Going under the needle: Is cosmetic acupuncture the new Botox?

woman with cosmetic acupuncture
I tried the treatment that's been gaining popularity, even though it dates back 2000 years. Photo credit: Getty.

In the beauty world, cosmetic acupuncture or "acu-face-lifts" have been gaining popularity as a natural alternative to Botox. 

Unlike injectables or fillers, cosmetic acupuncture doesn't leave you with permanent or semi-permanent chemicals in your face to fill or lift the skin. 

Instead, it's the use of traditional Chinese acupuncture techniques to stimulate the muscles and skin of the face to improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, discolouration, bags under the eyes and sagging skin. 

As I'm at that delightful point in my 20s where I'm struggling with the acne of a teen and the fine lines of an older woman - cute! -  I decided to give it a go. 

I was offered a session with acupuncturist Hannah Johnstone at her GlowBody studio in Ponsonby, Auckland. 

Johnstone performs acupuncture on a range of clients for a myriad of health conditions and ailments. Her clients credit her with minimising jaw pain, neck pain, headaches, back pain - the list goes on. 

She's currently on a streak with her pregnancy acupuncture, which is used to enhance contractions, dilate the cervix etc. So far, all her clients have been birthing in six hours or less. 

Hannah Johnstone at her Ponsonby clinic.
Hannah Johnstone at her Ponsonby clinic. Photo credit: Supplied.

For more aesthetic purposes, cosmetic acupuncture can be used to treat skin conditions like fine lines, aging and uneven skin texture. 

I presented Johnstone with my ever-present skin gripe which has ailed me since I came off the contraceptive pill two years ago - hormonal acne and uneven skin texture. 

As someone who consumes collagen-based products daily, it's easy to think that's all you need to do to get collagen flowing to your skin and leave it plump and glowing. 

But research has shown that all that collagen is doing nothing if the skin doesn't know where to send it - for that, you need minor trauma to the area. 

That's where the acupuncture comes in. 

"The insertion of the totally painless ultra-fine needles causes a 'microtrauma' in the local area, signalling the body's healing cells (fibroblasts) to start a process of collagen and elastin production to 'repair' the area," says Dr Tam, founder of Cosmetic Acupuncture Melbourne. 

"The increase of density of collagen and elastin in the local area helps with loss of volume and firmness in the face."

For those who get microneedling treatments, it's all familiar territory. 

The experience 

If you're someone afraid of needles, this might not be the beauty treatment for you. 

To be honest, even as someone without any such phobia, I felt more than a twinge of anticipation as I lay back on the bed. 

"Some parts might pinch a little more than others," Johnstone warned me, before telling me she was going pins quickly into my wrists and ankles to "ground" me or... something. To be honest at this point I wasn't listening. I was clenching my nails into my palms in anticipation of the pain. 

But as I waited for her to put them in, I realised she had actually already done it, and it was so quick and painless I hadn't felt a thing. 

That set the tone for the rest of the session. 

Johstone quickly placed about 16 needles on my face in areas she said were the best for stabilizing hormones and clearing the skin. 

During the session I looked like this:

Pinhead in the movie Hellrasier
Don't worry this isn't actually me. This is the character Pinhead in the movie Hellraiser. Photo credit: Hellraiser movie.

Nah, kidding I looked like this:

Sarah looking like a cute pin cushion.
Sarah looking like a cute pin cushion. Photo credit: Newshub.

It was over before it felt like it had even started - 20 minutes, max. The whole thing was so relaxing I almost fell asleep. I came to as Johnstone whipped the needles out of my face and finished the whole thing off with some soothing facial spray and a sheet mask too cool and soothe the area. This part felt like a regular facial. 

Getting back into my car afterwards, the glow was already present, and I was feeling myself.

Sarah after cosmetic acupuncture
A shameless selfie in the broad daylight post-treatment. Photo credit: Newshub.

Where this beauty treatment comes out on top over others is there's no downtime. I went home, but you could easily head back to work or off to the school pickup if you needed to. 

I wasn't sure if it was just my imagination but I noticed a significant difference in my skin in the days following: it was plumper, firmer and glowier, as if I had genuinely had a couple of units of Botox pumped in. 

My texture also improved, and some redness calmed, although I'll need to have a few more sessions before being able to give a definite verdict - but so far, I'm very impressed. 

If you've been thinking of going under the needle, this option might be a great intro instead of trying heftier cosmetic treatments - as long as you don't mind looking like a human pin cushion for 20 minutes first. 

Sarah was gifted the first cosmetic acupuncture treatment she tried for review purposes, but paid for subsequent sessions.