Juice bars. Wine bars. Coffee bars. And now ... oxygen bars? Yep, popping up all over the U.S. (as well as in Canada and Japan, where the craze is thought to have begun because of the serious air pollution there), oxygen bars sell "hits" of 40% oxygen that is delivered through a mask worn over the face.
Proponents of this oxygen "therapy" say it boosts energy levels, increases your endurance during exercise, helps you bounce back more quickly from physical exertion, provides relief from stress and pollution, increases your concentration, helps you relax, and eases headaches and hangovers.
Kristi Huddleston, owner of O2Cool Oxygen Bar in Aventura, Fla., fell in love with the treatment when she first tried it in Atlanta. "It reinvigorated me," she says. "I wanted to share the feeling with others."
At Huddleston's oxygen bar, customers can purchase sessions that last anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes; monthly memberships are also available. The oxygen that is breathed in is scented with the customer's choice of aroma to enhance the experience, says Huddleston.
"Who doesn't like smelling something nice?" she asks.
Huddleston is quick to point out that she is not making any medical claims, and that customers are not allowed to receive any more than 30 minutes a day of the oxygen. She does say, however, that the oxygen relieves her stress, and customers have told her it eases their migraines and their allergies.
Sounds great ... if that's true. The medical community doesn't buy it, though. "There has been no scientific research that this extra shot of pure oxygen has any benefits," says George Boyer, MD, chief of pulmonary and critical care at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
The Canadian Society of Respiratory Therapists has gone so far as to issue a position statement that reads: "As health professionals, we cannot ethically or morally support providing oxygen therapy to those who do not require it."
Healthy individuals take in approximately 21% oxygen from the air they breathe, says Boyer. At that level, blood is almost completely (99%) saturated, meaning there is no need for additional oxygen.
"If you're healthy, you're already saturated," says Eric Barnett, clinical director of Rancho Mirage Hyperbarics in Rancho Mirage, Calif. "You're not going to be any more saturated just because you're breathing in additional oxygen."
"For the vast majority of people, there is little harm" says Boyer, "but also absolutely no science of benefit."
"If your lungs are healthy, and you have no breathing difficulties, your body has all the oxygen it needs," says Boyer. "Taking in more is like going to the gas station and trying to fill a tank that's already filled."
In hospital settings, 100% oxygen may be delivered -- but even then only on a short-term basis, says Boyer -- less than 24 hours and preferably less than 12 hours. To breathe pure oxygen at that level for any longer can have toxic results, including "shock lung," or adult respiratory distress syndrome. In infants, too much pure oxygen for too long a time can also lead to retinal problems as the blood vessels in their eyes won't develop properly.
Since the oxygen provided in oxygen bars is only at a concentration of 40%, visiting an oxygen bar probably won't cause you any damage, says Boyer, unless you have certain disorders such as emphysema. Too much oxygen can cause a person with emphysema to stop breathing.