In the grand scheme of beauty treatments, modern advances like Botox, laser resurfacing, and face-lifts are just a flash in the pan compared to 5000-year-old giants like acupuncture. In fact, the ancient Chinese practice is a buzzy topic right now thanks to its ability to soften lines on the face. Nicknamed the acupuncture face-lift by the media, the ancient technique can be used in more ways than anyone may have assumed.
It turns out acupuncture has a range of beauty benefits, like brighter skin and fewer breakouts. It works on the same principle as laser treatments—micro-injury prompts your body to rejuvenate—resulting in the ability to minimize wrinkles. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s start with the basics.
We sat down with Nicholas Barlow, the man behind Los Angeles–based acupuncture office The Barlow Clinic, for answers to all the questions you want to know but haven’t asked. How does acupuncture work? Does it hurt? What, exactly, are the beauty benefits?
Click through our slideshow for all this and more.
“We have channels on both sides of our body that run bilaterally and connect to our organ systems,” Barlow says. “Acupuncture is the insertion of micro-fine, medical-grade needles into the patient’s skin, over those specific channels. It’s a way we can positively impact our organs.”
For example, you may not ever think about your spleen, but it’s actually one of the organs that deeply impacts your skin, Barlow says. By inserting acupuncture needles into specific points that are linked to this organ—like the “spleen six” point just above your ankle—a professional can stimulate the organ.
Each point the professional selects to treat does something slightly different, by impacting the nervous and circulatory systems. “For example, by choosing a spot with a bundle of capillaries, we can affect blood flow,” Barlow told us.
This explains why you may experience a sensation coming from deep within your body during a treatment, not, in fact, from the paper-thin needle on the surface of your skin. “This is a positive sensation,” Barlow assured us.
They’re all different. In fact, Eastern medicine quantifies the channels as springs, wells, rivers, and oceans, based on their power, Barlow says. Because of this, acupuncture is closer to an art than an exact science.
While many people seek acupuncture as a treatment for skeletal or muscular pain (like back pain), muscle spasms, gynecological, and reproductive issues, patients are often pleased by immediate, unexpected results, Barlow says. This includes released tension, stress, and anxiety, alongside better digestion and sleeping patterns.
“Acupuncture shouldn’t hurt,” Barlow says. Although it’s different for everyone, he notes that the gauge of the needles used has an impact. (He recommends a Japanese needle brand called Seirin.) “A lot of my first-time patients don’t even feel them,” Barlow says.
“Some patients can either look very zen, really stoned, or just burst into laughter after their first treatment,” Barlow says about the range of relaxed emotions some may feel, often associated with the release of tension. “Think of stress as a bathtub that is slowly filling up with water,” Barlow says. “After a treatment, it’s like someone pulled the plug and let the water out.”
Your body’s energy cycles every 15 minutes, so allowing the treatment to overlap two full cycles is ideal, Barlow says. On average, a treatment is 45 minutes to an hour, to allow for this. Many regular patients choose to come in once a week, or once every other week for health maintenance, while those treating an ailment can come in more often.
“An ‘acupuncture face-lift’ is a misnomer,” Barlow says about the trendy term. “How can acupuncture compete with surgery? However, there is facial rejuvenation.” Unlike internal organs, which you can reach through indirect points, the epidermis can be stimulated directly. Popular areas to treat are ‘the elevens’ (the vertical lines between your brows) and the nasal labial fold (the vertical lines from your nose to the corners of the mouth). “By causing micro-trauma with needles, your body is prompted to rejuvenate by producing more collagen and elastin,” Barlow says, the same principle that laser resurfacing is based upon. “I don’t recommend anyone try these treatments unless they can commit to 10 to 20 sessions, which is necessary to see results.”
Any ailment that has an internal source can be tamed with acupuncture, like adult acne, facial redness, dark circles, puffy skin, psoriasis, and more. According to Barlow, dark circles can be diffused by tuning the adrenal glands and kidneys, hormonal adult acne can be reduced by balancing the kidneys and urinary bladder, and so on.
Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. “Why do we wake up one day and feel awake and beautiful, but tired and unattractive the next? In Eastern medicine, we call that the reflection of the spirit,” Barlow says. In layman’s terms, that is the internal harmony that produces clear eyes, the lack of dark circles, and clear, healthy skin.
Some practitioners, like Barlow, have a master’s in science and Oriental medicine, the former being required in California, but other states are not as strict. We suggest you do your due diligence to find a provider. “There is a website called AcuFinder that can help you locate someone,” Barlow says. “But the best way is word of mouth.”