During the 2016 Summer Olympics, cupping therapy received a lot of attention. After all, it was hard to miss the red circles on the backs and shoulders of swimmers like Michael Phelps. Cupping, for your face or body, is often offered by acupuncturists, massage therapists, and increasingly, physical therapists, as a way to withdraw toxins, reduce inflammation, loosen adhesions, decompress fascia by lifting it, and hasten recovery. If you’ve been wondering about cupping for your body, maybe even your face, and hoping it will improve aging skin, let me give you the skinny.
What is facial cupping?
Cupping therapy is a traditional Chinese medical treatment that has been practiced for thousands of years. The World Health Organization defines cupping as a therapeutic method that involves suction by creating a vacuum, usually by placing a cup on the skin of the affected part of the body. The technique involves a plastic, bamboo, or glass cut to the skin, usually over an acupuncture point, painful area, or reflex zone.
In the case of facial cupping, smaller cups are gently applied to the skin of the face.
How does it work? Why is suction great for the skin?
From a Chinese medicine perspective, cupping warms the energy channels to remove coldness, promote qi (life force) and blood circulation, relieve swelling, accelerate healing, adjust body temperature, relieve pain, and improve acne. Other reasons suction is great for the skin: decompression of fascia, reduction of inflammation or puffiness (specifically, it reduces the number of natural killer cells, their activity and their cytotoxicity), and increase in circulation in part by raising skin surface temperature and blood oxygenation.
Is it safe?
Yes, my scientific review indicates that as long as the pressure isn’t too high and the cups aren’t left in place too long, cupping is safe. I recommend that cupping be performed by trained experts only. (One study indicated that cupping can damage the blood vessels of the back of the neck and upper back, specifically the vertebral artery, in susceptible individuals). Cupping may cause skin hyperpigmentation, so be cautious, particularly with facial cupping.
How can facial cupping help smooth wrinkles? Can you describe the science behind it?
I can find no evidence that it helps smooth the skin. Data is anecdotal only, which doesn’t count as evidence. Most of the data on cupping is focused on the relief of pain.
Why does bruising sometimes occur?
Due to the vacuum on the skin, the localized area may show petechiae and bruising. This is due to capillaries that are broken by the suction. On the face, the goal is to prevent petechiae and bruising.
Facial cupping is not a quick-fix for the signs of aging on your skin; however, it can offer some relief if you have pain, areas of inflammation or swelling after surgery, or want to speed up recovery from athletic activity. In conjunction with a healthy diet and regular fitness, facial cupping can improve the puffiness of your face. Think of it as a complementary therapy and look for a provider who has significant experience in cupping.
For more on complementary medicine, pick up a copy of my newest book Younger, which explores various lifestyle changes to improve aging and health.
 World Health Organization. WHO International Standard Terminologies on Traditional Medicine in the Western Pacific Region, Accupuncture and Moxibustion: Cupping. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO Library Cataloguing in Publication Data, 2007.
http://www.wpro.who.int/publications/PUB_9789290612483/en/, accessed October 6, 2017.
 Overall evidence based review
Evidence that it reduces inflammation https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27181126?dopt=Citation
Evidence that cupping increases skin surface temperature https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4814666/
Cupping increases blood oxygenation https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28101413?dopt=Citation
Relief of neck and shoulder pain https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27073404?dopt=Citation
Improved neck pain https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28219058?dopt=Citation