Gua sha is a special massage practice taken from traditional Chinese medicine that is seeing a rise in popularity as a face treatment these days. Gua sha is occasionally also referred to as coining or kerokan. The practice consists of scraping the skin with a flat tool in order to stimulate it, drain the lymph nodes, and promote healing. Whether it actually works in this way is hotly contested, so we’re going to dive in and find out if gua sha actually does offer any benefits to the skin or body as a whole.
We also explain what traditional gua sha is, as well as the newer phenomenon of gua sha facial. We cover its effectiveness and potential benefits and even compare it to jade rolling. We also cover the potential pitfalls of this practice and finish off with an explanation of how to use gua sha tools safely.
In this article:
- What Is Gua Sha?
- What Is Gua Sha Facial?
- Gua Sha Benefits for the Face
- Gua Sha vs. Jade Rollers: Which Is Better?
- Kerokan Side Effects
- How to Use Gua Sha Tools on the Face
Gua sha is a traditional Chinese practice with a very old history. It was first described in the Shang Han Lun, a treatise of traditional Chinese medicine published in 220 CE that outlines the stages of colds and fevers as well as their treatments. Since China has had robust influence over the countries in proximity to it, gua sha’s popularity had spread to other countries in East Asia. Kerokan, for example, is the name of the practice in Indonesia.
Gua sha literally means ‘scraping sand’ in Chinese, which makes sense since the practice consists of scraping the skin with a coin, spoon, or a dedicated gua sha tool until specks of redness (i.e. the ‘sha’ or sand) show up. A practitioner drags the gua sha tool over the skin while applying some pressure, usually following specific paths over the body. The ‘sha’ or redness is microtrauma to the skin that looks like red bruising. It is not especially painful but it looks very severe.
The traditional purpose of gua sha is to move ‘qi’ energy around the body to prevent its blockage. When modern therapists discuss it, however, the benefits of gua sha are usually related to helping with joint and muscle pain and inflammation, with some physiotherapists adopting the ritual as part of their massage and manipulation practice. Some sources suggest that the microtrauma itself is able to stimulate the skin into healing itself, which is also the logic behind skincare practices like derma rolling.
As with other traditional Chinese medicine practices, gua sha is seen by the scientific community as pseudoscience, and most of its benefits are attributed to placebo. This isn’t helped by the fact that there hasn’t been much proper scientific research done to prove or falsify the benefits of gua sha, and that many of the practitioners claim that it has some over-the-top benefits. The little bit of research that has been done shows that gua sha may help with circulation and mild muscle pain relief.
The way traditional Chinese medicine practitioners and other professionals utilize gua sha tools is very different from how gua sha is recommended for the face. Gua sha for the face is a much gentler practice that is more akin to a facial massage. The pressure of the dragging motion is much lighter when compared to gua sha done on the back.
For facial gua sha, the skin coining tool is held so that it is almost parallel to the skin and then dragged over it gently. Facial oil, serum, or moisturizer must first be applied to the skin to avoid having the tool tug on the skin and irritate it. Facial gua sha can be done at home, in a salon, or at a traditional Chinese medicine studio.
There are a few reported benefits of gua sha for the face, but it’s important to remember that they are mostly anecdotal and could potentially be a result of the placebo effect.
Healing Properties of the Stone
Some of the benefits are attributed to the specific stone a gua sha tool is made of, with jade supposedly having healing properties and rose quartz ostensibly promoting calm and self-love.
Unfortunately, there is really no science to back this up so it only furthers the idea the gua sha is pseudoscience. That’s not to say there are no benefits to the stones. Stones are great because they tend to stay cool for longer than other materials, so they do help soothe the skin in that way.
Another benefit that is often touted is that gua sha promotes lymphatic drainage, which ostensibly helps the body clear from toxins more quickly. Lymphatic drainage massages, in themselves, are not particularly backed up by science, so I think this benefit can be mostly disregarded.
Another benefit that is often reported (sometimes as a result of “lymphatic drainage”) is a depuffing effect. Many, though not all, who try gua sha tools notice that after doing it once or after a few treatments their skin looks firmer and slimmer, with a reduction in puffiness.
Whether the result is due to the gua sha tools being cool to the touch or because of the friction increasing blood circulation under the skin is not clear, but either way, if facial puffiness is a regular concern for you then you can definitely consider picking up a gua sha tool.
