Professional skin therapists globally are taught to fight the effects of gravity while treating the skin and this is drummed into us from day one of our training; that all movements should be upwards and outwards whether cleansing, applying product or massaging the skin. One of the benefits of a facial treatment is to stimulate blood flow to bring oxygen and nutrients to the skin.
Then along comes this technique lymphatic drainage massage and suddenly the movements are the complete opposite; downwards and outwards. Why is this?
To understand this difference in massage movements we need to revisit basic anatomy and physiology.
The circulatory system forms a continuous circuit around the body with arteries and veins running alongside each other in relatively close proximity, carrying oxygenated blood away from the heart and deoxygenated blood back towards the heart respectively. The blood is in constant motion propelled by our perpetual beating, pumping action of the heart. When a massage technique to stimulate blood flow, such as Swedish/European is used, with its back-and-forth movements we know the blood is moving in both directions.
This is not the case for lymphatic flow. Lymphatic capillaries are blind ended vessels, meaning they are capped off at the end. If we use a clothing analogy, blood capillaries are like sleeves and open at both ends whereas lymph capillaries are more like socks and only open at one end. This means lymphatic vessels only carry lymph in a one-way direction, remember they are closed off at one end and therefore the fluid can only be transported in one direction.
The pressure of lymph drainage massage should be light because the delicate, tubular lymphatic capillaries are microscopic and only one cell in thickness which are easily squashed and flattened under slight pressure. They are located just below the epidermis in the upper papillary layer of the dermis. We often see illustrations of a cross section of the skin in our textbooks which are greatly magnified and without a point of reference to the actual size we fail to really grasp the true depth.
While the thickness of the epidermis varies according to body area, health, sex, age, lifestyle and ethnicity if we bear in mind the thickness of the epidermis is as thick as an average piece of paper, we can appreciate the narrowness of this protective structure. Bearing these factors in mind helps us understand why the technique is so feather light in nature.
Regarding the face, head and neck lymphatic vessels carry lymph downwards and outwards to the perimeter of the face and drain down the neck where the lymph rejoins the blood circulation; this is where lymphatic fluid originated from.
So, whether you’re using your hands or a Gua Sha board use light downward movements always draining downwards and outwards.