I Tried Cosmetic Acupuncture to See How the Natural Treatment Works

"Acu-face-lifts," as they're called, have been gaining popularity as a natural alternative to Botox. But is cosmetic acupuncture legit?

person smiling with acupuncture needles in their face, in the process of getting cosmetic acupuncture
Photo: Nicole Crane.

I lay in a comfy chair and stared at the wall of a turquoise-painted room attempting to relax — but 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!" Well, hopefully, that was a temporary cosmetic acupuncture side effect.

What Is Cosmetic Acupuncture?

You're probably familiar with acupuncture treatments for pain, sleep problems, and digestive issues. But cosmetic acupuncture is different in that it claims to lessen the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots. The procedure has been dubbed an "acu-face-lift," reinforcing its focus on outer appearance rather than physical wellness.

But can sticking a bunch of needles in your face actually have an impact on your skin? Upon looking into the procedure, I became more and more interested in this holistic approach to keeping my skin tight and plump (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 stab — no pun intended. I wanted to see what the procedure was really all about and determine if it was worth all the hype.

How Cosmetic Acupuncture Works

Right off the bat, my acupuncturist acknowledged the alleged anti-aging effects of cosmetic acupuncture: "An acu-face-lift is the natural Botox," he said to me with a smile as he began to place 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 made me a little nervous at the start. In truth, though, 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, explains 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 body reacts to this new trauma of strength training by repairing and rebuilding the muscles worked to recuperate and come back bigger and stronger.

My Experience with Cosmetic Acupuncture

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.

All in all, I found cosmetic acupuncture to be much less invasive than I imagine Botox would be. Compared to Botox or other injectables, cosmetic acupuncture doesn't put anything foreign into the body and, as mentioned, 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 those other, more invasive procedures. (Not to say that those procedures aren't valid options and that there aren't alternate uses such as Botox for migraines.)

That said, cosmetic acupuncture requires an investment of both time and money. A typical acu-face-lift program is 24 sessions, with significant improvements noticed around treatment 10 and the results lasting for three to five years, explained my acupuncturist. 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.

But is the cost worth it? Does cosmetic acupuncture even work? While some 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.

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 the fact that I was lying down for half an hour in the middle of the day (a rare occurrence for me).

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. That said, 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 simply gives me some time alone to recenter myself, I'm all in.

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