Will lymphatic drainage wash away cellulite and gift you glowing skin?
Massaging my way to good health
Visit any beauty website or vlogger in the orbit of the wellness industry and you’ll find an article or video about lymphatic drainage methods, massages and tools that can help. Some big words mixed in with promises of de-puffing, reducing cellulite, anti-ageing, boosting energy and immunity, promote healing, maintaining proper blood circulation, tissue regeneration and “isolating disease-causing pathogens”. The list can get long.
Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) was developed by physicians Estrid and Emil Vodder in the 1930s to treat lymphedema. A condition that causes a build-up of lymph in soft tissues, sometimes as a result of infections, injuries, surgeries, treatments and genetic disorders affecting the lymphatic system.
It has entered the beauty world, with claims of reducing bloating, cellulite, and aid weight loss. Pretty sure you’ve spotted an array of jade rollers online. Maybe even given into temptation and bought one after seeing the before-and-after videos going viral on social media.
Co-opted as a skincare trend, face rollers have been part of ancient Chinese healing practices where strategically scraping the skin with tools like rollers, gua sha, even your fingers, increases blood circulation. The rollers in the market today now can cost you anywhere from a few hundred rupees to thousands. And the leg that a large part of the beauty side of this trend stands on is lymphatic drainage.
What is lymphatic drainage and how does it work?
The lymphatic system is a subsystem of the circulatory system. A colourless fluid of white blood cells, lymph drenches our tissues, carrying away waste and toxins. But unlike blood, there’s no heart to keep the lymph moving. This normally happens through general body movements, exercise, healthy diets, stretching, and more.
I spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out where these waste materials in the lymph eventually go. Drainage, OK, but where is it draining? How does it…come out…of our bodies…
Turns out it’s pretty simple, but also kind of complex. Hear me out. Lymph drains the waste and toxins into our bloodstream where these bad bits are picked up by our liver and kidneys and kicked out through the bowels.
Sometimes, the lymphatic system can be overloaded and slow down. Poor diets, sedentary lifestyles, sustained high levels of stress, infections and illnesses — these can cause stagnation, so toxins start to build up in the body, leading to swelling.
That’s when it could use a helping hand and a little push. Massaging certain parts of the body in particular patterns can keep the lymph moving, prevent blockages and bring down swelling.
Trying different lymphatic drainage methods
I’m plenty puffy and perpetually bloated. Pre-menstruation bloating, food babies, lying in bed with a laptop most of the day. I could use some massaging, reinvigoration and definitely immunity-boosting, given the changing season and, well, global pandemic.
Seeing aesthetician Flavia Lanini’s page I wanted to try lymphatic drainage even more. The before-and-after shots of lymphatic drainage and muscle toning are incredible.
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I knew I wouldn’t have results that were anywhere close to what I was seeing on her page. Mostly because my body type is nothing like the women photographed. Also, I am not a professional.
There are spas where you can get a proper lymphatic massage done, but that was out of the question. Being left to my own devices, I tried to find doable ways to hotwire my system right at home.
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Body massage for lymphatic drainage
Lymphedema therapist and founder of The Lymphatic Message, Lisa Gainsley says that the first thing we need to do is know where our lymph nodes are. These bean-shaped clusters of cells are spread out across our neck, armpits, chest, abdomen and groin.
“The left side of our body, our legs, our core, our left arm, all drain into our thoracic duct via the left side of our body. Our right arm, head and neck drain into the thoracic duct via the right side of the body,” explains physical therapist Rebecca Kern Steiner.
She adds that you should be drinking a lot of water, and also avoid lymphatic massages if you feel ill. The movement of the lymph could speed up the virus spread.
The hand movements aren’t about pushing down on your skin, but gently scraping across it. Less of a kneading action and more of a scoop. Like you’re trying to dust off the ash from an overturned ashtray to cause the least damage to the bedsheet.
I did find it a bit hard to follow at first, but she does explain the movements better than most other tutorials.
Everything was fine until it came to do the feet. You could say I have the opposite of a foot fetish. I hate feet and think they’re ugly appendages. I don’t like to touch feet, look at them or interact with them in any way. My own or others. I am also very ticklish. So this part definitely took more time to get through.
I wasn’t expecting any major changes after doing this. It’s not like a Swedish or deep tissue massage where you feel your knots come undone and totally relax. I did this four times a week.
Face massage for lymphatic drainage
I think the most popular kind of lymphatic drainage massages I’ve seen online have been for the face. Aesthetically speaking, there’s not a lot of science behind it.
There is a 2015 study backed by Shiseido, a Japanese cosmetics company, and Professor Nobuyuki Takakura, Osaka University, that found a link between impaired lymphatic functioning and skin sagging. Though I wouldn’t rely on a study done by a cosmetics giant, especially if they’re going to try and sell you something after that.
