If you discover the heavily trafficked gua sha hashtag on Instagram, you’ll be lost in a feed featuring smooth, pore-less faces, not only unmarked but supposedly de-puffed and contoured. In place are elegant facial rollers and flat, grooved tools made of jade, rose quartz, and other divinely polished stones—the practice associated with pain now rebranded as a soothing, meditative, and even luxurious experience.
Why was I just now hearing about these “ancient Chinese beauty tools,” as they’re frequently billed online? Was facial gua sha—which has been put through the woo-woo wellness spin cycle, really the chosen beauty routine of ancient Chinese princesses—another piece of internet lore? “Well, that is false. It’s marketing,” explains Ping Zhang, DOM, L.Ac, a New York–based traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) guru and a pioneering acupuncturist in the field of facial rejuvenation. “Gua sha was originally used for two conditions: the abrupt, immediate, sudden collapse of the body from heatstroke, and seasonal diseases, like a cold virus.” Zhang goes on to describe how traditionally, gua sha could be performed with whatever tool was on hand—an animal bone or horn, a soup spoon, a coin—and was often used as far back as the Yuan Dynasty to revive farmers who collapsed with exhaustion from working under the hot sun.
“The facial benefits of gua sha were discovered by mistake,” claims Cecily Braden, a holistic esthetician and New York–based spa educator who has spent her career importing traditional Eastern beauty and wellness treatments and translating them for a Western audience. As acupuncturists used facial pressure points to treat ailments in other parts of the body, they stumbled upon their facial rejuvenation effects as well. “They had this aha! moment when they saw that wrinkles were going away, too,” says Braden. In her popular Gua Sha Facial Fusion protocol, outward, upward strokes of a flat S-shaped nephrite jade stone work to help manually drain sluggish lymph—stagnant fluid that can cause puffiness and inflammation—to, as she puts it, “kick our bodies’ natural cleansing system into gear.”
At the Paris-based atelier of acupuncturist Elaine Huntzinger, gua sha facials were one of the most sought-after appointments during the spring collections. “My whole face feels different, like, all of the tension is gone in my jaw,” Eva Chen, the director of fashion partnerships at Instagram and a vocal Huntzinger supporter, posted pre-Balenciaga. Canada-born with family roots in Hong Kong, Huntzinger was raised on TCM. After her mother’s death, she found herself drawn back to the home remedies she grew up with, driven partially by a desire to find a solution for her own eczema, which had not responded to cortisone or antibiotics. Her skin finally cleared up when she started to address her diet and lifestyle, but also her grief. “In Chinese medicine, you learn the root of what’s causing your imbalance with emotional issues,” she says. She brings these lessons to her treatments, which begin with a 20-minute consultation to determine physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
This emphasis on a top-to-toe approach is a nod to a somewhat obvious philosophy that is only beginning to gain traction in the beauty industry: “The skin is a map for what’s going on in the body,” explains Katie Woods, a Bay Area–based esthetician and the owner of Ritual SF, a San Francisco face-massage studio offering bespoke facials that incorporate gua sha tools and techniques. Before even entering the treatment room, one has to fill out two pages of paperwork covering everything from a menstrual cycle to bowel movements, a line of questioning that is more comprehensive than many conversations to be had with a primary-care physician. The customized experience begins with an edible honey-and-berry mask that Woods prepares on the spot—“Your skin loved that,” she says as she wipes it off—and includes a deeply relaxing gua sha interlude administered with cooling spoons and stone tools of all shapes and sizes.
When one catches a glimpse of oneself post-treatment, the face is bright and clean, its natural lines defined as if the angle of the jaw and the plane of the cheek have been sculpted anew. And one feels oddly drained—in a good way. “You can do it once a week,” says Portland, Oregon–based licensed acupuncturist Beth Griffing Russell, speaking to a big part of #guasha’s 21st-century viral appeal: Unlike with Botox, these results can be replicated at home. Griffing Russell emphasizes that home gua sha enthusiasts should not neglect the neck. “Flick up,” she instructs, moving her gua sha tool from one ear to another and around the base of the skull to stimulate the muscle that connects the back of your head “to the wrinkles in your forehead.”
Then there is Oakland Foot Health Center, a walk-in storefront not dissimilar to the medical-massage clinics in China serving working-class men on their lunch breaks, aunties, grandmas, and others. “Gua sha has saved many peasants’ lives,” a masseuse tells an interviewer in Mandarin as she scrapes their back during an hour of body acupressure with gua sha, which goes for a modest $60. When asked what her tool is made of, she chuckles. “It’s supposed to be ox horn, but it looks like plastic to me.”
So why would someone pay $285 to visit Crystal Cave LA, a “healing hut” in Santa Monica where Julie Civiello Polier performs her much-blogged about “shamanic” gua sha facials three days a week? Described as “a meditative journey and intuitive reading,” the whole concept makes one laugh before arrival. “I love how gua sha gives us a tool that is charged by the person using it and the person receiving it,” Civiello Polier—a petite blonde former actor—tells people of her popular treatment’s purported energy exchange.
But when Civiello Polier places crystals on one’s various chakras—including an amethyst at the feet that she claims “wants to go home” with one—you do feel something, a deep radiating warmth that allows your overthinking mind to let go. As she performs the facial gua sha, at one point even sticking her fingers inside one’s mouth for a deep, tension-relieving buccal massage, she takes long audible breaths that lull you into an ASMR-like trance. Afterward, the skin does not look totally transformed. “There’s a limitation to the results you can get with gua sha,” confirms Julia Tzu, M.D., a clinical assistant professor at NYU’s Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology, who recommends fillers, such as Restylane Lyft, for longer-lasting tightening.
These days, the craving for a more holistic conception of beauty is very real. I remember reading something Huntzinger wrote when describing her work. “These days, society is so yang, so active. With the advent of social media, the yang has been overstimulated to such a degree, and the yin has not been nourished,” she explains. Maybe, in a paradoxical twist, #guasha has risen precisely from our innate desire to restore focus on the yin—the darker, interior, reflective parts of ourselves.
“People are not just getting a skin-deep treatment,” Zhang confirms of what she sees as the technique’s actual rejuvenating benefits. She slips into Chinese for a moment for emphasis, and you notice that in place of “antiaging” she uses the words yang sheng—a phrase that is heard often from older aunts and grandmothers when telling one to take care. After all, yang sheng as simply utilitarian: It translates more directly to “nourishing life.”