Vapourisers (Steamers & Atomisers)

There were two main types of vapourisers that have been used in beauty salons over the past hundred years or so. One type, which I will refer to as steamers, generated and used the benefits of steam. The other, which I will call atomisers, relied primarily on the production of a fine spray of water. These devices, which were mainly used in facial treatments, were known by a variety of names including vapourisers, atomisers, steamers and pulverisers.


The general principle behind a steamer is simple; boil water to produce steam and then direct this over the face. The practice was used in medicine well before it was taken up by Beauty Culture as, for example, in steam inhalers.

A croup kettle

Above: A croup kettle. Devices like this were used in the nineteenth and twentieth century to treat children suffering from croup.

When used in medicine, inhalers of this type would often mix medicinal ingredients in with the water. However, as these medications would need to evapourate to mix with the steam only volatile medicinal ingredients would have any effect. In early Beauty Culture tinctures were often added to the water but today, steaming generally uses water alone. Modern machine manufacturers recommend distilled or filtered water, primarily because tap water can leave calcium or other mineral deposits that may cause the steamer to malfunction after an extended period of use.

Although many early steamers look similar to steam inhalers, the reason for their use comes more from a nineteenth century interest in steam bathing than anything else.

Russian baths

By the late nineteenth century, bathing, either in public baths or at home, was becoming more common in the middle classes. Late nineteenth century public bath houses came in a variety of forms. Along with the standard facilities offering a shower or a bath there were also Turkish baths, which involved a dry heat treatment, and Russian baths, which used steam.

1855 Russian bath

Above: 1885 Interior showing the facilities in a Russian bath house in Cavendish Square, London (Roth, 1885).

The basic procedure used in a Russian bath involved steaming, then massage and light flagellation, followed by a wash with warm or cold water, with a cold plunge to finish. Bathing was seen as a health practice and Russian baths were recommended for the treatment of a wide range of afflictions ranging from asthma, constipation and joint pain, to smallpox and syphilis. It was also said to have beneficial effects on the skin.

We content ourselves with stating that the direct effect of the bath manifests itself in the skin and the mucous membranes of the respiratory organs; that it accelerates the circulation of the blood; reddens and softens the skin; produces a profuse perspiration during and after the bath; causes a slight and brief artificial fever, with increased activity of the skin and mucous membranes of the respiratory organs, by which the increased irritability of the arteries and the too great sensibility of the nerves are lessened.

(Roth, 1885, p. 25)

Bathing was also done in the home; however, as drawing, carrying, and heating large amounts of water was generally a very time consuming task, a lot of washing was done in basins using sponges or cloths. Steaming was also done in this manner with women placing their face over a bowl filled with very hot water. As with a Russian bath, steaming the face would generally be followed with friction and splashing with cold water.

There is nothing to be more highly recommended than giving the face, daily a good Russian bath, usually considered best just before retiring, as one is less liable to take cold then. For ten minutes or so, steam the face by holding it above a dish of boiling water; then bathe gently and freely, using the water as hot as you can bear, plunging the face immediately after into cold water. Wipe dry on a soft towel, being sure to wipe up, as this is said to be a means of preventing wrinkles. This bath is an excellent means of removing from the pores all foreign substances and rendering the flesh of the face beautifully soft, white and firm.

(Farbab, 1892, p. 9)

Although a basin of hot water would be adequate, a device specifically designed for this purpose – sometimes referred to as a Russian steamer – could also be purchased.

1903 Russian Steamer

Above: 1903 Mrs. Pomeroy’s Russian Steamer.

Steaming the face formed the basis for many treatments in the commercial beauty establishments that began to proliferate towards the end of the nineteenth century. Adherents of steaming, like Mrs. Pomeroy, believed that it helped cleanse the skin and make it supple, increased the amount nourishing blood flowing to the face, and opened up the pores and reduced ‘congestion’.

1911 Steaming treatment

Above: 1911 Steaming treatment.

Detractors, like Eleanor Adair, said that it robbed the skin of nourishing oils and made the skin lax which induced wrinkles. Others took a more moderate position.

