What Is Gua Sha? Plus, 3 Tools to Give You Glowing, Sculpted Skin
This ancient method boosts circulation for more radiant skin.
Believe it or not, the technique of gua sha— purported to treat the body from heat stroke and seasonal illnesses in traditional Chinese medicine—is as old as the Ming Dynasty (translation: it's been around for centuries). Even though it's nothing new, it's recently taken the skincare spotlight, favored as a manual skin-smoothing and muscle-relaxing practice in modern cities from New York to Paris.
Having heard bits about the magic of gua sha, I was eager to learn more about the benefits of this ancient holistic treatment method. By reaching out to top practitioners, I quickly discovered why this skincare practice is much more than a passing trend—and why it deserves a spot in your (and my) skincare routine.
What is gua sha?
If we're to break it up word by word, gua means 'to scrape' and sha refers to 'sand or small pebbles,' explains Emily Grace Siy, L.Ac, a New York-based acupuncturist and longtime gua sha practitioner, who grew up with grandparents who used the technique as a home remedy. “Marks left by gua sha often resemble areas of tiny red pebbles," she adds—which makes sense, given the name. But don’t let that scare you: While body massages with the tool can leave marks and bruising, facial gua sha is a super light and pain-free treatment.
Aiming to move "energy," also known as qi or chi in traditional Chinese medicine, gua sha treats the body from the inside out by using a contoured tool—which was originally made from an animal bone or soup spoon—to gently scrape the skin with short or long strokes. The Chinese believe that stagnant energy causes inflammation, and that the removal of it can improve circulation and health. “By scraping a certain area, we are able to move the qi and blood so circulation is improved,” says Paris-based acupuncturist and facial rejuvenation specialist Elaine Huntzinger, L.Ac, who has been practicing gua sha for over 15 years.
Gua sha health benefits
Gua sha has been said to improve body aches, and David Colbert, MD, founder and head physician of New York Dermatology Group is a fan of the technique for pain relief. “Gua Sha is something I actually have done on myself on a regular basis to reduce joint and muscle pain from surfing and biking." Research shows that the procedure can improve microcirculation in the areas applied, boosting blood flow to those parts of the body or skin, which is key in improving oxygen delivery to cells, points out Dr. Colbert.
It can also do a world of good for your overall health. “Gua sha works on the lymphatic system, helping move [excess] fluid out of the tissue into the lymph nodes," says Huntzinger. “Blood flow and lymph go hand in hand, so without proper circulation, nourishing the cells and clearing out waste to create space for new cells is impacted, and your organs and immune system will suffer," explains Huntzinger. In short, gua sha aids your lymphatic system, which aids in supporting the body’s functions. While not everyone in the medical community is a fan of the concept of lymphatic drainage as a holistic practice, some doctors like Dr. Colbert can appreciate its massaging and relaxing effects.
While gua sha done on the body can leave skin bruised and red, facial gua sha is done with a much lighter hand—and still offers a variety of skincare perks. “Facial gua sha is used to smooth the skin, relax the muscles in the face, and draw healthy circulation up to the head, face and neck," notes Siy. Not to mention, facial gua sha increases elasticity, de-puffs skin, minimizes fine lines, and clears tension in the muscles, which results in a more sculpted face, adds Huntzinger.
According to Siy, facial gua sha should be done with very light pressure, making it generally safe for most. "When doing gua sha at home, make sure you avoid any areas with a rash and broken skin to prevent further irritation," Siy tells Health. "Also make sure you're washing your tools with soap and water before and after each use."
If you have facial implants, injections or fillers, yous should avoid doing gua sha at home to prevent any potential injuries. See a licensed practitioner instead, letting them know about your implants or fillers so they can apply the optimal pressure for you.
How to use a gua sha tool on your face
If you're wanting to add facial gua sha into your current skincare routine, experts recommend using the tool three times a week to lift and sculpt the face—and point out that it's best practiced in the evening before bed. “It’s easier for lymph to drain because you’re lying down, you have less stress, [since] you’re resting," explains Huntzinger. Also, know that you don’t need to apply a ton of pressure or push very hard, she adds.
First apply your favorite facial oil. While Huntzinger likes Vintner's Daughter Active Botanical Serum ($185; detoxmarket.com)—a hydrating and anti-aging skin food that's enriched with botanicals and potent Vitis Vinifera seed oil (a.k.a. grapeseed oil)—you can score a top-rated, vitamin-packed grapeseed oil on Amazon for just $15 if you're on a budget. Then, move the gua sha stone in outward and upward motions using light to medium pressure, ensuring the tool is always flat against the skin. Start with the neck and continue your way to the jaw, under-eye area, brow bone, and, lastly, the forehead.
Still wondering if this is the right holistic treatment for your skin? Experts recommend consulting your dermatologist—and if you're in need of deeper reduction of inflammation, speak to a gua sha practitioner.
Expert-approved gua sha facial tools
Having experienced this ancient ritual at the hands of Huntzinger herself, I can attest to gua sha’s mind and body restorative effects. Arriving at her central Paris studio, I felt drained and lackluster, my face puffy from a poor night’s sleep. I settled into the treatment bed and eagerly allowed my skin to be caressed and cooled by the energizing effects of jade rollers, followed by a cleansing bath in a variety of oils. After an hour-long session, I noticed that I had a more sculpted-looking face and radiant complexion. And the lightness in my step was an added bonus!
If you're looking to implement gua sha into your skincare routine at home, Huntziger and Siy use the below gua sha tools in their practice to give their clients glowing skin.
Herbivore Botanicals Rose Quartz Gua Sha
A favorite of Huntziger, this tool comes in two shapes—a square (shown above) and a heart—for a truly custom gua sha experience. Huntziger and Siy both love rose quartz for its healing properties and because it's thought to open the heart and increase self-love. Not only does this gua sha tool help to reduce puffiness, improve fine lines, and ease muscle tension, but it also helps your facial oils and moisturizers better absorb into the skin when massaged with it.
The Lanshin Pro
Siy's pick, this gua sha tool is made of black nephrite jade or hetian jade (mined from the Kunlun Mountains of Xinjiang), which is valued for its supportive healing properties in traditional Chinese medicine. Acupuncturist and facial gua sha expert Sandra Lanshin Chiu created this tool to essentially be the "swiss army knife" of gua sha—meaning it's a single, multi-faceted tool that you can use to sculp or smooth skin, thanks to the combination of curves and soft edges.
CJB Pro Dark Green Nephrite
Designed by New York-based esthetician Cecily Braden, this flat gua sha tool is Huntzinger's go-to at the moment. Made from dark jade, Huntzinger is a fan of the density of the material to better aid in fluid movement. "The different angles, combed side and the weight of the tool make it easy to use," she says. Plus, the stylish edges help the tool to easily navigate the many contours of the face and neck for sculpting.