Is oxygen good for you?

Oxygen is necessary, that much is not controversial. But just because oxygen is necessary doesn’t mean that more is better.

Sure, you’d last only seconds without oxygen, but in many ways oxygen is the enemy. We’re happy to gulp it down day after day, but as soon as a fire breaks out, oxygen turns against us. It is a remarkably reactive and corrosive gas. It’s responsible for rust and other metal corrosion, slowly attacks other materials and spoils food and drink.

We’re lucky that the atmosphere is only about a fifth oxygen. At this concentration steel rusts. In pure oxygen at sea level, steel wool bursts into flames like dry tinder and just about everything becomes highly flammable. Besides this, oxygen is toxic to the body and brain at high levels. This has to be taken into consideration in medicine, diving and anywhere else people might be breathing more than the usual amount.

So not only is more oxygen not good for you, it can actually be bad for you. Still, it’s easy to make that fallacious step from necessity to tonic, and from time to time oxygen bubbles to the surface in some new health-giving form. A few years ago oxygen bars were on the rise, though they haven’t really caught on. Presumably tubes and masks just aren’t chic.

More recently there’s been a rash of skin treatments boasting about their oxygen content. It wasn’t so long ago that free radicals were the enemy of youthful looks. Now it seems that oxygen is the good guy despite being a source of those very same free radicals. It’s probably a good thing for the youth-obsessed that these fickle formulas don’t really get beyond the outer layer of the skin.

Interestingly we do absorb around one to eight percent of the oxygen we need through the skin — but generally the lungs and blood together keep everything happily supplied.

You’ve got enough worries without adding oxygen to the list. You’ll know pretty quickly if you’re not getting enough, and more than enough is probably too much. Just breathe easy.

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