What on earth is Gua Sha and will it make a difference to my skin?
Staring at our faces in video meetings, for hours on end, has women obsessing over every perceived flaw and wrinkle of their Zoom-face. This has spawned a boom in procedures and plastic surgery, but here at TNMA, we prefer to tackle the problem less invasively and so, we’ve been investigating the benefits of facial Gua Sha.
Gua Sha (pronounced gwa-sa) literally means to scrape sand. When applying the technique you can sometimes feel a sensation similar to ‘grit’ underneath the layers of skin. It began as a technique in ancient Chinese medicine where tools such as ceramic spoons were ‘scraped’ along the body to treat illness. On the face, it was usually used to relieve fevers, which is how many of my Chinese friends remember their grandmothers using the technique at home.
Today, we want to see a rosy glow on the face, not the deep red markings found in Gua Sha for the body. Dr. Paige Yang, doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and founder of Yang Face gave us the background, ‘In the 1800s, Empress Dowager Cixi of China popularised Chinese facial tools when she noticed their aesthetic benefit. The techniques have evolved over time from stronger strokes to longer, slower strokes.’ These strokes are used to lift or release facial muscles and fasciae, and increase circulation to the face – which gets blood, oxygen and nutrients to the skin. ‘As we age, our skin loses collagen,’ says Amrit Singh, Registered Acupuncturist and CEO of 6Babe Beauty, ‘The more blood and nutrients you get to the face, the healthier the tissues will be.’
When I googled ‘Gua Sha tools’, I was overwhelmed with the variety of shapes and stone materials like amethyst, rose quartz, obsidian, blue sodalite and amber resin. Amrit says, ‘Jade is the traditional stone used in Gua Sha, largely because it has cultural significance to the Chinese,’ and jade is hard-wearing. Unless crystal energy is your thing, it is not worth obsessing over the properties your tool material may impart. From an environmental perspective, however, you may prefer to choose more abundantly available materials such as quartz, which will be less mining-intensive and also more reasonably priced.
The Tools and Technique
Set aside about 15-20 minutes so you are not rushing and can reap the self-care benefits, however, if you are crunched for time, Amrit suggests just concentrating on a particular area of tension such as around the eyes, jaw-line or neck and do the whole face next time.
It is important to keep the larger tools almost flat to the skin when lifting, even ‘though the temptation is to use the tool edge. Use your opposite hand to hold or ‘anchor’ the skin from the point where the stroke begins. Repeat each stroke 4-6 times and Amrit recommends that you hold the lift for a second or two, at the end of each stroke.
Start by prepping your skin:
Step 1 Prepare your face and neck by cleansing thoroughly so you are not pressing bacteria and surface dirt into your skin.
Step 2 (optional) Use a water-based spray, to help the tools ‘glide’ more easily over the skin. Garnier’s Skin Active Soothing Facial Mist with Rose Water is good for dry or sensitive skin. Pat the spray into your skin with the palms of your hand to absorb any nutrients from the mist itself.
Step 3 Start with a simple facial oil like The Ordinary’s 100% Organic Cold-pressed Rose Hip Seed Oil which is suitable for all skin types because it is light and has a super-delicate scent. Pour a few drops of facial oil into the palms of your hand, rub them together to warm and then pat the oil onto your face and neck.
A good quality stone will remain cool for a decent amount of time, but if you want to keep the refreshing coldness, just run the tool under a cold tap. It cools instantly and is much more convenient than keeping tools in the fridge. We’ve narrowed it down to the six most common Gua Sha tools and their particular benefits:
The Dolphin Wing
This tool offers simple contours to execute the fundamental stroke of the technique. The long curved edge is for holding. The inside long edge is great for lifting your cheeks and forehead, while the smaller curve at the end – with the dip in the middle – can be used along the jaw line, or throat. The pointed tip is for targeting areas of tension like the inner brow – a good all-rounder. Odacité’s Crystal Contour Gua Sha, from The Detox Market.
The Rectangular Notched Tool
According to Amrit, this is the basic Gua Sha tool most used in China. Again, the long curves are good for larger areas of the face. But the notch is excellent for cupping the jaw line and working into the muscles of a furrowed brow. The twin notches and curved corners are good for releasing tension and pressing on specific points. I found this tool easier to control becasue it is slightly smaller and lighter than some of the larger tools.
This is a great secondary tool. The flat paddle is for placing flat around the eye area – there should be no pulling on the skin inside the bone that orbits the eye. The pencil-like tip of the spoon is ideal for using along deep wrinkles in the forehead or marionette and frown lines. Amrit recommends using, short back-and-forth motions – like using an eraser – to ‘erase’ deeper lines and work into tough muscles like the junction at the corner of your mouth. It is also ideal for ‘feathering’ – light, one way strokes – along the brow line. I preferred to use this tool for more targeted work because it felt more intuitive to use.
For deeper or more complex work, I recommend a richer oil like BySarah’s Organic Facial Oil. It is a divine mix of six oils including sweet almond, apricot and argan that give it a delicious nutty scent. It left my skin plush and it has great staying power for full facial work as well as along the neck, forehead and scalp.
It is especially suited when using more advanced tools like the following:
Similar to the Dolphin Wing, this tool has a large area for contour work, but its thinness is better for the ‘scraping’ work and the pointier tips are excellent for working on pressure points. If you suffer from sinus congestion, Dr Yang has a wonderful technique for using this tool to help relieve sinus pressure and her site also has tutorials HERE for a selection of other Gua Sha tools. This shape takes a little getting used to, but isn’t difficult to master with some practice.
The Toothed Tool
Wildling Beauty calls this tool the Empress Stone because it is like the Swiss Army knife of Gua Sha tools. Again, the long curve is for holding, but the wider scooped side is ideal for working out tension at the nape of the neck, lifting the throat area and hugging the jaw. The flat side still works for all the traditional lifting, but what I most love about this tool is the ‘teeth’ along the flat edge. As you can see from Wildling’s video HERE, the teeth are good for a small back-and-forth vibrating movement along tense fasciae, particularly between the ear and jaw line where we hold a lot of tension. And the same motion works along the hairline and into your scalp to increase circulation to the hair follicles. Remember, even though it may be tempting to press harder, all strokes should be gentle.
Jade face rollers existed in ancient Chinese beauty but may or may not be considered a Gua Sha tool – depending on who you ask. Many of us have one and it is ideal for use around the eye area, because it doesn’t pull the skin when rolling over it. This tool is good for puffiness around the eyes, thinner skin as we age, and is ideal for the light pressure needed for lymphatic drainage.
My big concern was, would I see a difference and how long would it take? Amrit says, ‘If you stretch your body every day for 15 minutes, you will definitely see a difference. It is the same for your face.’ A week in, I woke up to a face that looked rested (despite never getting enough sleep), glowing and rosy. I couldn’t put my finger on what had changed, but I also couldn’t dispute that my face looked less lined and the skin hadn’t looked so healthy in ages. I, for one, am a Gua Sha convert.
Even more Gua Sha:
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Alexia Economou is a design and culture journalist, and regular TNMA contributor @thedesignfeedTW.