ON A RECENT WALK through downtown Rehoboth with my son, in his mid-20s, we passed the Salon LaRoc Oxygen Bar. “Huh?” I probably said, and he probably answered, “Oh yeah, you don’t know about these? – because such an exchange has been repeated between us on innumerable occasions over the years.
A search for oxygen bars closer to DC turned up one at the Aria Spa in Huntington, Maryland – but portable oxygen bars have been rented by DC clubs, events and trade shows from Airheads Oxygen Bars, Inc.
At an oxygen bar, “oxygen concentrators” take ambient air and separate out the nitrogen to create 90 to 95 percent oxygen – which proponents call 0xygen Plus or O+ — although by the time it’s pumped through a hose and then through aroma-saturated water, the client gets about 50 percent pure oxygen. The air we breathe is composed of around 21 percent oxygen and 78 percent nitrogen.
Purported benefits of oxygen bars include improving cognitive performance such as memory, concentration and reaction time; increasing stamina and helping muscles recover faster from fatigue; increasing energy levels before, during, and after intense physical activity; and helping to offset the effects of high altitudes. And of course: reducing stress, removing toxins, strengthening the immune system and curing cancer.
But the owner of Salon LaRoc, Peter DiRocco, gets right to the point, in a Delaware Today article, when he mentions hangovers. DiRocco keeps the bar open on New Year’s Day – it’s not far down Rehoboth Avenue from Dogfish Head Brewing & Eats – and offers aromas, including pina colada as well as lavender and mint. He got the idea of adding an oxygen bar to his hair and nail salon from people telling him how oxygen bars enabled them to party in Las Vegas for three days at a time without sleep.
Most oxygen bars charge $1 per minute. Airheads Oxygen recommends 10 to 15 minutes “for optimum benefits,” and their most popular flavors are eucalyptus, gardenia and peppermint. Concentrated oxygen passes through “aromarizers,” bottles containing the selected aroma in water — in part because the oxygen is very dry and needs to be humidified – and then forced from the bottle into nasal cannulas, tubes that go beneath the nose that are also used for medical oxygen. Consumers inhale the O+ while breathing normally.
Originally the idea for oxygen bars came from “air stations” scattered through downtown Beijing and Tokyo to help people cope with pollution. By the late 1990s, the bars had spread to New York, California, Florida and Las Vegas; also the Rocky Mountains, where they reportedly help people who suffer from symptoms of altitude sickness — dizziness, nausea and headaches — often compared to those of a hangover.
But therapeutic benefits of oxygen bars lack scientific support. For one, once the air we breathe is processed by our lungs, the blood that carries it through our bodies is already about 97 percent saturated with oxygen – so not much room for more. In a small study done in 2004 on students at Indiana University, researchers gave concentrated oxygen to some while others got regular compressed air. Those receiving concentrated oxygen showed no increase in oxygen content of their blood, and their elevated heart rates were traced to a placebo effect. One study on athletes showed that they recovered more rapidly – lowering lactate concentrations in their blood – if they walked around after exercise rather than sitting and breathing concentrated oxygen.
The American Lung Association stated that concentrated oxygen is unlikely to have a beneficial effect, but also that there is no evidence that oxygen bars can be dangerous. The FDA, while also debunking the possibilities for beneficial effects, advised caution concerning the aromas: aroma oils can cause inflammation in the lungs, and even oil-free, food-grade particles can include allergens or irritants that can cause wheezing or infection.
“The oxygen bar is now the conversation piece of every corporate and social event that we service,” says the Airheads website. “Health conscience (sic) people all over the globe are purchasing Personal Oxygen Bar systems for their homes and personal use.” Complete with two aromas and 20 “nose hoses,” these retail for $1,295.