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What to Know About Gua Sha, the Old-School Crystal Skin Tools Taking Over Instagram

Move over, jade rollers.
Photo: @britta_beauty/Instagram

Photo: @britta_beauty/Instagram

While the innovation-driven, high-tech side of the beauty world is busy experimenting with microcurrents and synthesizing fancy new ingredients, there's also been a simultaneous return to more old-school beauty treatments of late. One such example is gua sha, a method of facial massage with crystal tools, which has been springing up all over Instagram — but has actually been making the rounds in the skin-improving sector for thousands of years. With origins in the ancient medical traditions of China and Southeast Asia, gua sha is sometimes known as "spooning" (no, not that kind) or "coining" because of its long history of make-shift home practice.

"[Gua sha is] traditionally done on the body as a vigorous scraping technique using anything from an antler or horn in its early days, to a jade stone, to porcelain soup spoons when this technique is performed on and by family members," explains Britta Plug, a holistic skin-care expert and owner of Studio Britta in New York City. She adds, "Don't worry, the version of facial gua sha that's swiftly gaining popularity is much more gentle than the traditional version done on the body. It doesn't involve antlers, and is more of a gentle gliding over tissue using a small stone or crystal board."

Like its close cousin, the jade roller, facial gua sha is a massage technique designed to relieve tension in the muscles of the face, boost blood circulation and encourage lymphatic drainage to banish bloat. It helps break up fascia — the connective tissue that hugs muscles but can sometimes interfere with optimal circulation — and can even help to make your face look slimmer (albeit temporarily). Devotees swear by its ability to ward off headaches and jaw pain and brighten skin (due to the boost in circulation). Some even consider it a Botox alternative for its ability to unkink settled-in muscle folds.

"Imagine you have a leg injury: The muscles are all knotted up from the trauma and there is scar tissue restricting circulation. You'd be sent for physical therapy to help release the muscles and break down the scar tissue, so that your leg could heal," explains Plug. "The chronic stress of our day-to-day lives plays out on our faces as a furrowed brow, a clenched jaw. Facial gua sha is a therapy we can apply to uncoil the daily buildup of stress we experience in the face, and restore health, vitality and glow."

But wait, you're thinking, this sounds exactly like the jade roller I ran out bought last year. What's the difference?

"Facial gua sha is more powerful than a roller," says Plug. "Once you have the basics down, a gua sha tool becomes like a Swiss Army knife, one tool with a dozen functions and uses. Depending on your pressure, which edge you use, your speed and direction, you can either lift or de-puff, work on surface lines or deep muscular tension."

Of course, this trendy skin-care treatment isn't all sunshine and Instagram likes. A quick image search for gua sha will yield a selection of bruising and burst capillaries that would put off even the most daring DIY skin-care experimenter. But these results are usually the product of the more aggressive techniques used on the body, or of improperly performed facial treatments. "Facial gua sha requires the correct technique in order to reap the benefits and avoid mishaps," says Plug. "It's not at all common for my clients and students to have any kind of bruising."

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Photo: @minimalbeauty/Instagram

Photo: @minimalbeauty/Instagram

That doesn't mean that going to a pro is the only way to try out gua sha, though. The key is knowing what you're doing, which is why most experts recommend taking a 101 class if you're serious about upping your facial massage game, but if you're keen to give it a go ASAP the most important factor in avoiding the "Fight Club" aesthetic is to be gentle. "If you're too vigorous, especially where the skin is thinner, like around the eyes, you can bruise," warns Plug.

As with jade rollers, gua sha is best performed on clean skin that's been primed with a serum or moisturizer to fend off excess friction. Angling the gua sha tool as close to parallel with your skin as possible (you don't want to dig the edge straight in like you're chopping), place the fingers of your free hand close to the tool's edge to provide some resistance, and then gently sweep the tool up and out toward the perimeter of your face. At the end of each stroke, give the tool a little extra wiggle to help release the tension (the edges of the face are chock-full of overworked muscle and ligament connections). Repeat each stroke three times — you can build up to more once you've learned your skin's tolerance, but Plug says not to exceed 10— concentrating on puff-prone areas, like the cheeks and undereyes.

For a general freshening up, Plug suggests using gua sha techniques at home two to three times per week, but if you're hoping for those injectable-like results, you'll need to seek out professional help — often. "For those clients, we recommend weekly sessions," says Plug "It's a lot, but hey, injections are expensive, too."

Complexion-wise, many skin types can benefit from gua sha, though Plug advises against it for anyone with inflamed skin (aka those with acne, rosacea, or anyone with a sunburn). Likewise, she recommends that sensitive types and those prone to breakouts stick to less intense roller massages or seek out a pro to get personalized instructions for how to treat their skin properly with gua sha.

When it comes to choosing the right tool, the sheer array of shapes, sizes and materials can be daunting, but it all really comes down to personal preference. For maximum versatility, you want a tool with at least one longer straight or slightly curved edge, one small curve to use around the eye area, and a divot or "V" shape that can fit against the angle of the jaw. Beyond that, you merely want to choose a tool that feels comfortable in your hand.

Though there are gua sha tools made of everything from jade and quartz (both beloved among holistic medicine practitioners for their supposed healing energies) to plain old plastic, Plug suggests opting for something that falls in your aesthetic happy place. "Having a beautiful tool enhances this ritual aspect," she says. "You want to choose a stone that you're going to spend some quality time with."

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