"Acu-face-lifts," as they're called, have been gaining popularity as a natural alternative to Botox.
Photo: Nicole Crane
As I lay in a comfy chair and stared at the wall of a turquoise-painted room, attempting to relax, in my peripheral vision I could see a dozen tiny little needles poking out of my face. Freaky! Maybe I should put the eye mask on, I thought.
Instead, I took a selfie to see just what getting cosmetic acupuncture looked like head-on. I sent the photo to my husband, who replied, "YOU LOOK NUTS!"
You're probably familiar with acupuncture treatments for pain, sleep problems, digestive issues, and even weight loss. But cosmetic acupuncture is different in that it claims to improve the look of fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots. With celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Gwyneth Paltrow touting the "acu-face-lift" procedure on social media, I became more and more interested in this holistic approach to anti-aging (no surgery, no chemicals).
Ever curious as to the latest in health and natural beauty, and feeling very aware of the prospect of wrinkles ever since I turned 30, I decided to give it a shot—no pun intended. I wanted to see what the procedure was really all about and determine if this would be my go-to way of combatting forehead wrinkles and crow's-feet as I get older.
"An acu-face-lift is the natural Botox," the acupuncturist said to me with a smile as he began to place the needles in my face at lightning speed.
Natural or not, needles are still needles, even if they are as thin as a strand of hair. Needles don't usually freak me out, but knowing that these were going into my face still made me a little nervous at the start. But in truth, the selfie looked way worse than the procedure felt.
No matter what you hope to achieve with acupuncture, the process is the same: Needles are placed into the skin at specific points in the body where vital energy is said to flow, called meridians, to improve circulation, unblock "stuck" energy, and help the body to rejuvenate, explained Josh Nerenberg, owner and acupuncturist at San Diego Cosmetic Acupuncture. In cosmetic acupuncture, the idea is to place needles around the face at pressure points to evoke minor trauma, which the body will respond to in order to heal, says Nerenberg.
This minor damage created in the dermis is believed to encourage the skin's own repairing mechanisms to stimulate cell re-growth, which subsequently increases the production of collagen and elastin. More collagen and elasticity in the face equals fewer wrinkles and smoother, more toned skin. Think of the process similar to the way that you create micro-tears in muscle fibers from exercise. Your bodies react to this new trauma of strength training by repairing and rebuilding the muscles worked to recuperate and come back bigger and stronger.
Once the needles were placed in my face, along with a couple of spots around my body to "calm and cleanse other meridians," I lay still for 30 minutes. Once my time was up, the needles were quickly removed and my treatment was complete.
Comparatively speaking to Botox or other injectables, cosmetic acupuncture doesn't put anything foreign into the body and is believed to instead stimulate the body's natural resources to repair signs of aging. It's also said to result in more gradual, natural improvements compared to more invasive procedures. (This isn't to say Botox doesn't live up to its anti-aging reputation or have other benefits.)
My acupuncturist tells me that a typical acu-face-lift program is 24 sessions, with significant improvements noticed around treatment 10, and the results last for three to five years. But the cost isn't cheap: Prices vary, but à la carte treatments at the acupuncturist I visited range from $130 for a single session, to $1,900 for a 24-treatment package. To see results faster, cosmetic acupuncturists typically offer add-on procedures that increase the effectiveness of an acu-face-lift, including microneedling and nano needling. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About the Buzziest New Beauty Treatments)
But is the cost worth it? Does cosmetic acupuncture even work? While some women swear by its effectiveness, the proof just isn't there yet. While one study found that cosmetic acupuncture "shows promising results as a therapy for facial elasticity," more research needs to be done to give us better science-based evidence as to how the procedure works on facial tissue.
Supporters believe that cosmetic acupuncture also produces relaxation in facial muscles that tend to be chronically tense in our high-stress world, including tightened jaws and brow tension. (Related: I Got Botox In My Jaw for Stress Relief)
But my take? Interestingly enough, I did feel like I was glowing a bit when I walked out of the acupuncturist that day. I felt a little bit of the kind of zen I experience after a massage or meditation—but I have no idea if that can be attributed to the acupuncture or to that fact that I was lying down for half an hour in the middle of the day.
I didn't expect to see concrete differences in my face after just one session, so it's hard to say whether a handful more sessions would lead to a reduction in fine lines, but I did find the experience to be a pretty painless, somewhat relaxing treatment that I would definitely consider doing again. If it reduces the appearance of wrinkles, great. But even if it gives me some time alone to recenter myself, I'm all in.