Dr Niketa Sonavane says that a facial massage can help with overall facial puffiness and skin tone by promoting proper blood circulation. Proper circulation can also promote skin healing.
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I follow her simple technique, using jojoba oil as a base. While Sonavane uses grapeseed oil, she says you can use any oil or heavy moisturiser that suits your skin. “The point is that you need to get some slip.” You can’t be tugging at a dry face. It’s just going to cause irritation.
By the end of the massage, the oil had completely soaked into my skin. My skin was drier than I thought. You’ll want to keep the pressure light. While the body massage felt like more of a task, I really enjoyed the facial massages as the final step of my nighttime skincare routine. I did it pretty much every night. It feels like you’re manually sculpting your face. However temporary the results may be.
My sister owns one of these giant brushes and I’ve used it before to scratch my back in a spot that my arm couldn’t reach. Body brushes, when used gently and not like cheese graters, can exfoliate the skin and be a solid part of a body care routine. “It also helps detoxify your skin by increasing blood circulation and promoting lymph flow/drainage,” says dermatologist Dr Shilpi Khetarpal. You can also use a handheld brush, the long handle just makes it more convenient.
A friend sent me a video she had saved of Melissa Wood-Tepperberg, wellness coach and yoga teacher, showing a dry brushing technique on Instagram. She’s had it saved for a year now and never tried it. “That paddle thing is too intimidating.” When I saw what she meant by ‘paddle’, I was a bit shaken too. But I only needed to focus on the brush part.
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As she suggests, I did it on dry skin before a shower. Starting at the ankle, I started brushing upwards. To start off, I did three strokes in each spot but went in too hard in my excitement in my first move, I ended up scratching my calf a little bit. But lesson learnt. I went a lot slower overall than she did in the video to make sure I wasn’t going over any still-healing cat scratches or scabs.
Even in this method, it’s important to remember where the lymph nodes are, and Wood-Tepperberg explains that it’s where we eventually want to push everything to properly drain. After my shower, I slathered myself in moisturiser and I swear that my skin felt like a baby’s bottom.
It is probably from the manual exfoliation that the brush causes that my skin got so smooth. But even while doing the brushing I could kind of feel my blood pumping everywhere and kind of tingly all over.
Wood-Tepperberg recommends dry brushing 3-5 times a week.
Yoga for lymphatic drainage
I’ve tried my best, tried it several times, but I’m just not a yoga person. I don’t think I have the balance or patience for it, even though I’m sure it’s supposed to help you build on both those things.
With a mix of inversions, twists and bends, yoga, like a lot of exercises, flow yoga that moves dynamically from one posture immediately into another boost the natural draining of lymph in the body.
Gainsley has an easy-to-follow routine with Michelle Goldstein. “Every yoga pose is going to help boost your immunity and lymphatic system,” says Gainsley. This sequence pays special focus to these systems.
Lion’s breath, hands down, is the favourite yoga pose I’ve ever done. There’s something about sticking out my tongue, exhaling from the mouth and making crazy eyes that really tickles my inner demon child.
I really enjoyed doing this sequence. Less exercise, it felt like a good stretch. But don’t be like me. When you’re doing the move where you lock your hands behind your back and bend forward, come back up slowly to avoid getting a head rush.
Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday have been my lymphatic drainage days for the past two weeks. I haven’t seen any dramatic changes in my body but maybe two weeks is too soon to tell. I do need to keep my expectations grounded in reality as well, considering I’m not an expert doing a massage and muscle contouring.
My arms and legs are a lot smoother thanks to the dry brushing. I have found myself stroking my arm a lot more. But I’d recommend people with sensitive skin and skin conditions like body acne, eczema and psoriasis avoid doing this. And definitely don’t take the brush to your face.
I think my favourite part has to be the facial massage. After the first two days, I didn’t even care about the lymphatic drainage part that much, I just enjoyed those few moments focusing on this soothing practice as a moment of self-care. I did see less puffiness on my face – nothing too dramatic. But the results don’t last long. If you’re doing it every day you’ll see a result every day but the days you skip it, you’ll notice that too.
I don’t know if I can relate this to the lymphatic drainage exercises I’ve been doing but I haven’t gotten as stuffy as I normally do this time of year when the seasons change. Nor have I fallen ill, though being indoors has probably helped too. I am more energetic, and the facial massages have brought a healthier colour to my skin with all the blood circulation.
But my body is still quite puffy and bloated, I wasn’t expecting that to magically change. Would I have liked to get rid of my belly pouch? Sure, but I also know there’s no magical fix for it other than healthy lifestyle practices and sustainable workout routines.
I’m definitely carrying on with the facial massages and the dry brushing, if not for good lymphatic drainage, for smooth, glowing skin that my cat and I can enjoy considering I live alone and no one can tell the difference over Zoom calls.