Following the sharp spike in popularity of cosmetic surgery over the past two decades, the beauty tide finally seems to be turning. The days of the ‘frozen face’ are giving way to a desire for a more natural look through gentler treatments, as the increasing interest in wellness, from mental health to food, encourages people to embrace all things holistic.
Millennials in particular seem to be reacting to the ‘lazy, entitled’ criticisms from older generations by taking lifestyle and ‘wellness’ to the next level. From clean eating to going vegan, au naturel is the trend du jour. It might not seem cool or current in 2017 to Instagram yourself having Botox, but that detox charcoal facial? You bet.
Data from the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons showed the number of cosmetic procedures conducted last year fell 40%. That’s a near-decade low, from a record-breaking high in 2015. The biggest fall was in the number of brow lifts, down 71%.
In the last decade, Botox has been the popular go-to for anti-ageing in addition to creams and serums. It’s readily available, even at your local dentist. An injectable substance, Botox (botulinum toxin) works by paralysing the facial muscles at the injection site, eliminating the look of fine lines and wrinkles. But as the name suggests it is just that – a toxin. It originally received FDA approval to treat medical ailments such as muscle spasms, excessive underarm sweating and eyelid tics, before its ability to ‘freeze’ facial muscles was discovered.
Like any medication, Botox can have side-effects including pain, swelling or bruising at the injection site. More serious side-effects – uncommon but still possible – include muscle weakness, problems with vision, trouble breathing, and loss of bladder control. There has also been worrying research that indicates it could affect the brain. Last year, a study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison raised fresh doubts about how Botox works in the body. Contrary to notions that the drug stays put at the injection site, tests carried out in the lab found that it was in fact able to move between nerve cells, raising the possibility that the same kind of migration could be occurring in humans.
In light of this research and following a warning from the FDA, the last five years have seen growing demand for a more natural alternative. Step forward cosmetic acupuncture. Celebrities and health-conscious consumers have already turned to more holistic anti-ageing methods: Millie Mackintosh posted selfies to Instagram during a cosmetic acupuncture treatment, as did Kim Kardashian and model Bar Refaeli, raising the profile of the treatment considerably. Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston, Madonna and Angelina Jolie are also said to be fans.
The ancient Chinese technique’s benefits are long established and widely recognised. In 2003, after a review of controlled clinical trials, the World Health Organisation officially backed acupuncture as a medical treatment, listing a range of conditions for which it has proven effective – from depression to rheumatoid arthritis.
While for some acupuncture may conjure up images of Hellraiser's Pinhead, it is overall seen as a relaxing treatment. Traditionally, ultra-fine needles are placed at strategic acu-points on the body to manipulate the meridian channel network, utilising and regulating the flow of the body’s vital energy or ‘chi’.
Results and reactions to cosmetic acupuncture have been positive; a 1996 report in the International Journal of Clinical Acupuncture reported that of 300 cases in China treated with facial acupuncture, 90% had marked effects after one course of treatment. These included an improvement in the elasticity of facial muscles and levelling of wrinkles and an overall rejuvenation.
To learn more, I talked to acupuncturist Jo Curle, who works out of Heaton Acupuncture Clinic. Jo is a member of the British Acupuncture Council and is the Facial Enhance UK affiliate for Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Jo explains: “Facial enhancement acupuncture (FEA) is for anyone, male or female, who is concerned about the effects of the ageing process on their skin.” Collagen production starts to deteriorate from the age of 26 and skin is often first to show the signs of ageing. “If we think back to all the moments we have spent stressed, worried or angry, they accumulate and slowly alter the look of a youthful face. Lines appear, jawlines, eyes and muscles sag," says Jo. "Environmental factors and pollution also dull the complexion over time."
I can confirm that Jo’s skin at age 40 looks better than mine at 27. When I ask Jo’s stance on Botox, she replies: “It is a toxin, and simply hasn’t been used long enough for us to see the potentially damaging effects of it building up in our system. It can also look quite harsh, whereas FEA is gentle and non-toxic. A course of treatment takes several weeks to administer, allowing the body time between sessions to build collagen and rejuvenate on its own.”
