Warning: Do not Google “gua sha.” The results will yield scary photos showing beet red human backs. This is the down-and-dirty version of gua sha massage, a practice of Chinese medicine that predates acupuncture and translates directly to “scraping.” Therapists use a flat handheld tool, which varies in shape and is typically made from horn, yak bone, or crystal. They apply medium to heavy pressure while raking it across the skin in an attempt to increase blood flow and stimulate the lymphatic system. Sounds a little rough, right? When done properly it can actually feel incredible, especially on the face—though done more gently, of course. In fact, gua sha facials and at-home gua sha tools are becoming more common than ever, especially after a year that saw the popularity of jade rollers skyrocket. That being said, this isn’t as easy as sticking the thing in the fridge and softly rolling it over your skin.
“Gua sha is so different when used on the face if you’ve ever had the traditional massage,” explains New York-based gua sha facial specialist Britta Plug. “We’re not doing that vigorous back-and-forth motion and causing a lot of friction. . . . It’s a more gentle glide and a slight pull on the face—it’s all about directionality with this tool and following the meridians of the body,” she says, referencing the life force paths that are a cornerstone of Chinese medicine.
Plug has been using gua sha tools in her holistic facial practice for the last three years, helping clients relieve nearly every skin condition from rosacea to dryness and adult acne. She even says she has clients who claim that her gua sha treatments have cured their TMJ. “With this type of treatment, we’re moving lymph, which carries away toxins or in this case, blackheads, and stimulating the chi or prana,” Plug says. “It tones the muscles and firms the skin, and, plus, it’s deeply relaxing. This is one of the biggest benefits of gua sha because when the client is receiving it, they get to really sink into that parasympathetic nervous system.”
While jade rollers are soothing and can certainly help with depuffing and promote skin elasticity, gua sha goes deeper. As Plug always reminds her clients, though, the results are cumulative. “When we start working with more massage-based work, it’s like exercising,” she says. “You can’t go to the gym once and get a six-pack, but if you’re really going regularly, you’re going to notice a difference.” If a once or twice weekly commitment isn’t in the cards, Plug says that trying it out at home is fine, so long as you know what you’re doing. “Everyone who wants to do this at home needs to take a workshop and learn how to use the gua sha tool successfully.”