If there's a Zen way to smooth away wrinkles, facial acupuncture claims to be it. Rather than injecting Botox, a bacterial poison that paralyzes the muscles that cause brows to furrow, proponents of facial acupuncture say they accomplish the same results more gently and naturally by relaxing the muscles. Whether it actually works is an open question; no studies have been conducted to gauge its effectiveness. But it's less likely than methods that rely on chemicals to cause unpleasant side effects.
In addition to placing clusters of tiny needles in facial trouble spots like frown lines and crow's feet, practitioners of "facial rejuvenation" generally insert needles in the hands, arms, and legs to reduce stress or strengthen the immune system, for example. "We treat the whole body, because what happens in your skin is a reflection of what's going on in your body," says Gira Patel, a licensed acupuncturist at the Osher Clinical Center for Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Ten to 15 weekly one-hour sessions later, patients often report they have fewer fine lines, tighter skin, and better skin tone, she says.
Western-trained doctors say they can understand how acupuncture might smooth out the frown lines. "Anything that would teach or train an individual to relax the facial muscles would obviously improve the wrinkles and improve the appearance of being angry or tense," says Foad Nahai, a board-certified plastic surgeon and president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
But skeptics question some practitioners' other claims: that facial acupuncture can improve overall skin tone or stimulate the production of collagen, the structural protein that holds the skin together and helps keep it taut. Needling the skin causes injury, which stimulates collagen production. However, "it would take a heck of a lot of needle sticks, hundreds of them for a long time, to lead to collagen stimulation," says Nahai.
Doctors also question whether the procedure can produce any lasting results. "Lots of frowning is tied into the emotional content of speech," notes Richard Glogau, a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California-San Francisco. "I'm not sure that short-term acupuncture is really going to affect that link."
A typical patient at Hamptons Health Circle, an acupuncture clinic in Pasadena, Calif., might sign up for 10 sessions at $100 a session. Results build up over time, claims clinic owner Charles Yarborough, so that by the end of 10 sessions, a patient should see noticeably brighter skin with fewer fine lines. Once they've completed the initial round of treatment, people generally come in for a "tuneup" of one session every four to six weeks.
Any licensed acupuncturist can do facial acupuncture—no formal training or certificate is required. Yarborough operates a website to connect patients with practitioners. The bulk of his business remains pain management, anxiety treatment, insomnia, and the like. But facial acupuncture is on the rise. "I used to have to convince people that it doesn't hurt and that it works," he says. "Now people are coming to me."