Jo explains how treatment can be tailored to each client’s specific needs. “As we know, anti-ageing is not just about wrinkles; sagging in areas like the jowls and puffiness of the eyes can lead to a less youthful look. Using fine needles to gently ‘pin back’ areas, we can retrain muscles to tighten. Again, in contrast with Botox, we are not freezing that area but rather getting it to work again.”
Explaining how facial acupuncture works, Jo tells me the effects are a combination of three parts. Firstly: “Ultra-fine needles placed on systemic points activate muscles in the face and neck to lift, improve tone and increase circulation of the blood and lymph. This helps clear the complexion, reduce redness and gives a youthful glow. These points can also help with acne.”
Secondly: “Much smaller, micro needles are inserted into frown lines and wrinkles, causing a micro-trauma that stimulates the body to produce collagen to gently fill out the line. The needles stimulate the skin’s self-repairing mechanisms, bringing all its healing potential to the surface of the skin. They increase oxygen flow, stimulate micro-circulation to nourish the skin and accelerate cellular waste elimination.”
Finally: “Regular acupuncture points on the body are used to promote general health and reduce stress. This helps give that well-rested, bright-eyed glow. I also find when people feel better they start looking after themselves better, for example drinking more water.”
Regarding the pain factor, Jo says “some of the micro needles do have the potential to produce a small nip, but the result is worth it.” Jo’s client, Claire, tells me: “The thought of having dozens of needles inserted into your face doesn’t sound too appealing but once they are in, it’s honestly very relaxing, and definitely a rejuvenating experience.”
Patients will start noticing a real difference from the third treatment. Appointments are always booked in blocks of six or 10, as the treatment builds up as your body responds. Jo asserts that FEA “is not a facelift, we’re not simply pulling back muscles, the results accumulate over time. Consistency is key, an appointment once a week has a snowball effect as collagen returns to the area again and again.”
According to Jo, the ideal age to begin FEA treatment is in the early to mid-30s, as you can get back the lift that your skin is starting to lack. Jo does, however, treat a number of twenty-somethings who have wrinkles and skin concerns they are unhappy with.
Another client, Sarah, tells me: “I started having treatments twice a week last year, as part of the 10-session treatment package. I’ve been so pleased with the results I get a top-up treatment once a month.”
Of Kim Kardashian’s acupuncture selfie, Jo has this to say: “The points are correct, however she does appear to have makeup on which I would never recommend. It also doesn’t seem to be a full FEA treatment, as although the systemic needles are in place, the 70-100 smaller, intradermal needles aren’t shown in this photograph.”
I asked another client, Emily, the main change she’s noticed since beginning treatment with Jo. "My main area of improvement has been my jawline which has totally lifted. My skin has a much ‘fresher’ appearance – fine lines and wrinkles look less noticeable and my eyes look wide awake.”
Following a treatment, Jo uses a personalised blend of essential oils and organic sweet almond oil, applied with massage techniques. This further boosts circulation and gives the complexion a radiant glow. She then uses a facial Gua-Sha (a traditional smooth-edged instrument that resembles a large flat pebble) and gentle facial cupping. Arnica cream is also applied with a cooling jade roller, as “bruises can happen but are not common.”
Jo’s client Louise says she is seeing great results on her marionette lines (the lines from the edge of the mouth down to the chin). She explains: “I also had a liver spot that my doctor said would need private treatment to remove, but following FEA it has gone completely.”
Jo’s treatments cost £500 for six 90-105 minute sessions, £800 for 10 sessions, or £85 for individual top-ups. Botox is generally priced at £190+ for one area (eg. crow’s feet, frown lines or smile lines). At Harley Medical Group in London, three single-area treatments of Botox are priced at £526.50. Some clinics offering a cheaper price often aren’t using FDA-approved Botox. The effects of Botox generally last three to four months.
Facial acupuncture practitioners in the UK