The lymphatic system is a crucial part of your immune system. Through a network of hundreds of lymph nodes, it drains fluid called lymph to be transported back into your bloodstream. It also removes bodily waste and carries white blood cells that help prevent infection.

When there’s any kind of obstruction in your lymphatic system, fluid can start to build up. That’s where lymphatic drainage — a specialized type of massage therapy — comes in.

Traditionally, it’s been used to treat lymphedema, a condition marked by chronic swelling that can occur after lymph node removal.

But in recent years, some have started incorporating facial lymphatic drainage into their beauty regimen as a weapon against puffy, dull complexion and skin irritation. Some have gone so far as to call it a nonsurgical facelift.

But does it actually live up to the hype? The evidence is shaky. Read on to learn what lymphatic drainage for your face can and can’t do.

“Lymphatic drainage treatments accelerate the absorption and transportation of lymphatic fluids which contain toxins, bacteria, viruses, and proteins,” says certified lymphedema therapist Lisa Levitt Gainsley.

This acceleration of the lymphatic system is an evidence-backed game changer for people with lymphedema or other conditions involving the lymphatic system. It can even help to reduce swelling after surgery, as one 2007 study about its use after wisdom tooth removal points out.

Levitt Gainsley notes that the treatment is also helpful for conditions such as acne, eczema, and digestive disorders.

Beauty bloggers and massage therapists alike often tout lymphatic drainage as a way to improve the appearance of the skin by reducing fine lines, wrinkles, and eye bags.

Limited research

In 2015, beauty company Shiseido, together with a professor from Osaka University, Japan, found a link between the skin and lymphatic vessels.

They concluded that reduced functioning of dermal lymphatic vessels resulted in skin sagging. But instead of lymphatic drainage, they recommended pine cone extract as a remedy.

Lymphatic drainage, however, was the focus of a study by researchers at Australia’s Flinders University. Announced in 2012, results surrounding the technique’s effects on the eye area don’t seem to have yet been published.

An aesthetic benefit relating to bodily lymphatic drainage was found in a 2010 study. The authors concluded that lymphatic drainage effectively reduced thigh circumference and the thickness of both thigh and abdominal fat in people with cellulite.

It was a small study involving around 60 people, but the results do suggest that lymphatic drainage may have firming properties.

Expert opinion

Some experts aren’t so convinced by claims about lymphatic drainage relation to improved skin appearance.

In an article published by the Journal of Clinical Investigation, dermatologist George Cotsarelis questioned whether people even have lymphatic drainage issues in their facial area.

“If you do, you’re certainly not going to get a facial to solve them,” he said, adding: “A normal person does not have lymphatic problems on their face.” Keep in mind, however, that people can develop lymphedema in the head or neck.

Fellow dermatologist Michael Detmar did admit in the article that the aging process, coupled with sun damage, can result in fewer lymphatic vessels and a deterioration of lymphatic function.

“You might be able to make a case that you could reduce fluid buildup by having a facial to encourage drainage when your skin has fewer lymphatics. So promoting lymphatic flow can have benefits,” he said. “Whether or not this is achieved with a facial is a different story.”

The verdict

Although some therapists state that facial lymphatic drainage can produce results resembling a miniature facelift, the evidence so far is mainly anecdotal, meaning it comes only from those who’ve tried it (or those who offer it).

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Lymphatic drainage is usually done by a professional. If you’re looking to try it for aesthetic reasons, find an aesthetician trained in this type of treatment.

If you’re trying it for medical reasons, look for someone who’s certified by the Lymphology Association of North America or is a member of the National Lymphedema Network.

They’ll start by applying light pressure and gentle movements that range from tapping and stroking to rubbing and pushing. Next, using flat hands and all fingers, they’ll gently stretch your skin in the direction of the lymphatic flow to encourage drainage.

A lymphatic drainage facial works similarly, but may also include soft brushing movements on the face.

Bodily lymphatic drainage usually lasts up to an hour while the facial version is typically a little shorter. Deep breathing exercises, which promote better lymphatic circulation, tend to be combined with both.

Not sure if a lymphatic drainage facial is the right move for you? You can perform a simplified version of facial lymphatic drainage at home without spending a dime.

DIY lymphatic drainage facial

  1. Start with deep breathing. Rest your palms on your stomach and take a deep breath in through your nose until you feel your stomach pushing into your palms. Breathe out until your stomach is flat and repeat around five times.
  2. Get comfortable. You can choose to sit, stand, or lie down.
  3. Apply pressure. Using the palms of your hands, start at your forehead, applying gentle pressure to slowly stretch the skin down toward the lymph nodes in your neck. Keep going, moving all the way down your face.
  4. Use care around your eyes. For under your eyes, switch to your ring finger and use a rolling movement.
  5. Repeat. Repeat the process around five times in each area.
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Some people like to do it every day or just once or twice a week. If you can’t quite get the hang of the technique, ask a trained aesthetician or therapist to show you the ropes.

Lymphatic drainage is generally safe. However, check in with your healthcare provider first if you have:

  • a high risk of blood clots
  • congestive heart failure
  • an active lymphatic infection
  • swelling with no known cause

Lymphatic drainage is an established treatment for certain medical conditions involving swelling or issues with the lymphatic system. It’s beauty benefits, however, require more research.

It might not live up to the hype of being a nonsurgical facelift, but it’s generally safe. If you’re interested, give it a try or experiment with a DIY approach.