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Lymphatic drainage: the beauty booster you never knew you needed

A well behaved lymphatic system is literally good for everything. So how can you best love your lymph?

Did you buy a Gua Sha stone or facial roller while stuck in lockdown? Or rush to book a facial massage treatment, CACI session or body contouring massage upon release? Perhaps your subconscious was trying to tell you something. Because besides the sculpting, lifting, brightening and relaxing benefits these treatments offer, there’s a thing they all have in common: they work to stimulate your lymphatic system.

Variously described as ‘the body’s watering and waste drainage system’, ‘detox plant’ and ‘centre for disease control’, the lymph is part of our immune system and helps protect us from disease and disability. A lymph system at peak performance also results in skin and limbs that are clear, glowing and devoid of puffiness, so it’s no surprise to find that many beauty treatments quietly include work on the lymph. So how can you make sure yours gets seen to in a way that delivers noticeable benefits both inside and out? We asked the experts.

What did the lymph ever do for us?

The lymphatic system or lymph is a huge network of channels, ducts and nodes that sits right under the skin and whose job it is to bathe cells in liquid that facilitates delivery of nutrients and oxygen from the bloodstream. Its other gig is to transport foreign pollutants, metabolic waste and toxins away from the cells and to the body’s toxin-processing stations.

The lymph and circulatory systems work closely together, but the blood has a pump (your heart) that moves it around the body, while the lymph has no such luck. It’s entirely dependent on movement, muscle contractions, gravity and the breath to keep flowing. When you reckon that a clogged, stagnant lymph system is involved in 70% of all chronic disease, you may be inspired to get off the sofa a little more often.

If you’re not, consider this one: “"Lymph fluid carries immune cells to our lymph glands, where all acquired immunity against infections and vaccinations occurs. Hence, without a working lymph system we would not succeed in overcoming infections such as Covid-19," says lympho-vascular medicine specialist Professor Peter Mortimer.

Tactics for a limber lymph

Quite obviously, movement of any kind is essential for a healthy lymph – those recommended 10.000 steps daily are less about weight loss than they are about the immune-boosting effects they have by way of your lymph. “Walking, jumping up and down, bouncing while standing, stretches and inversions (legs up!) are all ace, as is slow, deep breathing,” says Jules Willcox, founder of Body Ballancer lymphatic massage technology.  

The other absolute key is drinking water: with lymph fluid made up of 96% of the stuff, you need to replenish it constantly or your lymph will turn viscous and polluted, like an infested pond. Coffee and tea, sugary drinks and alcohol don’t count: they in fact take a huge amount of internal water to get processed and excreted and therefore sap the lymph of moisture. The same is true of processed and sugar-rich foods. Willcox strongly recommends downing two litres a day to keep your lymph happy.


Lymph treatments you didn’t know you’d had

Because one very visible result of stagnant lymph function is puffiness in the face and body (especially in the legs), draining the lymph is a secret weapon “in a lot of beauty technology - it’s just not something people necessary realise,” says holistic skincare expert Gemma Clare.

 “Iontophoresis machines, for example, use twin metal ball rollers with current to perform lymphatic drainage and drive active ingredients deep into the skin. It’s great for people with skin conditions such as rosacea and congestion: these have an immune-related aspect and lymph drainage boosts immune function.” Clare names microcurrent treatments (such as CACI) as another example: “here, lymphatic drainage is always included to ensure there is no excess fluid obstructing access to the muscles. This would compromise the lifting and toning results we’re after. If people get disappointing results from their at-home microcurrent devices, the lack of preparatory lymph drainage may be the reason why!”

Clare is a particular fan of professional devices incorporating gentle vacuum suction “to provide a measured and steady intensity to the lymphatic drainage. I’ve had excellent results for people who have sinus and ear problems, including frequent flyers. Skin can be instantly de-puffed, and where there is ‘adhesion’ with muscle fibres and connective tissue (fascia), lymphatic drainage helps free this. That can reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and help lift and tone the muscles.” And there’s more: “lymphatic drainage helps draw impurities up and out of the skin, so I use it to relieve hormonal and cystic breakouts,” says Clare. Dr Anna Hemming of Thames Skin Clinic agrees, favouring regular Hydrafacials “to stimulate lymph drainage, which improves skin health and helps with oil control.”

