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Gua Sha: From Ancient Chinese Medicine to Modern Skincare Obsession

Perhaps you noticed a gua sha facial massage amongst a list of luxurious treatments on a spa menu, or you've seen an influencer with a poreless, glowing complexion raving about the pretty rose quartz that changed their skin. However you heard about the trending self care technique, we thought you’d like to know when and where it started, why everyone keeps talking about it, and how you can try it for yourself. Let’s dive in!

The History of Gua Sha

Traditional Chinese doctor opening medicine cabinet drawer.
Credit: FangXiaNuo/ iStock

Sure, gua sha (which translates to “scraping” and “red rash”) is experiencing a new wave of popularity, but it certainly isn’t new. Long before it became associated with a popular facial treatment seen on Instagram, it was a common practice in traditional Chinese medicine. There’s even evidence that this technique was used to alleviate pain all the way back in the Paleolithic Age. (So yes, they used stone massage in the Stone Age. Go figure.)

Fast-forward a few hundred thousand years, and Chinese healers were using stones, spoons, and even antlers to scrape away muscle tension and illness. “The use of stones to scrape the skin and treat diseases can be found in major medical records as far back as the Ming Dynasty,” explains Anna Lam, founder of GingerChi, a spa in New York City. Full-body gua sha can feel like a sports or deep-tissue massage, but the gentler facial gua sha techniques are less focused on scraping and more on light, consistent pressure.

What does gua sha purportedly do?

Woman having gua sha facial.
Credit: Andrey Popov/ iStock

The concept of the original gua sha (pronounced gwah-shah) massage is simple: “By ‘scraping’ (with repeated strokes on the surface of skin) the gua sha helps stimulate new blood flow and draw out stagnation in problem areas to help generate metabolic cell repair and healing,” says Lam. This is used to treat a range of health issues like colds, viruses, inflammation, migraines, neck pain, and more, and studies have shown that gua sha can increase microcirculation in the surface tissue of treated areas.

When acupuncturists and technicians who performed gua sha massages and similar treatments realized that working with pressure points on the face could also have cosmetic benefits, like wrinkle reduction and de-puffing, a softer gua sha for the face was born.

“When applied to the face, the technique is gentler but the principle is the same,” Lam explains. “Using the gua sha over face curvatures can help stimulate meridian points, detoxify, bring new blood to the surface and promote lymphatic drainage. It relaxes the tension in facial muscles, which can cause lines. It’s like an exercise for the face. With regular use, it can help balance, tone, and promote skin elasticity.”

Black gua sha massage tool on a marble surface surrounded by crystals and facial serum.
Credit: Content Pixie/ Unsplash

We can thank social media for that. As beauty influencers flood Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok with skincare tips and tutorials, those that typically perform well and garner interest are those with high visual appeal. Not only is it oddly relaxing to watch someone else soothe their skin with a gua sha stone, but you can usually see a subtle difference after a brief treatment. Plus, the elegant tools are eye candy all on their own. Mix the Instagram-worthy aesthetic with the recent interest in natural wellness (think: Goop), and you’ve got yourself a gua sha resurgence.

“I started offering the jade roller as part of our spa’s beauty regimen in 2012, but little was known about any of these tools," Lam says. "At that time the trend for more natural skin care and products was on the upswing. As the craze of jade rollers peaked a few years later, I noticed that people became open and interested in trying out other tools, gua sha being one of them.”

OK, so how do you do it?

Woman doing gua sha.
Credit: Andrey Popov/ iStock

To give the face-sculpting, glow-boosting technique a whirl, you’ll want to start by finding a gua sha tool (many are made of rose quartz or jade and come in rounded, interesting shapes like hearts or even butterflies). To begin your massage, apply a lightweight oil or slippery serum to your clean face and neck — this will help the gua sha tool glide without damaging your more sensitive facial skin. Then, you simply scrape the tool, using light pressure, in upward, outward motions, following the natural contours of your face.

“The gua sha technique helps the nutrients in your skincare products to absorb even deeper into the layers of your skin,” explains Lam. For an intense treatment, you can apply a nourishing sheet mask first, and then use your gua sha to help the mask do its thing. Gua sha facial massage is also great for relieving tension in your face after a long, tiring day.

For bonus de-stressing points: Toss your stone in the fridge for an hour first. The smooth, cold stone will feel amazing on a warm night.

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