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What is Cosmetic Acupuncture?
Essential Takeaways
Like with other acupuncture treatments, cosmetic acupuncture involves the gentle placement of small needles into the upper dermis of the skin. These needles are placed at specific points believed to activate energetic channels that run throughout the body. By placing needles along these meridians, practitioners are thought to move and create energy called qi (or sometimes chi).

What is Cosmetic Acupuncture?

What is cosmetic acupuncture? Is it better than facials? Or Botox? How can it help my skin as I get closer to 40?

I had questions, and I needed answers. So, during an incredibly stressful season in need of maximum self-care, I tried cosmetic acupuncture.

My main goal: improving the lines between my eyebrows and firming my jawline. My other goal: taking care of myself.

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How is cosmetic acupuncture different from traditional acupuncture?

Like with other acupuncture treatments, cosmetic acupuncture involves the gentle placement of small needles into the upper dermis of the skin. These needles are placed at specific points believed to activate energetic channels that run throughout the body. By placing needles along these meridians, practitioners are thought to move and create energy called qi (or sometimes chi).

Though acupuncture has been practiced for thousands of years, it’s only recently been embraced by Western medicine. Acupuncture has been shown to be effective in treating pain and nausea and may also be helpful for patients recovering from strokes.

Acupuncturist Melissa Durgin of Five Roads Acupuncture in Denver placed about a dozen needles in my forehead, the far sides of my face closer to my hairline, along my jaw, and in my decollage. She also added a few specialty needles called intradermal needles, which looked like tiny rings floating along the creeks of fine lines across my forehead.

When she placed needles in my ear muscles, I could immediately feel what I assumed others experienced after a facelift: the muscles just above my jawline felt like they formed a perfect sling to support my chin. I couldn’t tell if my jawline looked firmer as I was lying on the treatment table, but it certainly felt tighter.

Before and after photo of a woman's face getting cosmetic acupuncture.

After placing needles not only in my face but also my wrists, arches, shins, and other points, Durgin determined to be most supportive of improving my qi, I rested on the table for 15-20 minutes so the needles could work their magic.

How does cosmetic acupuncture work?

Cosmetic acupuncture doesn’t target the skin the same way as the topicals, and it isn't a one-to-one replacement for Botox. But it is an excellent (and chemical-free!) wrinkle reducer and collagen generator.

Durgin, who is a certified licensed acupuncturist with a Master of Science in Acupuncture (her credentials are LAc, BS, and MSAc), believes cosmetic acupuncture is "better than facials" for stimulating "the growth of new collagen in the lines and wrinkles of the face."

The biggest barrier to collagen production, aside from age, is stress. Collagen, as you smarties know, is what makes everything nice and tight. A lot of stress hormones impact circulation, leading to dull and flat-looking skin, and can also lead to flushing or redness.

“When you’re stressed out, your body doesn’t rebuild itself as efficiently,” explained Durgin. Sigh. I felt like “DJ Clenched Jaw,” spinning restless sleep records all night long and doing the dance of taming tension headaches each morning.

A woman getting cosmetic acupuncture with numerous needles placed.

Because Chinese medicine treats the whole person, and not just the exterior, several things work hand-in-hand: The needles spark collagen production; acupuncture encourages rest, relaxation, and leads to better sleep; and, in the Five Element type of acupuncture Durgin practices, we spent 30-40 minutes of each session talking about what was going on in my life.

This gave Durgin important information — my period symptoms were increasing in severity, and I was also chasing a possible PMDD diagnosis, my family was moving but was temporarily without housing and needed to “guest room surf” for at least a month, my husband hadn’t slept more than two hours a night in months, our finances were up in the air thanks to the First World problem of buying a house before selling our previous home—that helped her select additional points to target. It also gave me a tiny bit of stress release.

“A facial isn’t going to treat your whole system,” Durgin explained as she placed fewer needles than I expected, aimed a heat lamp at my always-cold feet, and told me to be gentle with myself until she returned 20 minutes later.

How long does it last?

Unlike chemical injections or fillers, cosmetic acupuncture isn’t intended to be a one-time, once-a-year, or quarterly undertaking. After an initial set of sessions scheduled in a row—similar to laser hair removal—patients move into a maintenance mode where appointments are spread farther out.

The number of initial sessions required varies depending on the client’s skin condition and skin type. For me, Durgin recommended an initial five sessions every other week. But her older clients with less elasticity and those with deeper lines should expect 10 weekly sessions to get their collagen production going.

After these initial sessions, patients should expect a maintenance session every 4-6 weeks, again depending on the individual’s skin, to keep the qi flowing and the collagen production going.

How to find a cosmetic acupuncture practitioner

Only people with training should be performing acupuncture, cosmetic or otherwise.

