When it feels like you’ve tried every drugstore remedy, every derm-prescribed cream, and every high-end potion available, it’s only natural to be curious about the treatments alternative medicine can offer. Acupuncture, the ancient Chinese medicine practice of inserting hair-thin stainless steel needles into key points along the body, is one alternative treatment growing more and more popular for cosmetic concerns like acne.
“Traditional Chinese medicine concepts believe that a healthy body will naturally decelerate the progression of aging, both internally and externally,” says Ansgar Lee, licensed acupuncturist and founder of LES Acupuncture. “Each area of the face corresponds to different organs in our body, which gives us clues to tailor the treatment. For example, dark circles under the eyes can signify subpar functioning of the kidney and adrenal glands.”
Here’s everything you need to know about acupuncture and acne.
Facial acupuncture could help acne by addressing underlying causes like hormonal imbalances.
Acupuncture aims to take a look at what’s going on underneath your skin.“Everything that manifests on your skin is a reflection of other health and wellness imbalances that are affecting your overall health,” explains Shari Auth, co-founder of WTHN, an acupuncture and wellness studio in NYC, and doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine. She explains that “acupuncture works by treating these underlying issues, such as weak digestion or hormonal imbalance, which means treating the root cause for what is going on with your skin.”
If your gut is imbalanced, for example, traditional Chinese Medicine would say that’s associated with “dampness.” Just like when something is actually damp, it “creates an accumulation of moisture and inhibits free flow and evaporation in the environment,” Internal dampness, Auth explains, “will manifest similarly in our body, causing stagnation and impaired circulation in the body. With dampness, there is almost always a component of spleen and digestive system dysfunction, which reflects the importance of gut health for skin disorders.”
From an Eastern perspective, “acne is commonly caused by the presence of ‘dampness’ and ‘heat’ in the body, which will lead to the accumulation of fluids under the skin and redness,” explains Jessica Klein, master of science in Oriental medicine and lead acupuncturist at Area 25, an acupuncture studio in NYC. .
Heat, on the other hand, “is active and rises in nature.” In relation to our skin, Klein notes, “this is most often related to stress and hormonal imbalances that can cause redness and inflammation.” Acupuncture, Klein explains, helps to “resolve the dampness, clear the heat, and nourish the tissue of the affected area.”
How does facial acupuncture actually work?
The philosophy behind Chinese medicine is that everything has to be in perfect balance to be able to work at its optimum level. So, any time there’s a “traffic jam” that stops that flow, it’s going to transpire in inefficiencies elsewhere (in this case, your skin). “The Chinese discovered these point functions through observation and noticed that different points elicited specific therapeutic effects,” says Auth. Poking these areas with tiny needles is thought to activate a “response in the body that triggers the body to redistribute these influx of ‘resources’ as needed to restore balance back in the body.” “
Here’s how an acupuncturist determines what is causing different types of acne.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the region of your face where you’re breaking out (think: your chin vs. your cheeks) can be an indicator of the root cause, explains Klein. For example, for cystic acne that is red, swollen, and painful, Auth notes that acupuncture can help because it is a “natural anti-inflammatory and can help with calming redness, and promote faster healing.” Acne around the chin, jaw, and mouth is often connected to hormonal imbalance or stress, and can flare up monthly, triggered by periods, pregnancy, or conditions like PCOS. Auth notes, acupuncture can “help regulate underlying hormonal imbalances that cause acne to flare up.”
Finally, when it comes to blackheads and whiteheads, Auth explains that these can be linked to toxins and phlegm in the body, which acupuncture can help reduce. “Too much sebum production can block up our skin follicles and is also often a major underlying cause of blackheads and whiteheads,” she says. “In Chinese medicine, we focus on using acupuncture points that help the skin self-regulate its sebum production in a healthy way.”
Dermatologists view acupuncture as a supplementary treatment.
Dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD, says accupuncture can be a way to help mitigate stress, and stress can exacerbate acne. While she turns first to Western treatment modalities, she also says “I often advise my patients to find their ‘zen zone’ in hopes that stress reduction will reduce acne and other skin inflammation.”
There have been some studies that support the use of acupuncture in treating acne—at least as a supplement to other treatments. In a study comparing acupuncture with prescription retinoids for acne (viaminate and tretinoin), for example, it was found that a reduction of acne lesions by 30 or 50 percent did not differ depending on which treatment was received.
Dermatologist Morgan Rabach, MD notes that, while this is quite remarkable, the study doesn’t explain its full methodology—which usually means the results have a large caveat and therefore should be taken with a grain of salt.
More studies will be required to really quantify how acupuncture can reduce acne, Dr. Rabach adds. Though she primarily recommends Western treatments, which she believes can treat and cure acne, “I am not against acupuncture, especially for people who will not take traditional medications,” Dr. Rabach says. Dr. Gohara is open to her patients experimenting, too: “You don’t have to limit yourself to one form of healing; try both.”
One thing to know: Facial acupuncture will require some commitment.
Going to an acupuncture appointment is a little bit different than going to your standard medical doctor appointment. You’ll have a (pretty in-depth) conversation with your acupuncturist about almost every element of your life—from what you eat, to how you’re feeling, and sleeping. They’ll also take your pulse—and have you stick out your tongue so they can examine it (just a heads-up), and come up with a treatment plan based on this evaluation.
A first time appointment will usually run around an hour and a half and can set you back anywhere between $75 and $250 per session, depending on the practitioner. (Some insurance policies cover acupuncture, so it’s worth speaking to your provider first.)
Acupuncture, like so many other things, requires consistency, so you’ll have to go for a while to see results. “Usually, an acupuncture session once a week for one to three months can lead to some powerful results,” Auth says.
This article is part of Women’s Health 2020 Acne Week. Click here for more.
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