When bride-to-be Danielle O’Brien broke out in stress hives as she prepared for her wedding, she knew she needed help. Like any bride, she wanted to look stunning and radiant on her big day; exhaustion had given her dark circles, and fine lines were creeping in. But after trying Botox in her twenties, O’Brien, now 31, was hesitant about resorting to injectables—the last thing the New Yorker wanted was to look unnatural in her wedding photos.
“Leading up to the wedding was absolutely crazy,” she recalls. “I wanted to the glow for the photos without having a frozen-looking face from Botox.”
Amidst the chaos of dress fittings, sending invitations, choosing music, and ordering the cake and flowers, O’Brien decided to try the needle-free healing treatment gua sha, a lo-fi ancient Chinese ritual that improves blood circulation, lymphatic drainage and skin elasticity, and addresses everything from adult acne to wrinkles to sagging skin. It was O’Brien’s regular visits to bespoke Manhattan salon Studio Britta, run by the cult facialist Britta Plug, that ultimately kept her calm, fixed her skin problems, and gave her that all-important bridal glow. “After seeing Britta, it all cleared up and I could still move my face; the fine lines are only there with dynamic movement,” she says.
Gua sha stems from traditional Chinese medicine. To the casual observer, it can look fairly brutal, involving vigorous scraping of the skin all over the body with an angled, blunt-edge stone. The latest incarnation of the healing treatment, however, is a much gentler form and focuses solely on the face. Using a flat rose quartz tool, or in Plug’s case, a traditional Chinese bian smooth stone, facial gua sha tones and lifts the face through gentle, upward strokes over the skin to relax stiff muscles and promote tissue drainage.
Despite gua sha’s ancient origins, sculpting facials have become one of the hottest beauty trends in New York City over the last two years, as Western women with disposable income increasingly put a premium on promoting health and radiance from within. This new beauty fixation has seen Plug, a licensed aesthetician and holistic health coach with over 12 years of experience, expand her business into Manhattan from Brooklyn and recruit a team of nine to keep up with demand. A walking advertisement for her own treatments, many will recognize Plug—with her radiant, smooth, and soft-but-firm skin—from her YouTube videos, where she extolls the virtues of natural skincare techniques including Ayurvedic massage, as well as gua sha.
Her practice, says Plug, is all about celebrating individuality, not trying to conform to some unattainable standard where you don’t look like yourself. “No judgement if you want Botox—we all care about our physical appearance—but I want women to look like the most radiant version of themselves, not a clone,” Plug explains. “Gua sha is for women seeking solutions that take care of both body and mind—women who want an expression-smoothing alternative to the neurotoxins of Botox.”
First approved in 2002 for cometic use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Botox (shorthand for Botulinum Toxin Type A, a neurotoxin known for causing botulism, an illness that paralyzes muscles and can be fatal) is considered safe as a temporary solution to wrinkles. However as with any drug, there are risks; possible side effects from Botox injections range from drooping eyelids and uneven eyebrows, to fatigue and double vision, to difficulty speaking and swallowing. Of the more than 1.1 billion people who used Botox in 2002, the FDA looked at 1,437 reports of adverse reactions and found that patients were more likely (33-fold higher) to report an adverse reaction after using Botox for therapeutic, rather than cosmetic use, “which may be related to higher doses, complicated underlying diseases, or both,” the report concluded. In 2009, the FDA added a safety warning which states Botox “may spread from the area of injection to produce symptoms of botulism,” including muscle weakness and difficulty breathing, which can occur hours or weeks after an injection.
For some women, a greater cause for concern in the lack of studies that focus on the long-term effects of Botox. One study published in 2005, which looked at 45 participants using Botox for both therapeutic and cosmetic reasons over the course of 12 years, found 30 percent of participants developed adverse reactions. A 2015 review of that study found the risk of adverse reactions increases after the 10th injection. There is also concern around how Botox affects the immune system. On a recent episode of The Paleo View podcast, medical biophysicist Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, PhD, notes that Botox can travel through the central nervous system and stimulate an inflammatory response in the immune system, which is the likely culprit of adverse reactions. “As I was researching this, I was very frustrated by the lack of long-term studies looking at whether or not the risk of adverse reactions compounds over time,” she explains. “I would have thought that would be necessary for FDA approval, but obviously it wasn’t.”
When migraine and TMJ sufferer Dr. Nikka Kanani started getting Botox injections for pain relief, she suffered nausea, numbness and tingling in certain areas of her face. “I never felt fully comfortable relying on Botox, especially because research on its long-term use is lacking,” admits the naturopathic doctor, who eventually stopped using the injectable neurotoxin, and with her background in integrative medicine, was relieved to find the natural gua sha treatments. By watching Plug’s video tutorials, Dr. Kanani has been able to practice the massage at home daily and stresses that consistency has helped her achieve the pain relief she was hoping for.
Hayat received regular Botox treatments twice a year for five years—and was cautiously optimistic before starting gua sha. While her fine lines haven’t disappeared completely, the deeper lines are less noticeable. “Right over the eyebrow, where you get a little line, a crease, those have softened,” she explains. “People tell me all the time, ‘You’re glowing, your skin is glowing! You’re so bright!’ It’s the same compliment I used to get when I got Botox.”