Acupuncture can become part of your regular skincare routine. (Photo: Getty images)
Growing up with relatively severe acne, my parents shuttled me from dermatologist to dermatologist, trying everything from photo facials that burnt my skin to prescription lotions that made my skin flake to extractions that exacerbated the swelling. Thousands of dollars and many years later, I still suffer from acne on a daily basis. Jaded and (sometimes literally) scarred by Western medicine, I looked to my roots and sought Chinese traditional medicine, namely acupuncture, to see if it could clear my skin, and maybe even give me a health boost beyond the face. I consulted two different Manhattan-based acupuncturists, Shellie Goldstein of Hamptons Acupuncture and Su-Jung Lee of Truing Acupuncture, to teach me about skincare beyond Western medicine. Before you decide to stick needles all over your body in the pursuit of beauty though, here are eight basic tenets to know about acupuncture, skin, and wellness.
Your tongue says a lot about you
Before my acupuncture facial with Lee began, she asked me to stick out my tongue, which is a traditional diagnostic tool. “The body of the tongue can fall on a spectrum of deeper, darker, purplish reds to a light pink,” Lee explains to Yahoo Beauty. “The tongue body reflects the overall physical systems. Bright red for instance will reflect excess heat in the system. Purples could mean there is stagnation of blood or a blockage in circulation.” By checking the tongue coating and body, the acupuncturist can confirm a diagnosis. Goldstein agrees: “According to Chinese medicine, the tongue is the visible end of a long tube that extends from the mouth to the rectum,” she writes in her book, Your Best Face Now. “Your tongue can also say a lot about your Qi,” Goldstein tells Yahoo Beauty. “The Qi is a force of energy that you can’t see, but it affects the way you look and the way you feel. Many of my patients don’t just have skin issues. They are also fatigued.” It’s all connected — and it starts with your tongue.
Acupuncture needles are not one-size-fits-all
There are more than 365 points in your body, but don’t worry — the needles don’t go everywhere. This is great news if you have a fear of needles. In her office, Goldstein presented to me a variety of needles from Japan, China, Taiwan, and elsewhere. They come in different diameters and types of metal, and the Chinese needles tend to be thicker than the Japanese needles. They are pre-sterilized, single-use, and disposable (leave immediately if your acupuncturist is re-using needles). Unlike hypodermic needles, these don’t hurt because they’re extremely thin, solid (versus hollow), and have finely tapered points. You shouldn’t really feel the needles, but you may experience a slight pinch in certain areas. It’s not an unpleasant feeling, but if you already have an aversion to sharp things, this is your warning. You may actually find it relaxing: Many people claim to fall asleep during acupuncture sessions — I know I do.
Chinese medical cosmetology dates back thousands of years
“Used by the ancient Chinese Empresses and the concubines of the Emperor, this system was designed to improve the quality of the skin, reduce signs of aging, and maintain lustrous radiance,” Goldstein explains. She mentions a text, Huang Di Nei Jing, that recommends acupuncture, facial massage, and qi gong as anti-aging and acne treatments, and explains how your diet affects your appearance. The Empress Lu Zhi of the Han Dynasty, for example, is said to have started each day with a soup made of edible jelly fungus, which was supposed to minimize facial pigmentation and freckles, reduce fat absorption, and promote gut health. And Yang Guifei, the famously beautiful concubine of Tang Dynasty Emperor Xuanzong, had her own almond skin cream recipe.
An acupuncture facial requires needles all over your body
I was surprised when the needles went on my feet — the farthest points away from my body. Apparently, the points on your feet can affect parts of your head, whether you’re seeking treatment for chronic migraines, acne, or sallow skin. “As the tongue can reflect an imbalance in the overall physiology, so can the face and skin,” Lee explains. Treating the whole body, as well as locally on the face, synergistically improves the general health of the person.” For example, as Goldstein explains, the point on top of your foot between your first and second toes can be activated to treat wrinkles between the eyebrows and around the eyes, and to reduce and irritation in the eyes. Activating the point on the inside of your foot, directly below the ankle bone, can help treat dry lips, thinning hair, and ringing in your ears. Everyone has an individual experience with acupuncture, but the point is to restore the balance in your body.
Acupuncture has a cumulative effect
As with most skincare treatments that aren’t surgery, you don’t get instantaneous results — much to my dismay. “For a ballpark of number of treatments for facial acupuncture, I’d recommend working once a week for three months since acupuncture has cumulative results over time,” Lee advises. “Then, a maintenance schedule of once a month should do in most cases.” Goldstein agrees: “It’s not just acupuncture. You have to gradually change your lifestyle habits, like diet, if you want to see results.” The cost can add up, though, and even the most premium of health insurances don’t cover cosmetic acupuncture. Luckily, there are many community-oriented holistic acupuncture centers that only cost $50 per session, as long as you’re willing to get treatments done with other people in the room.
According to Eastern medicine, you can temporarily delay the signs of aging
“The muscles of your body attach from either bone to bone, or from bone to tendon or ligament,” Goldstein explains. “Contracting these muscles moves your bones.” But your facial muscles are different — on one end, they’re attached to a bone or muscle, and on the other end, they’re attached to a muscle or your skin. So, when you contract these muscles, you’re moving muscles and skin, not bone. Wrinkles are going to inevitably happen if you have facial expressions, but Eastern medicine says you can delay aging by focusing on balancing your Qi energy levels, starting with your kidneys. Kidneys perform a variety of vital regulatory and balancing functions in your body, from waste removal to blood filtering to enzyme production, and in Eastern medicine, they are also said to possess a special kind of Qi called Jing, which is passed down from your ancestors. When your kidneys are unhealthy, your mind and body suffer, from yellowing skin to memory loss. Another organ that matters a lot is your lung. “Eastern doctors believe we can all have normal skin,” says Goldstein. “All it takes is good Lung Qi.” If your lungs, which regulate moisture and air, aren’t functioning properly, your skin can be too dry, which can enhance signs of aging.
You can do acupressure at home
Goldstein’s book, Your Best Face Now, is a thorough guide to giving yourself the benefits of acupuncture without the actual needles. Acupressure uses the firm pressure of your hands, instead of needles to stimulate vital points on your body. Acupuncture is technically stronger and supposedly more effective, but you also need to see a specialist for it. Goldstein invented the 20-day AcuFacial Acupressure Facelift technique as a non-invasive way to shave years off your face, but you can also consult your own acupuncturist about the pressure points that are most effective for yourself. “Just because someone else has acne, doesn’t mean they have it for the same reasons [as another person] or that it is the same kind,” Lee explains.
You need to live a healthy lifestyle to reap the benefits
Acupuncture is all about restoring balance into your body, but a 60-minute session once a week won’t make a difference if you’re not eating well, sleeping well, wearing sunscreen, and exercising. Both Goldstein and Lee require their first-time patients to fill out an extensive multi-page questionnaire about their lifestyle habits and schedules, from coffee consumption to skincare products to menstrual cycles. It borders on TMI, but here’s the thing: It’s your body, and it requires self-healing. “To really improve and maintain a healthy body and face, we have to work together by addressing lifestyle choices and habits,” says Lee. “With regular acupuncture and herbs, if necessary, you can expect to see a healthier complexion and better overall health by calming stress, and improving digestion and quality of sleep.”