Let's get this out of the way: I'm not a calm person. I'm not patient, or remotely even-keeled. I get disproportionately mad at slow walkers on Broadway and don't hide my frustration with the MTA or manspreaders or anyone else without a general sense of self-awareness. I almost always wake up stressed out, even if it's a Sunday and my agenda's pretty bare. I sweat the small stuff, even when the small stuff is the lack of dark chocolate peanut butter cups at Trader Joe's. That's all to say that I never considered myself a good candidate for acupuncture. People who believe in that stuff are generally patient and hippy-dippy and can sit motionless long enough to meditate, and other than the seven or so hours of sleep I try to get every night, I don't think I've ever been able to keep my mind clear enough to enjoy complete stillness, let alone complete stillness with a side of six dozen unread emails.
So imagine my skepticism when Gotham Wellness Founder Stefanie DiLibero told me she had just the thing for my dull, erratic skin and irritable temperament — but it involved both needles and stillness in equal measure. Turns out, she was referring to an AcuFacial, or a form of cosmetic acupuncture that incorporates traditional acupuncture, microcurrent, LED and oxygen treatments. That's right: needles straight to the face. DiLibero gave me little warning of what to expect, but after seeing the treatment on various Instagrams (Elaine Welteroth gave her a glowing Insta-review just weeks before), I figured that whatever it entails, I could handle it. I'd gotten needles to the face before (see: this fun story) and figured these would stop short of actually injecting me, so why the heck not? DiLibero was also offering the treatment to me for free (perks of the job), but typically it runs about $400 depending on customization.
DiLibero's credentials include four years of grad school and a mentorship from Shellie Goldstein, one of the leading experts on cosmetic facial acupuncture, whose space she works out of — and also her own visage. Not only does she appear to have slept a full nine hours every night in the history of nights, but when I first meet her, I realize I might actually be older than her by the better part of a decade. DiLibero later reveals that she's a few weeks short of 40 years old (!), but if you get close enough to her, you'll realize that not only does she not have any wrinkles or signs of aging, but she's virtually poreless, too. (This photo of her is eerily accurate.) After disrobing, I lie down on her table covered in fluffy towels, as one might for a routine facial, ready to get pricked, and ask her if I'll leave looking as good as she does in 90 minutes. (Short answer: No.)
How does a Jewish-Italian get into acupuncture? "I was living in Taiwan teaching English and I got a really bad sore throat from all the pollution," DiLibero explains. "So I went to see the doctor for antibiotics, but because they have an integrated medical system — Eastern and Western — I ended up accidentally going to an acupuncturist. He just started shaking me by the elbow," she says as she demonstrates the jiggling motion one might do if they're trying to wake up a sleeping body part. "He kept saying 'sore throat, gone!' and I just sort of looked at him and assumed he didn’t understand what was wrong. We had this little argument because I was so confused, but then he told me to swallow and it was gone! So that was weird." Later, she ended up getting acupuncture for an unrelated ailment and was so surprised at how well it worked that she went back to school for it.
I'm booked for the 90-minute session at Gotham Wellness, so DiLibero wastes no time getting to work on the full-body acupuncture. First, she gives me the lowdown: "According to Eastern medicine, we have 12-14 streams throughout our bodies, which are called meridians. Along those meridians are more than 400 acupuncture points located throughout the body that treat pretty much anything you might take a pill for, but not go the emergency room for," she says, citing maladies like stress, insomnia, digestion, allergies, PMS, headaches, anxiety and addiction. "When you're healthy and balanced, it shows in your face, as does the opposite. We're trying to use acupuncture to restore the body's ability to heal itself to restore the sleep cycle, menstrual cycle, the natural cycles. It's sort of like an intervention."
After asking me about my eating habits, menstrual cycle and any major health complaints — generally healthy, generally regular and a general lack of sleep, respectively — she begins by tapping a single needle into the top of my left foot just to gauge the pain, which feels like a tiny pinch for a moment before it dissipates. She continues by placing almost a dozen needles throughout my lower legs, focusing on the tops of my feet and stopping short of my arms so I could keep recording with my phone. She tells me that a pressure point called Liver 3, which is located on the top of foot below and between the first two toes, "is helpful for regulating menstruation, which, if imbalanced, can show up as acne along the chin and jawline." Within minutes, I start to feel so relaxed that I'm compelled to ask her if there's anything actually in the needles. (She confirms they're not hollow, and then reminds me to stop flinching. I'm a flincher.)
