How to use a gua sha and discover its benefits
We speak to an expert about the benefits of this ancient Chinese medicinal practice
words Ella Glover
If you’ve been inundated with before and after videos of the girlies using unusually shaped tools to contour their face to face-lift levels, it's no wonder you want to know how to use a gua sha. First up, an important FYI: the term gua sha refers to the practice itself, not the tool, and can be done with any hard object, even a wooden spoon. So, to clarify, it's "how to do gua sha" and not "how to use a gua sha".
Now that's out of the way, time for some history. You probably first heard about gua sha, also called scraping, on a random skincare routine video in 2020. But the practice is far from a new wellness gimmick. It’s actually a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practice that originated centuries ago as a means to “scrape away” illnesses. Its use was first recorded around 700 years ago during the Ming Dynasty, but is likely to have been used for years before that.
And traditional gua sha is about way more than looking snatched: it is traditionally used on the upper back to stimulate blood flow and, in TCM, is used to to move energy (or qi) around the body.
Benefits of gua sha
According to Ada Ooi a TCM Practitioner, certified acupuncturist and founder of 001 Skincare, gua sha works on both Chinese Meridian points (these are basically strings connecting acupressure points that are considered pathways for energy) and stimulates the lymphatic drainage system, which in turn “promotes blood circulation and enhances the skin’s oxygen levels, moves blood and qi to regulate bodily systems and enhances nutrient transformation and transport while also moving toxins and stagnated elements to be processed as waste.”
Ooi adds that gua sha can help to relieve muscle pain. And while there aren’t many scientific studies on the effects of gua sha, one small randomised trial in 2011 found that gua sha was more effective than at-home heating pad therapy at relieving chronic neck pain, while another trial from 2012 found that a single gua sha session could reduce chronic neck and lower back pain. Another study from 2007 found that gua sha helps with microcirculation, which led to a lasting decrease in muscle pain for participants.
Ooi adds that gua sha might help to “boost muscle recovery after exercise and on the face it can help to de-puff and lift the skin, also giving a healthy glow.”
She continues: “As gua sha helps to release blocked fluids, it can help with treating water retention in the body and face, and unknot any sustained fascia or muscle tension.”
When it comes to reducing puffiness and swelling in the face, the evidence is anecdotal and formal research is lagging behind. That being said, many people do report positive results after regular use.
Gua sha before and after
Whether or not you’ll notice instant results depends on why you’re using gua sha to begin with. As the research suggests, you might notice pain relief fairly quickly after the massage and, if you’re using gua sha for your face, Ooi says you’ll instantly notice a healthier, glowing complexion post-massage.
On the negative side of things, you might notice some bruising on your body – not your face! Don’t scrape so hard! – after gua sha, but this should ease up and disappear in a matter of days and isn’t anything dangerous.
In the long-term Ooi tells us, you may notice better circulation, improved digestion and pain relief. She adds: “When gua sha is used regularly you will notice the skin will be firmer and smoother. Gua sha can also help to reduce acne breakouts as the flow of essential nutrients to the skin is encouraged.”
How to use a gua sha
As mentioned earlier, anything with a hard surface can be used for gua sha, but you’re likely going to want to use a proper gua sha stone. The stone is used to scrape the skin, most often on the legs, back, buttocks and neck, to create petechiae, or small bruises resulting from burst capillaries. Don’t worry, a lighter pressure is used on the face.
When using gua sha tools, Ooi says, it’s important to use a non-comedogenic oil or serum so as to avoid pulling on the skin or clogging pores. “Gua sha also helps products to be absorbed, so using the technique alongside your favourite skincare is recommended,” she adds.
Depending on the material of your gua sha tool, it can be soaked in hot water for 10 minutes before using it so that it will be closer to your body temperature. This, says Ooi, can “help you to destress and relax.” You can also leave your stone in the fridge or freezer for a while so that the coolness stimulates the skin.
Gua sha for the face
“A key point to work on the face is the masseter muscle (the jaw clenching muscle),” says Ooi. To target this muscle, start by scraping around the area before applying medium pressure in a circular motion. “I describe this as 'grinding the fascia' (fascia is the connective tissue that encases all our muscles and organs) to unblock all the tension accumulated from pressure from crunching and tearing food, talking and even any unconscious grinding due to stress.” Do this at least five times.
There are a lot of key acupressure points here too, adds Ooi. “To stimulate blood flow to the face, place the gua sha tool at the centre of the chin, glide upwards to the front of your ears and wiggle to stimulate the triple warmer meridian (san jiao),” she says. “This meridian governs our myofascial system, releasing any tensed or traumatic memories in our muscles across the body. In this location there are a lot of nerves around to help relax the face for correct alignment.”
Gua sha for the legs
“Our legs are concentrated with acupressure points linked to the spleen, liver and kidney, so stimulating blood circulation with gua sha helps to improve digestion, in turn balancing our immune system and hormonal wellbeing,” explains Ooi.
Simply scrape along the inner calves from the ankles, up and down in small sections, then move upwards and repeat on the inner thigh. Repeat on the outer thighs from the hips down to the outer calves.
Which gua sha tool should you choose?
Gua sha tools come in many shapes, sizes and materials – but don’t feel overwhelmed. Here’s a rough guide to help you choose the best tool for you.
In terms of materials there’s jade, rose quartz, bian stone, copper and steel, and they’re all beneficial in slightly different ways. Jade, as Ooi explains, “has been used for centuries in TCM for healing, calming and balancing.” Rose quartz, she adds, is used for strengthening and balancing the physical heart and circulatory system, and releasing impurities from body fluids. “With metal, like copper and steel you can heat or cool them before use which is helpful, and bian stone has been used for centuries in TCM for healing purposes, as it contains healing trace elements and improves microcirculation.”
Finally, you shouldn’t gua sha without using an oil to help the tool glide over the skin. You can use a face oil or serum for facial gua sha, and any non-comedogenic oils for the body like coconut oil or lavender oil.
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