— Ever since natural childbirth made its way onto my list of accomplishments, I have a new relationship with pain. The injuries of everyday life — scrapes, cuts, burns and bruises — barely elicit more than a wince from me these days. Bikini wax? No sweat. Slicing a finger while chopping garlic? Please. But when the first needle began its short journey from my acupuncturist’s hand to my face, I found myself wondering how tough I really was.
I was a seasoned acupuncture recipient, having willingly — and enthusiastically — accepted the thin needles between my toes, on the top of my head, across my stomach and pretty much everywhere in between for years. Acupuncture had helped soothe my chronic back pain, regulate a wonky menstrual cycle and manage bucketloads of stress. And I didn’t doubt that the ancient Chinese treatment could take on laugh lines and crow’s-feet. So why was my heart beating so fast as the first needle nestled into one of my stubborn forehead wrinkles?
‘I trusted this woman with my face’
I had been tipped off to the wonders of facial acupuncture in 2004, but it had remained on my life’s to-do list — next to bungee jumping and visiting the Great Wall of China — until this summer. And though my stomach was gently flip-flopping with nerves, I was excited to be lying on a table in Beth Hooper’s softly lit office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Hooper and her partner, Laura Kauffmann, are the acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist masterminds behind She Essential Beauty, a Chinese medicine-inspired line of beauty treatments that I had been applying to my parched skin since my son was in utero. I trusted this woman with my face.
The plan was to receive 10 sessions — I squeezed in six — that would focus on the spots that reminded me, every time I looked in the mirror, that I wasn’t 25 anymore. I am 34. And those spots make themselves clearly known as an expanse of wrinkles across my forehead, rapidly deepening lines next to my mouth and two significant dents between my brows — the “mommy lines,” as Hooper, a mother of two, calls them.
I believe in aging gracefully, but I don’t believe in aging without a fight. And if there’s a way to engage in that fight without the synthetic assistance of wrinkle fillers like Restylane and Botox or without undergoing cosmetic surgery, I want to know now — before things start sagging and crinkling up permanently. This is what I told myself as tiny needle after tiny needle (facial acupuncture needles are much smaller than those used on the rest of the body) was inserted into my face.
“I think it is important for people to know that while it isn't a pain-free treatment, the needles only hurt a little and just on insertion,” explains Hooper. “It is a low-pain treatment.” Having recently subjected my face to more than 30 needles a session, I agree with Hooper’s assessment. There can be a slight pinching feeling when needles are inserted into certain areas of the face — the upper laugh line is particularly tender — but the sensation quickly subsides. And once the ache dissipated I was left with a warm, almost tingly feeling rolling across my cheeks and brow.
Does the pain result in gain?
Though there is still no definitive research on the benefits of facial acupuncture, those tingles could be the result of an increase in qi (energy) and xue (blood) to the area. When I asked Hooper to tell me more about how it really works, she explained that the needles also cause a “micro-irritation” under the skin, which helps to reduce wrinkles. Even with all that qi, blood and irritation, acupuncture — like most natural therapies — is subtle. This is not a face-lift or a shot of Botox to the brow. After each session, my skin would be notably brighter, but it was difficult to see a clear reduction in the intensity of my wrinkles.
Most facial acupuncturists recommend a series of 10 successive sessions (every week or twice a week) with monthly follow-up sessions for maintenance. My schedule rarely allowed for weekly sessions — I was on the every-other-week plan — but the one time I went two weeks in a row, I noticed that the wrinkles in my forehead, etched there from more than 30 years of brow arching, were lighter, less significant somehow. And my mommy lines were no longer the focal point of my face, seeming to have softened back into that place above my nose.
Facial acupuncture costs around $125-$200 a session and should be administered by an acupuncturist who not only has training in this area, but who has graduated with a master’s degree from an accredited Oriental medicine school and passed the national board examinations. Hooper recommends finding such a practitioner through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. And if you find that acupuncturist, but are still freaked out by the idea of needles in your face, take it slow and begin below the chin. “For people trying for the first time, I’d recommend that they start with body acupuncture and then add facial acupuncture,” she says. “You can also ask the practitioner to use fewer needles in the initial treatment to see how you react.”
Please note: Neither Marisa Belger nor TODAYshow.com has been compensated by the manufacturers or their representatives for her comments or selection of products reviewed in this column.