Another potential benefit of gua sha is muscle relaxation. By massaging the skin any tension in the muscles can be released. This might help with forehead wrinkles or a clenched jaw, and as a result, the face might look more youthful.
The final benefit of gua sha is also the one I happen to find most convincing. Gua sha, like other gentle massages, is very relaxing. Taking 10-20 minutes to yourself every once in a while to perform self-care can have wonderful mental health benefits. It can help you relax so it is especially nice before bed.
If you think gua sha benefits sound similar to jade rolling benefits… you wouldn’t be wrong. Both are tools used for facial massage, so obviously they will both have the relaxing and stimulating benefits of a facial massage.
Gua sha is a little more intense than jade rolling, as it is easier to cover more space and apply more pressure with gua sha tools. This means that they give a deeper massage but they also have a higher risk of irritation.
Kerokan, as done by a professional, has red, shallow bruising as an intended side effect. This bruising can last for a few days and may hurt or sting a little bit.
Both professional gua sha and at-home facial gua sha can irritate sensitive skin, and should not be done over broken or already irritated skin. In fact, you should avoid gua sha altogether if you are dealing with any inflammatory skin conditions like active acne or rosacea.
The skin on our face is thinner than the skin on our back, so any bruising on the face will take longer to heal and may lead to permanent redness and visible veins. When you do gua sha at home on yourself, it is up to you to control your angles and pressure to avoid damaging the skin.
It is also very important to invest in a high-quality gua sha tool that is smooth and durable. Any cracks in your tool can cause it to drag on your skin, and there may also be places where it can harbor bacteria, while should your tool break it can scratch the skin. With a durable scraper, you won’t have to worry about these issues cropping up.
This is how to give yourself a gua sha facial at home:
Before starting, it’s important that your gua sha tool is prepared. It is important to keep it clean, so give it a thorough wash with water and soap. You can also put it in the fridge for a few hours to make sure it will be cool and soothing for your treatment. Alternatively, you can soak it in an ice-water bath for a few minutes if you are short on time.
- Apply Your Skincare
You can incorporate gua sha into any post-cleansing step in your skincare routine. You can cleanse your skin and then immediately apply serum, facial oil, or moisturizer for gua sha, or you can do your steps of toners or essences first. What’s important is that your skin is slippery and slick with some sort of product before you start to prevent having the gua sha tool irritate your skin.
If you are coining your shoulders and neck as well, make sure to cleanse and apply moisturizer or oil to them as well.
- For Body Gua Sha…
For your first time, practice holding the tool against your arm in the correct way. Fit the curved part of it so that it hugs the curves of your skin and then adjust your hold so that you have it in a steep angle. Make sure that as much of its flat part as possible comes in contact with your skin. Also, practice varying your pressure to make sure that you don’t overdo it and bruise your face.
- For the Face…
For a facial gua sha, begin at the base of one of the sides of your neck, and pull the tool upwards to your jaw bone. Repeat this a few more times, and then do the same on the other side of your neck. With even less pressure as to avoid coughing or choking, do it over the front of your neck.
- Use the Smaller Divots
Next, with one of the smaller divots in your tool, fit the gua sha over the center of your chin, and scrape it over your jawline outwards towards the bottom of your ears. Repeat this a few more times, and then flip the tool over to do the same thing on the other side.
- Use the Flatter Curve
Then, once again with the flatter curve of your tool, scrape from the center of your face outwards to massage the cheeks. You will probably have to do this in a few horizontal lines to cover the entire space.
- For the Eye Area…
For under the eyes it is best to use the small, rounded end of your tool. Hold it just below the inner corner of the eye, directly against the skin, and gently pull it outwards towards your temple. You can do the same thing above the eye, first placing the tool over the skin just below the brow and then pulling it outwards towards the temple again. Repeat this with both eyes.
- For the Forehead…
For the forehead, start by placing your gua sha tool against your forehead in such a way so that its large curve is just above. Gently pull it upwards towards your hair line. Repeat this on both sides. For the area between the brows, do the same but with the smaller rounded edge.
- Finish off Your Skincare
Once you’re done, apply any additional skincare that might be part of your routine if necessary.
If you’d like to see how this is done in practice, as well as to get some expert tips, we recommend watching acupuncturist Sandra Lanshin Chiu’s instructional gua sha video.
Photos via @beauty.amateur, Instagram