"The needles communicate with your nervous system to send endorphins into your body, so that's why you feel so relaxed," she tells me, noting that they're are about a millimeter in. "The needle goes in the muscle fibers, and there's nerves in the muscle fibers that send signals up to the brain, and the brain responds by sending all sorts of chemicals from your body's natural pharmacy. Think: serotonin, which helps with sleep and happiness....It may also stimulate a histamine response, which can be really helpful for allergies. It's basically a way to get your body aligned, back into sync, and doing what it needs to be doing."
While the needles are simmering (my term, not hers), DiLibero takes off my makeup with some pre-cleansing oil, applies a clay mask from Environ, and layers on a conductive gel for a microcurrent treatment. Before she even gets started on the microcurrent, I've accidentally flinched off two needles, for which she doesn't even get annoyed at me. This part of the treatment feels familiar, save for the slight tingling in my legs, which now feel like they've taken some sleeping medicine.
DiLibero says she likes to combine the acupuncture with things like microcurrent and LED because they help reduce inflammation and bacteria, as well as seal in what she calls "Wei Qi," which Chinese medicine recognizes as protective particles on the body’s surface. Here I am below, complete with sealed Wei Qi.
After about 30 glorious minutes of the microcurrent treatment, DiLibero removes the needles from my lower body. Now it's game time. I ask her to remind me why I've volunteered to take a dozen more needles to face, and she promises me it's well worth it.
"Cosmetic acupuncture works by addressing the root causes of aging, like poor sleep, compromised digestion and emotional and hormonal imbalances, all of which can show up as symptoms on the face in the form of premature wrinkles, puffiness, dark circles and acne," she says, making it sound like a cure-all. In layman's terms? "We're basically creating micro-traumas in the skin so your body signals to produce more collagen," she says. It's similar to the concept of microneedling, which relies on a machine to do the same. "We're also sending a lot of blood and energy into the area, so if you have sort of a dull complexion, it can really help to brighten. It's also great for acne because it helps reduce all sorts of inflammation," she adds.
I don't have any major acne flare-ups, but my face just looks generally dull; I often wake up with dark circles and can't kick them unless I douse myself in both coffee and concealer. Lovely as it sounds, I've noticed subtle jowls begin to set in throughout the last year or so, but she seems to care less about the jowls and more about my sleeping habits as she gently taps the first needle near my third eye (the pressure point is called Yintang, I later learn) which can help relieve anxiety, insomnia and to "calm the spirit." It also helps relieve Resting Bitch Face, DiLibero jokes, as she continues throughout the rest of my face with 10 more needles.
My face doesn't feel as immediately relaxed as my legs did, but I nearly fall asleep during the 10 minutes I spend under the LED light and realize I've magically unclenched my jaw for the first time in weeks. I have no idea what I'm going to look like when this is all over, but I'm already calling it a success.
After she takes the needles out, a process that takes about 30 seconds flat, DiLibero invites me to sit up and take a look at my complexion: I'm a tad flushed (in a good way), with no signs of the dullness or the level of sheer exhaustion I'd walked in with. My body feels relaxed, and my shoulders have found their way back into their sockets without a reminder. In fact, I wonder aloud why anti-aging-obsessed Americans don't do this more often.
"I think it's just a matter of exposure," she says. "A very low percentage of the population of our country has actually tried acupuncture, but most of us have been to a Western medical doctor, so that's the medicine we're most comfortable with. Our experience with needles is generally unpleasant, as it revolves around getting shots or having blood drawn, but, as more people try acupuncture, more people will begin to get comfortable of the idea using it, especially once they find out that not only does it not hurt, but it's an incredibly relaxing experience."
You can tell DiLibero isn't just trying to sell me on a gimmick, but that she truly believes in her practice — and it definitely shows on her face. Instead of pushing more treatments on me, we talk about all the ways I can keep this up at home (see: daily acupressure, a more balanced diet, meditation sessions and a lot of NuFace-ing) and what I can expect in the next few days: a brighter complexion, better sleep and if I'm lucky, a newfound patience for slow walkers on Broadway.