The beauty world is looking back to ancient Chinese traditions to prepare your skin for the future.
Over the past few years, we’ve embraced the fundamentals of K-beauty (Korean) and J-beauty (Japanese). As a result, sheet masks, jelly formulas and konjac sponges in kitsch packaging have become regular features of our skincare routines. Now, though, we are seeing a growing fascination with acupuncture facials, jade rollers and ingredients such as ginseng and ginger, as we absorb the ancient Taoist philosophies of Chinese wellbeing.
In other words, if your (pre-lockdown) facial didn’t come with kneading or needles, your massage is missing the sound of gongs, or your moisturiser isn’t infused with green tea extract, you may have been missing out.
Previously associated with alternative therapies and pungent herbal tinctures, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is now beautifying the mainstream.
A couple of years ago, Harrods’ Wellness Clinic added TCM inspired treatments including cosmetic acupuncture (where tiny microneedles are inserted into pressure points on your face) to its menu, while Beauty Pie unveiled its Qi Energy range. Marcia Kilgore, founder of Beauty Pie, described its Breathable Moisture Ginseng Beauty Sleep Mask as “liquid acupuncture”.
Meanwhile, how-to videos demonstrating the Chinese arts of cupping and gua sha facials are gaining hundreds of thousands of YouTube views.
This isn’t just a matter of a few passing trends. There are layers of history and philosophy to the holistic approach of TCM. Its ethos – that external beauty is connected with the internal mental and physical state of our bodies – has existed for thousands of years.
“In the past, physical and mental health have been seen as separate issues,” explains Katie Brindle, a Chinese medicine graduate who developed the Hayo’u Method and wrote Yang Sheng: The Art Of Chinese Self-Healing. “But Chinese medicine treats the mind and body as a whole and believes that one affects the other.”
This is a belief that Su-Man Hsu, facialist and founder of Su-Man Skincare holds at the heart of her business.
“In Chinese culture we believe beauty is a mirror of your health, a reflection of one’s whole body,” she says. “There is a Chinese expression that I constantly repeat to my clients and students: ‘If you want to know what your thoughts were like yesterday, look at your body today. If you want to know what your body will look like tomorrow, look at your thoughts today.’
“This is my daily philosophy and main principle of beauty.”
How to make the most of ‘me time’
We’re all familiar with the symmetry of the Chinese philosophical symbols yin and yang representing the opposing forces of light and dark, but the phrase dominating TCM therapies is yang sheng. Translated as “nourishing life”, it equates to self-care and advocates adopting simple, regular rituals – massaging the skin or practising meditation – to improve your overall wellbeing. “In China we believe routine is another form of ‘me time’, so that’s why your daily skincare routine should be a form of a ritual,” says Su-Man.
Gua sha, also known as ‘skin scraping’ has become particularly popular as a way to achieve yang sheng. A flat crystal (usually jade, which is believed to have restorative properties, or rose quartz prized for its relaxing, cooling traits) is stroked or circled across the skin to improve circulation and achieve toned skin. “This beauty treatment has been deployed across Asia since ancient times, as it has a unique ability to encourage the circulation under the skin, boosting collagen and elastin,” says Su-Man. “Using a jade tool I’m able to activate the deeper layers of the skin and improve circulation, which transforms into an instant glow.”
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Being hands-on with nimble kneading techniques and tools is a signature TCM move. Not just fantastic for easing a tense jawline or boosting collagen, they are designed to kickstart your qi (pronounced ‘chee’, energy that flows through the body) channels. Which explains why many facials can now come with an element of acupuncture or acupressure. Both stimulate pressure points to restore energy flow, either with needles (acupuncture) or hands (acupressure).
“Acupressure is very powerful,” says acupuncturist and holistic facialist Annee de Mamiel, who has a degree in TCM. “I begin by lightly kneading the neck to open up the vessels and start drainage then move to massaging around the eyes. I then work towards the cheek, mouth and upper lip area which is an important pressure point as it reduces swelling and calms the spirit.”
