are no take-home products with the ECHO2Plus facial, the Spa at One Ocean gives clients an O+ Mini, a portable oxygen device that offers 20 energy-boosting breaths of 95 percent oxygen to remind guests of the unique treatment they received.

Oxygen treatments are also beneficial to guests with acneic complexions. Because breakout-causing bacteria cannot survive in oxygen-rich environments, passing a mist of oxygen over problem skin may help prevent and reduce blemishes. At the International Day Spa (Redlands, CA), the Oxygen Rejuvenation Spa Facial ($90, 60 minutes) combines a spray of oxygen with hydrogen peroxide, a known anti-acne ingredient. Hydrogen peroxide also releases oxygen as it decomposes, so applying it to the skin helps further oxygenate the area. "Because we live in the smog of southern California, our skin is especially starved for oxygen," says spa director Mimi Barre, who recommends the treatment to guests with acne, as well as smokers.

O2 Fix
O2 Fix

"The beauty of oxygen treatments is that they are beneficial to anyone, from those with actual problem skin to individuals who simply want to experience something new and ultra-nourishing," says Kim Flores, director of beauty at Cal-a-Vie (Vista, CA), where guests can try the Cal-a-Vie Oxygen Facial ($175, 50 minutes). But Flores is quick to explain the added bonus of an oxygen facial post microdermabrasion. "While microdermabrasion is a non-invasive procedure, it is still a gentle skin blasting and therefore necessitates the reparative qualities of oxygen."

Even spas that don't have access to oxygenating machines or tanks can offer oxygen-infused services, thanks to skincare products that boost oxygen levels at the surface of the skin. Julie Raistrick, spa director at Spa Montage (Laguna Beach, CA), attributes her clear, smooth skin to Spa Technologies's Oxygenating Renewal Complex, a cream that contains liquid oxygen. "I receive compliments on my complexion quite often, which I completely owe to the product," says Raistrick, who adds that the cream is a top seller in the spa's store. With results like that, maybe one day oxygen-rich skincare products and spa treatments will be as essential to life as the gas itself. —Megan O'Neill