While I don’t have a fear of needles as such, the thought of sticking 50 into my face sounds, in theory, like something out of a horror movie. But in reality, this (mostly painless) process is an example of cosmetic acupuncture, a form of one of the earliest practices in ancient Chinese medicine, with historical records spanning back 5,000 years. “Over time, Chinese medicine developed to treat all kinds of illness from cholera and even dermatological conditions,” explains Sandra Chiu, LAc, MSTCM, acupuncturist and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner. “Acupuncture works with the energy systems of our vital organs, known as Qi. That focus on deep internal health is often overlooked in Western beauty, with a focus more on treatments that change the surface, but don’t necessarily address exactly how the body is functioning overall.” In other words, acupuncture is the ultimate holistic treatment for well-being.

But what makes cosmetic acupuncture unique?

According to Chiu, cosmetic acupuncture’s underlying principles are the same as those that drive traditional acupuncture, but with a specific focus on facial concerns. “More needles are usually inserted into the face than say a treatment for back pain, menstrual pain, or reflux,” she explains. “But even when focused facially, we still needle body points, because in TCM cosmetic dermatology we always support the overall health of a person and aim to correct core disease patterns and the causes of accelerated aging.” Related Stories I ventured into my first ever cosmetic acupuncture session armed with this knowledge, but still not entirely sure what to expect. I decided to treat myself to the ultimate luxury treatment with London’s leading cosmetic acupuncturist, Athena Giralea, whose treatment studio is nestled in the beauty salon on the ground floor of Harvey Nichols, one of the most deluxe department stores in central London. Before getting started with the needles, Giralea began the consultation process, and it became clear that even though my skin was the primary focus, all other elements of my well-being would come into play as she devised a treatment plan for me. She asked about my digestive health, anxiety, and stress levels, sleep patterns, and hormonal cycle.

As I settled onto the treatment bed, Giralea slowly talked me through the process

As she cleansed my face in preparation, Giralea explained how cosmetic acupuncture can help to balance hormones. “When we create a controlled injury on the skin with the needle, it stimulates the nerve endings and a signal then travels to the brain to release hormones that have an anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effect to heal the injured area,” she said. “These hormones (serotonin, endorphins, and melatonin) also have a lot of wellness benefits—they promote relaxation and sleep, or make us feel more balanced, happy, and resistant to stress.” Giralea then started the process of applying the tiny 0.1mm needles to the acupuncture points on my face, as well as directly to specific problem areas, such as pimples. Although I don’t really have any static wrinkles as of yet (her words, not mine!), she examined my face to see where any future lines may form and applied needles to those areas to strengthen the skin and head off creases. “It’s a great prevention method,” she says. “There are three types of collagen: Healthy, soft skin is type one, while scars, lines, and pigmentation are made up of types two and three. Acupuncture changes the health and quality of the cells at the bottom layer of the skin by shedding off types two and three and replacing them with type one.”

The benefits of cosmetic acupuncture

As Chiu informed me, cosmetic acupuncture is mainly “appreciated in the Western world for its ability to stimulate collagen, but understood through the TCM lens it has so many benefits beyond that.” I soon came to learn this first-hand, when Giralea noticed a more prominent nasolabial fold (the crescent-shaped creases that can form between your nostril and corner of your mouth) on the left side of my face and informed me it was likely a result of clenching my jaw. She added more needles to the area to desensitize the nerve pathway and release any tension being held there. Like magic, I could already feel the area beginning to relax. I was feeling so zen at this point—enveloped by the warmth of the quiet room’s candlelit glow and Athena’s masterful arm massage—that I completely forgot about the countless needles sticking out of my face, ears, and legs. It wasn’t until I went to take a selfie on my phone that my reflection made me jump. I promptly sent a picture to my boyfriend, who kindly informed me that I looked exactly like Pinhead from Hellraiser. After leaving them in for an hour, Giralea carefully removed the needles and ended the session with a 30-minute facial massage. I emerged from these 90 minutes of bliss convinced of two things: Giralea is a wizard, and acupuncture is magic. Just by examining my right ear, she was able to determine that I had a lower back or pelvic issue on my left side—where I suffer from a slipped disc in my spine. She could also tell from the kidney point in my ear that I was slightly dehydrated—the festival I attended the weekend prior could well have had something to do with that. That night, I slept better than I had in my entire life and woke up glowing. It goes without saying that I’m sold on the ancient art of acupuncture, and I’m already booked for my next session.

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