Similarly, cosmetic acupuncture treatments are on the rise. With no harsh chemicals or recovery time needed, tiny needles are placed into the meridian channels (invisible paths through which qi flows) on the face to create microtraumas that then send your body into repair mode to produce more collagen and heal fine lines. Increasingly combined with LED lights to stimulate the skin at a deeper level, these treatments can help counter the internal inflammation that occasionally appears as rosacea, sensitive skin or breakouts.
The importance of qi
Cupping – another ancient Chinese art, once the preserve of alternatively inclined A-listers – is also becoming commonplace. Skin Health Spa and Flint + Flint clinics have added it to their spa menus across the UK (fingers crossed, we can book in after lockdown). Like acupuncture and acupressure, it targets the pressure points and energy channels on the face then uses small silicone cups to create a vacuum effect and draw nutrients to the surface of the skin, reducing fluid retention which can show as puffiness around the eyes.
All this physical manipulation has one aim, crucial to TCM: to get your qi flowing freely and easily. “When we talk about qi, we refer to the vital energy that we are made up of,” explains Maeve O’Sullivan, Chinese medicine practitioner and co-founder of Escapada Retreats. “By regulating the movement of qi you can effectively correct body imbalances and enhance your skin, hair and face.”
How do you know if your qi is off-kilter? Look in the mirror. If your skin looks stressed or tired, TCM believes it’s down to what’s going on inside your body. Get a stagnant qi moving again and it’s like putting your phone on charge – things will quickly work better.
Practitioners use facial mapping, where each part of your face represents a different organ in your body, to diagnose what’s happening to your wellbeing at a deeper level. “Toxin build-up and dehydration could lead to pimples and dry skin on the forehead; persistent acne on the nose may mean your liver is overworked; dark under-eye circles could signify poor kidney function while upper cheek issues could indicate that you are inhaling high quantities of polluted air,” says O’Sullivan. “Breakouts in the jaw and neck area tend to be hormonal so things like the kidney qi need to be rebalanced to help well-regulated hormone production.” Once the issues with your qi have been identified, you can then adopt the appropriate TCM treatment and allow your qi to reach balance.
Of course, you don’t have to turn to needles and kneading to make your spirits align. Specific Chinese ingredients can also have an impact. “We chose ingredients that work synergistically and holistically to tackle tired skin, and ginseng, ginger and bell pepper became our focus,” says Kilgore of her products. “Ginseng is energy-boosting and regenerative; ginger detoxifies and reduces free-radical-based oxidisation and bell pepper tackles dark circles and improves circulation.”
On top of this, De Mamiel recommends the Chinese tradition of sipping on oolong or green tea for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, or chewing on red dates steeped in hot water to improve the clarity of your skin. Nothing extreme or onerous, just a few TCM tweaks and you could see improvements inside and out. “Traditional Chinese Medicine is more relevant and necessary than ever,” says Kilgore. “With blue-light exposure, hormonal imbalances and the general impurity of modern lifestyles, fusing Eastern practices with Western learning means we have access to everything that ails our stressed-out skin.”
So reach for a jade roller, give yourself a gua sha facial or enjoy a cuppa and look forward to a new healthy balance.
The Chinese beauty essentials
Achieve balance with the help of ancient ingredients in these very modern products.
Detoxify with ginger
A natural antioxidant, ginger works to detoxify dull and congested skin.
Beauty Pie Qi Energy Ginseng Root & Ginger Super Glow Serum
Shop Beauty Pie Qi Energy Ginseng Root & Ginger Super Glow Serum at Beauty Pie, £11.45 for members and £50 for non-members
Kate Somerville Nourish Daily Moisturiser
Even out with ginseng
Packed with phytonutrients which help fight UV damage and prevent blotchiness, ginseng is often used in products to hide signs of fatigue.
Brighten with liquorice
In tinctures it’s used to treat the stomach, heart and spleen but topically liquorice is famed for its skin-brightening powers.
IT Cosmetics Miracle Water
Murad Hydro-Dynamic Ultimate Moisture
Harness the powers of crystals
These special ancient stones are said to hold soothing, healing and uplifting energy. Ease inflammation with rose quartz, or contour with the slightly rougher jade.
White Lotus Rose Quartz Gua Sha
Shop White Lotus Rose Quartz Gua Sha at Cult Beauty, £34.99
Yu Ling Rollers Jade Facial Roller (Medium)
Main image: Getty