In many states, medical doctors (M.D.s) and doctors of osteopathy (D.O.s) can practice acupuncture without having received specialized training; this doesn’t mean every doctor using acupuncture doesn’t have the proper skills or investment of time. On the other hand, licensed acupuncturists have a minimum of 1,000 hours—and usually much more—in schooling and practical training. Colorado, where I live, requires acupuncturists be board certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

Learning the varying cosmetic acupuncture techniques requires the additional investment of time in specialized training. It’s not something someone without a background in Chinese medicine can learn in a weekend.

Preparing for cosmetic acupuncture

Durgin told me to come with a clean face, but that moisturizer and sunscreen were just fine. I’m not much of a makeup wearer, but Durgin tells her patients to just bring their makeup to put on afterward. Other than washing my face, there was very little I had to do ahead of time. I even sprung for a massage later in the day after one of my sessions.

“With fillers, you have to be careful,” said Durgin, “but not with acupuncture.” A quick search told me why: No matter if the filler is something naturally occurring like hyaluronic acid, or something tested on animals like Botox, lying face down or on the side of the face after an injection can cause the filler to migrate.

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Durgin did ask me how much water I consumed and how often I wore sunscreen. (The answer is “similar to that of a baby camel” and “basically every day” because I live at high altitudes, and not only is it dry as heck here, but we’re closer to the sun.) Unsurprisingly, water and sunscreen are essential to skin health and general well-being. Those who hydrate and slather on the good stuff will also see better results with their cosmetic acupuncture treatments.

Apparently, as someone still in her 30s, I’m the ideal age to start. Unlike Botox or other fillers, which typically are administered quarterly, cosmetic acupuncture should be kept up monthly. In this case it was included as part of a regular acupuncture treatment and, therefore even easier to justify as part of a monthly dose of good old self-care.

Durgin offers cosmetic acupuncture in part as a way to help people trick their brains into taking care of themselves because people will often pay more attention to how they look than how they feel. (See dermatologists everywhere telling people to wear sunscreen to avoid wrinkles because it works better than telling them to avoid cancer.)

Caring for your skin after receiving cosmetic acupuncture

1. Drink water and other healthy habits.
As with any care that targets the whole body, bumping up hydration afterward is a must. Because Durgin treats the whole person, she reminded me that much of what impacts our beauty comes from other healthy habits: Getting sleep, drinking water, eating breakfast, not labeling foods as good or bad but instead enjoying a mix of foods, upping nutrient-dense foods in times of stress or trauma to the body or to the mind, eating with the seasons. She personally has also begun avoiding alcohol, which she thinks has an impact on how she feels overall and how she looks, too.

2. Baby your skin.
If you’re prone to bruising, you can take arnica following a session or use a topical gel or cream to treat any bruising afterward. There are four main blood vessels and dozens of capillaries across the face—this is why head wounds bleed like crazy—so some bruising is always possible. Over the initial five sessions I spent with Durgin, I only had one incident of tiny discoloration, a baby bruise I named “Bruce” that was gone within 48 hours.

3. Stick to the basics.
A simple skincare routine, like a Vitamin C serum followed by moisturizer and sunscreen, is the best foundation for boosting treatment results. Vitamin C helps you make collagen and has benefits when used both topically and consumed in food or quality supplements. Giving the body a daily dose of Vitamin C is as simple as eating your veggies or having two cups of hibiscus tea.

Other Tips
You can’t do cosmetic acupuncture if you’ve had Botox recently because you don't want to spread it around. People who have had facelifts must wait more than a year before trying cosmetic acupuncture because of the impacts to blood flow and scar tissue.

Final thoughts

After the initial five sessions I was hooked. I slept better and felt like I was doing a little something to take care of myself during a time when I could barely wash my face or brush my teeth. The main improvements I noticed were to the texture and glow of my skin. My forehead lines were softer and my jawline was sharper. And, even though many of my normal skincare routines fell away, including, cough cough, being good about wearing sunscreen, I somehow didn’t look as rough as I felt.

Before and after photo of a woman's forehead getting cosmetic acupuncture.

Other cosmetic treatments like facials or micro-needling, or procedures like Botox or fillers, can be confidence boosting and feeling good about yourself is a key component of mental health. What I loved about trying cosmetic acupuncture though—and important to those of us embracing vegan, clean beauty—is that, though it’s a more subtle means of doing a cosmetic treatment, it can also treat other underlying physical processes.

My skin, my sleep, and my cortisol levels are all grateful to have sold my former house, finished moving, and for having added the new tool of cosmetic acupuncture to my self-care toolbox to support me through the stress of it all.

Leah M. Charney (she/her) is sassy yet classy and is always seeking a beauty routine to match. She delights in both the science and aesthetics of the clean beauty movement.

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