Gua Sha: This Ancient Practice Is Having a Modern Moment—Here’s Why
By now, you may have seen the Instagram posts—or numerous articles—touting radiant skin thanks to a contoured jade tool and a facial “trend” called gua sha. But gua sha is much more than just a trend in skincare, and its benefits go beyond just skin deep. We’re taking a closer look into the history of this ancient healing practice to learn how it works, why it’s enjoying a resurgence and what you should look for in a gua sha practitioner. Get ready to glow from the inside out!
What Is Gua Sha?
While gua sha seems to be the facial practice du jour, the practice has an ancient history and proven benefits—not just for glowing skin, but for the body as a whole. As often is the case with alternative healing modalities, the practice treats the body holistically, ensuring health not just on the surface of the skin, but also throughout the body’s systems.
“Gua sha dates back to the Paleolithic age, with the use of stone tools,” says Christina Morris, an acupuncturist, herbalist, reflexologist and the founder of Element Natural Healing Arts in Brooklyn who has been practicing gua sha for more than 20 years. “Practicing gua sha is beautifully simple, requiring few ‘tools,’ but the underlying science is complex,” she says. “We are all familiar with the idea of pressing, mashing and massaging areas of our bodies that are tight with muscular tension, right? Initial gua sha practice used a stone to scrape across the skin to relieve pain and inflammation, simply by ‘working areas of tension.’”
While the term “gua sha” was not coined until later, Christina notes, the practice itself existed for centuries before it was named. And what’s in a name? “‘Gua’ means scrape and ‘sha’ means ‘sand,’” Christina explains. The name itself derives from the physical outcome gua sha creates, she continues. The scraping causes petechiae (blood spots) that look like purple or red sand on the skin.
“From a traditional Chinese medicine perspective,” Christina tells us, “gua sha creates friction to help clear ‘internal’ heat and stagnation, both which can lead to a multitude of inflammatory conditions such as respiratory conditions; muscular and joint aches and pain; rashes; and immune conditions, to name a few. Gua Sha supports the idea that friction creates circulation and good circulation leads to good health.”
This practice was also often used as part of acupuncture therapy as well as an integral part of herbal and traditional East Asian medicine, says Cecilia Wong, founder of Cecilia Wong Skincare, who learned gua sha at the age of 11 to help ease her mother’s muscle pain. “Raising the ‘sha,’”—or the small spotty bruising that releases blood within the subcutaneous tissue, Cecilia explains—“removes blood stagnation (lack of circulation), which is considered pathogenic in traditional East Asian medicine.”
Though its roots are in East Asia, gua sha is now practiced throughout the world to successfully treat myriad health conditions.
Implementing Gua Sha in Our Modern World
Gua sha may be an ancient healing technique, but there’s no doubting its surging popularity in our modern world. While social media has definitely helped garner exposure for this practice, the reasons so many people are drawn to it in 2019 seem to extend far beyond the reach of our smartphones.
“I think people are searching for alternatives to conventional pharmaceutical therapy,” Christina shares. “Medications of all kinds (pain medication or even cosmetic enhancers), either oral or topical, can have scary and long-term side effects. People are seeking good health, wanting to feel and look their best. If they can do it without ingesting medication or chemicals, then why not give it a try? More and more studies are demonstrating the positive effects gua sha can have on the connective tissue and the immune system.”
Cecilia agrees, citing the clean beauty movement as a major source of momentum behind gua sha’s popularity. “As beauty consumers in general have shifted toward healthier, natural, organic ingredients, they have also started seeking similar approaches to potential anti-aging treatments, and avoiding painful, expensive procedures,” she says. “People are catching on to the fact that while botox and fillers are highly sought after, they might not have the longest lasting results and come with many adverse side effects. Gua sha offers an alternative, natural and healthier method to maintaining younger looking skin. It has been shown to have great results, at an affordable cost, and with little downtime, which means more have been willing to try it.”
Practicing Gua Sha: Professional Services Vs. At-Home Treatment
With the rise in exposure of this practice, consumers are being inundated with emails and ads for products that promise to give them glowing skin with the sweep of a jade stone. But as with any kind of skincare practice, due diligence is crucial in seeking out a reputable gua sha practitioner, as well as any at-home tools to help boost skin radiance.
If consumers are looking for a facial, Cecilia strongly advises seeking out a professional. “A gua sha facial isn’t just about sweeping the tool on the face, it’s about stimulating key meridian points,” she explains. “A professional who has mastered the technique will produce the most visible results, so ensure yours is knowledgable. If you are pregnant, this is even more so, as there are certain points that shouldn’t be stimulated. The amount of pressure applied when performing gua sha is important, as the face has several sensitive nerves just under the skin.”
Christina concurs, saying that adequate training—specifically in gua sha facials—is a must. And for medical and physical ailments, she says, “Most acupuncturists learn gua sha as part of their training. I’d advise everyone to research a practitioner under consideration. Ask questions. Make sure all practitioners are properly licensedin their field of expertise. Acupuncturists should be licensed or certified in acupuncture and estheticians should have a license in esthetics. There are many practitioners out there working without licenses,” Christina warns.
As for those at-home tools promising that coveted gua sha glow? “It’s better to have a professional perform a gua sha facial, as you get to relax, get a sense of the proper technique and experience optimal results,” says Cecilia. “However, once you feel comfortable with the technique, you can also do it at home to maintain results. It’s easy and simple to follow as long as you don’t overdo it.”
Christina agrees, saying that while doing gua sha is a nice addition to an at-home skincare routine, having a professional perform the practice until you become familiar with how it should—or shouldn’t—feel is key.
“I do recommend having a professional treatment just to get a sense of what it should feel like, followed by occasional tune-ups by a professional based on the skin type and the client’s goals,” Christina advises. “This can all be discussed with a properly trained therapist. When doing gua sha at home, there are definitely cautions: Don’t gua sha over broken skin, raised blemishes, and moles; don’t use it if you are on blood thinners; don’t use it if you have a cold sore or other viral infection on the nose, face or mouth.” And, she cautions, the gua sha tool is hard and can cause bruising to the face and neck, so be aware of pressure.
What You Can Expect from Gua Sha
So, can an ancient Eastern healing practice meet the needs of Westerners constantly seeking a quick fix? It seems that gua sha can measure up to even the most discerning—and demanding—of consumers, offering both immediate and long term results.
“Depending on the technique of the professional, results can be experienced immediately!” Cecilia says. “It’s good to remember that gua sha should not be thought of as a one-time thing. It’s important to continue getting it done on a regular basis for long lasting results. I like to think of it as a workout for your face!”
Because of the increased circulation to the face, Christina says, skin often appears tighter and brighter. “Overall effects are cumulative,” she shares. And, she adds, “Lifestyle can also play a big role in maintaining skin health post-gua sha facials. Adequate hydration, limiting inflammatory foods and ensuring proper detoxification through bowel movements, urination and sweating are all important.”
Lastly, Cecilia reminds consumers, “Gua sha is not just for the face. Though it seems that way due to its rise in popularity in the skincare and beauty industries, its main benefit is improving health through lymphatic drainage. It can be used on the arms, legs, chest and neck to relieve pain or tension, and increase circulation to reduce inflammation.”
And that’s an ancient practice we can definitely see in our very near future.
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