Face steaming is a method of treatment that may be highly beneficial or injurious, according as it is done. Too frequent applications of steam will cause wrinkles, by making the skin flabby, but an occasional bath of this kind serves the purpose of opening the pores to remove dust and helping to keep the skin supple and in good condition.
Special arrangements for this treatment may be bought, but they are expensive, and quite as good results may be secured from simple contrivances if they are made to hold the steam. A chafing dish answers the purpose admirably indeed, so will any receptacle in which water may be kept just below the boiling point. Any kind of vessel over an alcohol lamp, or gas if the jet be low and easily reached, can be adapted. It remains then to put over the flame a fairly large surface pan, or basin, with enough water to throw out a good volume of steam.
It is worth remembering, before going through this cleansing experience, that boiling steam will burn the skin, and so the temperature of the water must be a trifle lower than the boiling point, yet sufficiently high to throw out heat that will generate perspiration.
After everything is arranged for the bath the face should be well rubbed with cold cream, applying it thickly with the finger tips and rubbing vigorously in rotary motion over the entire face, making the upward part of the stroke stronger than the downward. This will take at least five minutes, and longer if properly done. The bath should then be ready, and the face bent over, holding a towel so the steam is thrown directly on the skin. If necessary to get fresh air to breathe, the mouth may be uncovered for about two seconds.
After the face is hot, and perspiration starts, it should be wiped with soft old linen to remove the grease, and then the face should be steamed again. This wiping is repeated until there is no trace of grease. Fifteen or twenty minutes should be devoted to the bath, and at the end of this period the face must be wiped for the last time. For the final treatment cold water may be dashed over to tighten the skin, and if there is no eruption an excellent lotion, made from a gill of alcohol and an ounce each of spirits of camphor and spirits of ammonia, two and a half ounces of sea salt, with enough boiling water to make a pint, may be applied to the flesh. This is not used until it is cold, and then the skin is soaked with it. It is an excellent tonic, and may be massaged into the neck, throat and arms, as well as the face.
Steaming by this method should not be resorted to oftener than once a week. Carefully done, it will soften and refine the skin and clear the complexion.

(Mixter, 1910, pp. 87-88)

See also: Mrs. Pomeroy and Eleanor Adair

As the twentieth century progressed, the use of steaming became less controversial and the machines now are a common sight in modern beauty salons. The reasons for its inclusion are much the same as those given long ago: steam helps open up the pores, making it easier remove dirt, grease and make-up, as well as making extractions easier; softens the skin, thereby making exfoliation more effective; and increases blood circulation, bringing nutrients to the skin and removing wastes.

Beauty Culture also ‘enhanced’ the basic stream treatment in two main ways, both of which were used primarily to treat clients suffering from facial skin eruptions.

Blue light: An early development was to combine steaming with a blue light treatment. Blue light was believed to have an antiseptic and astringent action and, like steam, was used to treat pimples and acne.

1929 Steam and blue light treatment

Above: 1929 Client undergoing a steam and blue light treatment in a French salon. The device appears to be a Vapofor, manufactured by the Gloria Light Company. Although they are not visible there are two light globes in the tube.

1936 Vapofo

Above: 1936 Vapofor from the Gloria Light Company.

1944 Face steamer

Above: 1944 Face steamer. Although similar to the apparatus above, this one does not seem to be using coloured lights.

See also: Red Light, Blue Light

Ozone: Another development was to add ozone. Ozone was believed to have a stimulating effect on the skin and/or to help combat the bacteria associated with pimples and acne. In early machines the ozone was produced by a high-frequency spark but in modern steamers this is done with ultra-violet (U.V.) light.

1936 Vapouriser

Above: 1936 Early vapouriser that used a spark-gap to generate ozone.

Although the amount of ozone produced in modern steamers with this feature is low, as ozone is both an irritant and a poison its use is problematic, with some countries banning the sale of this type of device.


The second group of vapourisers generate a fine spray of water over the face. The principle behind these devices is also used in other sprays such as insecticide pumps and perfume atomisers. Vapourisers pass a stream of air over the top of a thin tube connected to a reservoir of fluid. This creates a low pressure area on the top of the tube which draws the liquid up the tube producing a fine spray. The devices used in beauty salons generally used steam to generate the air-flow but the believed benefits of the device come largely from the fine spray not the steam.