Pick a tool…

So, what about the ‘lifting’, ‘sculpting’ and ‘radiance-boosting’ at-home tools such as Gua Sha stones and cryo balls that became de rigueur lockdown essentials? “They all help with lymph drainage, but depending on what you’re trying to achieve, some are more appropriate than others,” says Clare.

“For example, if you have facial tension and want to relax the structures underlying the skin while incorporating some acupressure techniques, Gua Sha would be my ‘go to’ tool. If someone has both puffiness and sensitivity, then the cooling of the cryo balls can be just the thing.” Massage tools that use sonic vibrations, meanwhile, such as the Jillian Dempsey Gold Beauty Bar, or Foreo UFO 2, get the lymph moving, enhance product penetration, and relax muscles with minimum effort.

…but use it wisely

But whatever option you go for, proceed with caution. “It’s often lamented that lymphatic drainage is called ‘massage’ at all,” says Willcox. “To effectively target the lymph, only the lightest pressure is required; it’s really almost a gentle ‘stroking’ that moves the fluid through. Anything stronger runs the risk of constricting the delicate lymph vessels just underneath the skin.”

You also need to mind the direction you’re working in: “on the face, that is always from the centre outward (towards the ears), and then down to the clavicles,” says Willcox. She recommends studying the many “excellent” professional online how-to’s for tools such as jade rollers and Gua Sha stones.

Clare warns of additional issues if you don’t pay attention: “people with delicate skin risk breaking capillaries if they apply too much pressure, particularly in the eye area.” For the intense Gua Sha ‘scraping’ technique, she says you really need to understand anatomy, so it’s best left to the professionals. “Working in the wrong direction and pulling on the skin could, over time, cause sagging,” adds Clare.

Lastly, to enhance ‘slip’ and avoid tearing at delicate elastin fibres in the skin, the use of oil is recommended in conjunction with these tools, but that can bring its own problems. “I see many patients with acneic skin for whom face oils will only further increase sebum levels and exacerbate acne,” she says. A glycerin-based, oil-free serum should be the medium of choice in these cases.

Whole-body puff relief

As for the body, lymph drainage can be heavenly and effective, but it is something that has to be done consistently especially if your lymph system is naturally sluggish: as said, there is no ‘pump’, so you’ll always be in need of help. Those looking primarily to improve their looks and acquire leaner limbs may want to check out Endospheres Therapy, a massage technique with a roller device involving silicone spheres that exerts ‘compressive microvibration’ first developed to treat lymphoedema in hospitals.

It’s a sort of hi-tech pummelling that somehow targets muscles, circulation and the lymph all at the same time. Delicate and pain-free it isn’t, but 12 recommended sessions (at roughly £1200 for the course), bring remarkable results in terms of excess fluid drainage, cellulite reduction and more sculpted looks.

If you’re looking for something altogether more laid-back that focuses on overall lymphatic health, pressotherapy sessions, put the ‘treat’ in treatment. You step into a (helmet-less) space suit comprising 24 air chambers and lie down. For the next half hour to an hour, these chambers consecutively inflate and deflate, pushing your lymph fluid up towards its drainage nodes in a mechanical imitation of the ‘Vodder’ manual lymph drainage technique.

It feels hypnotic and utterly relaxing, and the body emerges visibly drained – in a good way. For the ultimate lymph lovin’, you can do as Jennifer Aniston and Zac Efron and buy yourself a Body Ballancer 505 pressotherapy suit, at £6900, it means spending a small fortune but as many ‘civilians’ who’ve done so reportedly say: “I have enough shoes/handbags/clothes – I felt it was time to invest in my health.”

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