Would you step into a pressurized cylinder to get rid of your wrinkles? A writer for The Daily Mail did in 2018 and her report, which reads more like an ad for the centre offering the service, claims she felt invigorated after spending an hour lying down reading a magazine. Shocking. The following day, no sign of puffiness and her complexion glowed. Could this near-miraculous medical apparatus hold the key to ironing out the creases in our ageing skin? Don’t hold your breath.
It’s called hyperbaric oxygen therapy. The term “hyperbaric” refers to the increased pressure inside the vessel. These chambers started being used in the second half of the 19th century and proved quite useful for divers. The problem these divers were facing was that they had to ascend and descend quickly but the rapid differences in pressure was damaging their bodies, resulting in vertigo, deafness, and joint pains. Putting the diver inside one of these chambers allowed for quick transportation but the pressure inside could be adjusted at a much slower pace, giving the body time to adjust. These decompression chambers eventually found medical uses and were combined with an increased oxygen supply to form hyperbaric oxygen therapy. (Indeed, while regular air contains 21% oxygen, that number can go up to 100% inside a hyperbaric oxygen chamber.)
Medical conditions that respond to hyperbaric oxygen therapy do so because of the increased pressure and/or because of the increased oxygenation. If a diver is suffering from “the bends”—having gone from the depths of the sea to normal atmospheric pressure too quickly—gas bubbles will form in their blood, but a hyperbaric chamber’s high pressure will reduce the space these dangerous gas bubbles take up. Meanwhile, it’s the high oxygen content that is beneficial when the therapy is used for wound healing. The oxygen seems to encourage the formation of new blood vessels and the release of important molecules involved in tissue healing. Health Canada has in fact highlighted 14 conditions that benefit from this therapy. Wrinkles didn’t make the cut.
The private clinics offering expensive sessions inside their anti-aging sarcophagus often do not even list the reason why they claim this therapy can work miracles for wrinkles. When evidence is offered, it is the predictable handful of unrelated basic research findings. In fact, a search on Medline for “hyperbaric oxygenation” and “skin” reveals exactly the sort of science the sellers of anti-aging treatments don’t want you to know. Mice, rabbits and rats with burns. Cells in culture. Envenomation by the brown recluse spider. No study on using these chambers to reduce wrinkles in humans. Nada.
But why not simply try it and see for ourselves? Spending an hour in a metal tube with increased pressure and oxygenation is not risk free. Trauma to the middle ear is seen in 2% of users, and a type of myopia that resolves within days or weeks has also been reported in some patients. By far the most dramatic risk is that of immolation. A study of human deaths from 1923 to 1996 revealed that 77 people had died in a total of 35 hyperbaric chamber fires. The high oxygen content in the cylinder means that a spark can be deadly. The National Fire Protection Association even wrote about their concerns vis-à-vis the proliferation of hyperbaric chambers in spas and strip malls (and soft, bag-like versions of the chamber for home use) and how some may not meet safety standards.
What it boils down to is money. If you’re a for-profit clinic and you bought an expensive hyperbaric oxygen chamber, you have to use it to make it profitable. You can’t rely on a steady flow of divers with the bends. So you offer it for anti-ageing, for beauty and skincare, for performance enhancement. And you hope that your customers don’t ask for proof that stepping inside a pressurized cylinder full of oxygen to the tune of hundreds of dollars a session can do anything for their wrinkles… because you might have to tell them, “Don’t hold your breath.”
- Hyperbaric oxygen therapy consists in spending an hour or two in a pressured cylinder with an especially high oxygen content
- Some clinics advertise this therapy to reduce wrinkles but there is absolutely no scientific evidence behind this claim
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