How much is too much when it comes to a facial treatment?
Even putting aside medical-miracle stuff you would seek out in a plastic surgeon’s office, there are a head-spinning number of choices on spa menus: from the traditional steam-extraction combo to more exotic pairings like radio frequency treatments (delivered with a dose of reiki) or, say, microneedling topped off with vitamin shots.
But Stefanie DiLibero’s signature treatment at Gotham Wellness has to be the most extra facial in New York City.
Using a number of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) techniques from the ancient world—like acupuncture, cupping, and gua sha—along with modern tools like microcurrent treatments and LED light therapy, DiLibero also adds mindful touches throughout, thanks to her previous life as a yoga teacher.
That’s what she was (as well as an acupuncturist, with a master’s in from the New England School of Acupuncture) when we met back in 2010 on a Costa Rica retreat. And it shows in her bedside manner—her soothing presence makes the two and a half hours fly by. (Yep, you’ll need to block out two-plus hours on your calendar for a session of what she calls Aculetrics, which will set you back $390.)
“It brings physiological and emotional balance, so that your internal health radiates externally,” DiLibero says. “For instance, if you are often angry, you may have lines that show up between your browns when you habitually feel and express this anger. If your digestion is off balance, it can manifest on the face as puffy eyes or acne.”
As a 40-something woman who has the occasional teenage-style breakout, focusing on firming and puffiness, as well as acne and congested pores, were my priorities for the session. But I got a lot more than that. Here’s what happened.
Step 1: Let’s talk
As I lie back on a table in DiLibero’s cozy-yet-minimalist Soho space, she starts peppering me with a lot of questions: how am I feeling, how am I sleeping, what am I eating, and what is stressing me out. “I always do an introductory conversation about your whole body, not just what I’m seeing with your skin, to see what’s going on in terms of Chinese medicine, and to make sure your acupuncture session is treating the root causes of what’s happening in your body,” DiLibero tells me later. I don’t have any out-of-the-ordinary issues—just that I always want more energy and better sleep.
Step 2: Here come the acupuncture needles
She gives me a full-body acupuncture session (but no face needles yet) to start things off. In terms of pain, it’s the least I’ve ever experienced in 10 years of getting acupuncture treatments—partially due to her use of the thinnest-grade needles on the market, and partially due her impressive skill in terms of piercing skin with zero pain. (She doesn’t quickly sneak them in while she’s talking to you, as some people do—she’s walks you through it and checks in with how you’re feeling with each needle.)
Step 3: The process gets powered up
Here come the microcurrents! And yeah, I’m a little scared. As DiLibero glides what feels like a smooth, cool, rounded ball across the planes of my face, the amped device she’s using sends out tiny electric currents (which feel like tingles on my face and put the taste of pennies in my mouth).
The idea is to pair the ancient Traditional Chinese Medicine concept of chi—believed to be the energy flowing through your body, which can be balanced with acupuncture and other methods, for optimal health—with this modern electrical approach that’s meant to stimulate your facial muscles.
“Chi is a form of current, and electricity is also a form of current, so we’re building chi in the face in the form of electricity to stimulate the muscles, so that the tissue is healthier,” DiLibero says. There’s research showing that both acupuncture and microcurrent skin treatments have anti-inflammatory cred, making it a potentially potent combo.
Step 4: Cupping (without those bruises FYI)
At this point, I am given a facial cupping mini-session—but that’s not something everyone will need, she explains. “Sometimes within these steps there’s some gua sha or cupping before the microcurrent or after the microcurrent, depending on the person—the purpose would be moving blood and chi, removing dampness,” DiLibero says, referring to a concept in TCM that refers to characteristics like sluggishness, congestion, and coldness. “You get a more sculpted appearance.”
Step 5: Needles, LED, and chill
And now it’s time for facial needles (eek). “Needles [on your face] not only address internal causes of skin issues—digestion, allergies, headaches—they also are stimulating collagen by creating microtraumas,” she says. It’s a concept used with microneedling as well: the tiny tears in your skin that are created (but not visible at all) trigger your immune system’s healing response.
And, bonus: Coming after the microcurrent and cupping steps, DiLibero says the facial acupuncture is super-charged: “Just like it’s easier to start your car rolling downhill, after all that, once we put the needles in the face, they can do their work easier, faster and better.”
Next she puts some light-blocking goggles over my eyes and turns on the LED light (oh hey, collagen—again). “The LED light was developed by NASA to grow food in outer space and has been used to heal wounds,” DiLibero says. Research shows that it stimulates your cells to produce more of the chemical adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which fuels healthy cell growth and speeds up healing.
And while the needles and the LED light do their work for about 30 minutes, I am listening to a guided meditation that calms me to the point of sleep. (If you can fall asleep with needles in your face, you are relaxed.)
My first impression: Hello, cheekbones! With smooth, seamless swoops going from my nose to my temples, it looks like I’ve time-traveled back 10 years.
Finally, she wakes me up, takes out the needles, and breaks out the mirror. My first impression: Hello, cheekbones! And goodbye puffy under-eyes—which have been the biggest change to my face as I’ve gone from my 30s to my 40s. With smooth, seamless swoops going from my nose to my temples, it looks like I’ve time-traveled back 10 years.
It wasn’t a momentary parlor trick, either. While I didn’t wake up the next day with perfectly un-puffed eyes, my sleep was amazing for the next two weeks, my digestion was moving if you know what I mean—and in terms of mood, I was much more even-keel and generally enthusiastic about life, no matter what NYC threw at me. And in terms of my skin, there was an overall radiant-and-smooth thing that seemed to be acting in a time-release way over the next couple of months.
After my first session last summer, I was mistaken for someone 10 to 15 years younger on a regular basis (which made my dating life interesting). And I’m convinced that my second treatment, in November, prepped my skin for winter: It’s been much more resilient, clear, and smooth, even as as I faced nearly-zero temps in NYC multiple times and dealt with the daily drying effects of radiator-heated rooms.
While I am generally a skin-care minimalist—aka a lazy person who sleeps in my makeup a lot—this is one maximalist approach I can get behind.
Other (simpler) ways to give your skin a boost: pay attention to what time you wash your face at night and stay on your SPF game, even in winter.
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