Atomisers have two main benefits when compared to steamers. Firstly, as the spray is formed by atomisation not evapouration, ingredients added to the water do not have to be volatile in order to reach the face, e.g. astringents or herbal ingredients. Secondly, as the spray is a cooler than steam alone, this makes it useful for treating certain skin conditions where steam would be inadvisable.

It is unnecessary to expose a dry face to the drying effects of hot steam, and so we treat it with a “cooled vapour,” i.e., we spray the face with a jet of luke-warm water. … We usually put some astringent chemical (tincture of benzoin, toilet vinegar, eau de Cologne) into the cold water.

(Lázár, 1937, p. 51)

Atomisers are more commonly found in Europe, particularly France, where they are usually referred to as ‘vaporisers’ or ‘pulvérisers’. In the English speaking world they are usually called pulverisers – an Anglicisation of the French word pulvériser meaning spray.

The standard for all modern atomisers is the Lucas-Championnière, named after Just Lucas-Championnière, a French surgeon, and the device he introduced into France in the 1870s. It was not designed as a beauty product but rather to spray carbolic acid (phenol) during surgery, a practice first developed by the Scottish surgeon Joseph Lister.

Lister had been inspired by Louis Pasteur’s germ theory to develop a disinfectant spray that he could use during surgery but needed a suitable device. The apparatus he settled on was based on an atomiser inhaler – an early nebuliser – developed by Dr. Emil Seigle in 1864.

1847 Dr. Seigle inhaler.

Above: 1847 Dr. Seigle’s inhaler.

Between 1873 and 1875 Lister adapted the model provided by the atomiser inhaler to the needs of surgery. Convinced by Pasteur that air was the main vector of the germs responsible for post-operative infections, he used these devices to spray a solution of carbonic acid (phenol) into the air during the surgical procedures to disinfect the area around the wound.


Above: A Lister Atomiser.

After 1887, carbolic acid sprays were abandoned by Lister when he realised that germs carried on the surgeon and the patient, or on instruments and medical dressings, were more likely to result in infection than those carried by the air.

Lucas-Championnière became interested in Lister’s work and, after visiting him in Glasgow in 1868, introduced Listerian principles into French surgical practice using a pulvériser (atomiser) of his own design.

Lucas-Championniere Pulveriser

Above: A Lucas-Championnière Pulvériser.

These Lucas-Championnière devices were appropriated by French beauty specialists who used them on the faces of their clients.

[T]here is no beauty treatment without atomization. It completes make-up removing, it thoroughly cleanses the surface of the skin and gives your client a pleasant feeling of “cleanliness” and relaxation.

(Pierantoni, n.d., p. 185)

By the 1930s, advice columns in French magazines were suggesting that these devices should be purchased and used at home.

1934 Vaporiser

Above: 1934 A French vapouriser/atomiser/pulveriser.
Translated from French: “Vapourisation of the face is also a great way to cleanse the skin, making any face showing signs of fatigue, after a tiring night and day, sparkle. It’s also an excellent treatment spray after a massage. It’s easy to do at home. The electrical device that gives you all of these valuable benefits is easy to obtain and use. A small lamp heats the jet. Put hot water in the container above the lamp. Astringent and cold water in the outer cup. Turn on the power, then the tap when you hear a slight hiss; place your face over a bowl, and fine, warm, restful rain gently sprays out. Nothing decongests the skin and cleans it more thoroughly” (French Vogue, 1934).

Perhaps the biggest issue with using French style pulverisers in a salon – apart from their cost – is that they require constant attention during a treatment. Most are hand-held, have to be moved around the face, and are liable to spurt if blocked, so they cannot be set up and left like a modern steamer with its convenient timer and cut-off switch. This restricts the therapist from doing other things – such as mixing up a following mask – during that part of the facial.

Benefits similar to those achieved by a French pulveriser can also be achieved by spraying the face with a good pump-pack, a point clearly noted by the makers of the numerous purse-sized facial sprays currently on the market.

See also: Carbonic Gas Sprays

Updated: 22nd November 2017


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