Whether it’s a seaweed-based cream or a tofu-rich diet, the beauty secrets of the Far East have long held appeal for Western women. But it’s only recently that their key anti-aging weapon has entered the spotlight. Facial massage – a series of hand manipulation techniques that relax muscles and increase circulation – has its roots in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and has been practised for more than 1,000 years to maintain health and beauty. Now, some of the biggest beauty brands are offering products that work best when coupled with specific massage techniques.
“The theory in TCM is that your facial appearance is a reflection of your body’s internal condition,” says Mary Xiumei Wu, a doctor of TCM and president of the Toronto School of Traditional Chinese Medicine. “For instance, a kidney deficiency can show up as deep, dark circles under your eyes.” (Conceale dark cirlces with these tips). While massage alone won’t treat internal health problems, when done regularly it can help relax the face and alleviate dullness, sagging and even frown lines.
Why, then, have we been ignoring our faces for so long? (After all, we think nothing of indulging in regular tension-melting body massages.) “The belief that you can harm the skin and increase aging with facial massage has only recently been contested,” says Anastasia Achilleos, a London-based facialist who counts Kate Moss as one of her clients. “By not touching [your face], you’re actually allowing it to remain stagnant, dull and sluggish.”
Some beauty brands, including Shiseido, promote massage as part of a daily cleansing routine. Laura J. Goodman, a skin-science specialist for P&G Beauty, says that this idea is popular in Japan, where there is a major emphasis on taking care of your skin with a proper cleansing routine. “Massage is an important part of cleansing,” she says. “It helps increase movement and circulation below the skin.” SK-II offers a cream that’s specifically formulated for massage alone and meant for use after cleansing; it glides easily over the skin instead of being fully absorbed. “This allows you to massage your skin more easily without stretching or pulling it,” says Goodman.
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Other products come with tools to assist with your technique. The Eye Concentrate from La Mer is applied with a silver-tipped wand to help massage away dark circles and puffiness. “The applicator is key for seeing results,” says Paul Tchinnis, director of research and development for Max Huber Research Labs. “It helps move pooled blood out of the area, and the metal’s cooling effect increases micro-circulation. It’s much smoother than your finger and gentler on delicate under-eye skin.” Giorgio Armani’s Crema Nera comes with a polished black obsidian stone that is designed to touch the face in vertical movements. Depending on whether you preheat it in hot water or cool it down in the freezer, it can relax or revive the skin.
“The whole idea behind dynamic wrinkles – those caused by facial movement – is that when your muscles contract in the same direction, it causes wrinkles,” says Dr. Jody Alpert Levine, a New York-based dermatologist. “I use Botox to get rid of and prevent wrinkles because it relaxes muscles and stops wrinkles from forming. Massage also relaxes facial muscles, though the effects are more subtle than with Botox.” It helps decrease puffiness as well. “If you move the muscles and skin on your face, it increases blood flow, which brings oxygen and nutrients to the area,” she says. “As [the lymph] flows away from the skin and back to the heart, it is, essentially, decongesting the skin.”
Most experts say that massage is good for your skin at any age – but its benefits are most visible after 40. “This is the beginning of the slackening of the skin,” says Marie-Hélène Gaudinat, scientific and medical communications manager for L’Oréal Paris. “When you’re young, your skin tissue is very strong. But over time, it becomes more susceptible to gravity due to the breakdown of collagen and elastin fibres that hold all the layers of muscle, fat and skin together.” Regular massage can help keep these layers in place. “Muscles relax and circulation increases, which not only creates that youthful glow but also helps key ingredients in serums, beauty oils and creams penetrate the skin more easily,” she says. L’Oréal’s latest offering, Collagen Remodeler, comes with DIY instructions for massaging in two collagen-boosting ingredients; combining the product with the daily application technique actually holds off the aging process in the long term, says Gaudinat. “It sends biological messages to increase production of collagen and elastin.”
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But even if you’re not trying to stave off wrinkles just yet, there’s one more reason to indulge: As with your body, massaging your face can help lower beauty-sapping stress hormones. “Stress hormones can lead to increased acne,” says Dr. Leslie Baumann, a professor of dermatology at the University of Miami and author of The Skin Type Solution: A Revolutionary Guide to Your Best Skin Ever. “They can also damage the skin’s natural barrier, letting too much water evaporate and dehydrating the skin.” But be cautious if you have skin that is prone to breakouts. “Massage causes friction, which can worsen acne in some people,” says Baumann. “You should also stay away from oil-based massage creams if you’re prone to oiliness.”
Whether facial massage is really a well-kept anti-aging secret or just a way to get a temporary glow, one thing is for certain: It will give you a sense of calm and relaxation. “The face, back of the neck and ears are extremely sensitive to touch,” says Achilleos. “They contain an abundance of nerves that feel wonderful when touched and have the power to release [tension throughout] the entire body.”
Not sure how to give yourself a facial massage? Celebrity facialist Anastasia Achilleos shares her top tips.
• Start by placing a warm cloth over your skin for a minute or two. “This gives your skin an extra dose of oxygen because the heat causes a rush of blood to your tissue,” says Achilleos. (Skip this step if you’re prone to rosacea.)
• Apply a cleanser, cream or oil and, using your fingertips, massage it all over your face in strong, circular movements. “Focus on areas that can look fatigued, like your jawline, the sides of your nose and around your mouth and forehead, where deeper lines start to accumulate.”
• Reduce puffiness by using your fingertips (held horizontal to the face) to smooth the skin from the centre of your face outward.
• For more instructions on how to give yourself a facial massage, check out The Face Lift Massage: Rejuvenate Your Skin and Banish Wrinkles by Kundan and Narendra Mehta.