Though it isn’t new, lymphatic massage has found its way back into the spotlight as more people seek proven forms of detoxification and wellness.
The Lymphatic System
Part of the body’s circulatory system, the lymphatic system is a complex network of organs, lymph nodes, ducts, and vessels. “I like to describe it as the garbage disposal of the body,” says LA-based aesthetician Nerida Joy. “It carries nutrients to the blood, and toxins from the blood.” According to massage therapist and lymphatic drainage expert Camila Perez, the lymphatic system is also a significant part of the immune system. “The lymphoid organs—thymus and bone marrow—produce defense cells called lymphocytes, while the lymph nodes, spleen, tonsils and various mucous membranes are where these cells do their job, fighting infections and foreign substances.”
Joy says she can’t stress enough how important the lymphatic system is to our overall health. “Our bodies are made of about 70 percent water, and though that does decrease with age, our bodies remain in constant flow. The lymphatic system is critical for keeping everything moving and keeping us healthy.”
The MLD Method
To utilize this fascinating “garbage disposal” effect for therapeutic purposes, Danish doctor Emil Vodder developed a technique called Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD): a light, skin-stretching massage that focuses on promoting the flow of lymphatic fluid to relieve swelling in the body. “He first presented this in a Medical Congress meeting in Paris in 1936, and then in the 1950s, Jacques Courtin-Clarins started performing MLD in his Parisian spa using his Body Treatment Oil, which paved the path to the method becoming trendy in Europe in the coming years,” says Perez. “In America, Hildegard Wittlingers started doing MLD in the ‘70s, and since then, it’s been widely used in Europe, Asia and Latin America, and is slowly becoming bigger in the U.S. Where I am from, Brazil, it is the number-one health and beauty treatment.” Joy says it’s also a favored technique in her native Australia, where she learned to do it 43 years ago.
Though MLD techniques vary, Anna Schreiber, senior massage therapist and team educator for Mii Amo spa, says most commonly, lymphatic massage involves very light touch and may include some rocking or gentle shaking motions. “The reason for this is that we want to stimulate the fluid below the skin to move,” she explains. “Imagine a small amount of water on the kitchen counter covered with a layer of plastic wrap, and then picture moving the water underneath it—you would use light sweeping motions.” Whereas Swedish and deep tissue massage use pressure intended to reach the muscles, Perez says MLD strokes are gentle, slow and rhythmic, and target the superficial layers of skin. “The sequence of MLD focuses on stimulating the lymph nodes, like cleaning a filter, then following the lymphatic pathway, enabling the excess fluids to get inside the vessel, and then driving them to the corresponding lymph nodes where they can be flushed from the body naturally.”
What started as a treatment for reducing swelling has evolved into a full-body wellness ritual that many now rely on for detoxifying, skin clarity and more. “Generally, lymphatic massage is helpful to reduce puffiness and swelling, but with regular treatment, it may also help promote clearer skin, as acne is often associated with a sluggish immune system,” Schreiber explains.
MLD has also become more popular in the U.S. as of late due to our increased exposure to stress and pollution, and the rise of wellness treatments. “Unfortunately nowadays it seems like it’s easier for our systems to get backed up,” says Perez. “The benefits of lymphatic massage not only include an improved immune system, better digestion and less water retention, but you also may notice a reduced appearance of cellulite and superior skin elasticity.” On the other hand, if you have a sluggish lymphatic system, Joy says it negatively affects circulation and the way skin looks. “It’s not glowy, pretty skin,” she adds. “A weak system can also cause brain fog, poor memory and poor eyesight.”
Lymphatic massage is also considered an essential part of the post-care plan for many cosmetic surgery patients to help control swelling and expedite healing. “While surgery creates good contours, it also creates scar tissue and fibrosis,” explains Campbell, CA plastic surgeon Kamakshi R. Zeidler, MD, who refers all of her body-contouring, breast surgery and even facial surgery patients to a lymphatic drainage expert (though not all plastic surgeons consider it necessary). “This is especially true when skin is lifted up and pulled tight, as is the case with facelifts, breast lifts and tummy tucks. Using lymphatic massage after surgery to mobilize the tissue before it heals helps keep the tissue soft and pliable, rather than scarred and puckered. It helps ensure we achieve smooth, natural-looking results.”
Know Before You Go
01. MLD typically takes longer than some of the more traditional 60- and 90-minute massage options on the spa menu, so plan accordingly. “It takes a long time to do it properly—more than two hours typically on the body,” says Joy. “Some medispas have machines that can automate the treatment, but it still takes about that long.”
02. Before and after the massage, it’s important to drink lots of water. “It is natural to go to the bathroom much more frequently afterward because the body is flushing out many toxins,” Schreiber says. “Some people, especially those on multiple medications, may feel sluggish or even sick afterward as the cellular debris moves through the system. Drinking lots of water helps to prevent this.”
03. In addition to resting, gentle activity can be good after a massage. “A light walk, swimming, deep belly breathing and laughing are all excellent choices,” adds Schreiber
To stimulate your lymphatic system without a trip to the spa, Joy says one of the best things you can do is jump on a trampoline, or little rebounder, for 10 minutes a day. “That and walking while swinging your arms—really pushing them back behind you—are the two best ways to keep your system healthy at home,” she adds. “If someone has a really sluggish system, they can’t even bounce on the trampoline for one minute because they get really dizzy and don’t feel good. But once their system improves, they can bounce a lot longer.”
Schreiber is also a fan of rebounding, and says it’s especially helpful for those who live a sedentary lifestyle. “Some studies suggest that sitting for more than eight hours per day at a desk is just as risky as smoking. This is due to the lack of movement in the lymphatic system,” she adds, recommending David Wolfe’s book Longevity Now, which explains what happens at a cellular level when bouncing on the rebounder.
The Right Way to Dry Brush
Dry brushing using a firm, dense brush or wooden tool to stimulate lymphatic movement isn’t a new concept either, but it’s also experiencing a resurgence as of late. “I recommend doing it daily, and it is also excellent for strengthening your skin tone,” says Schreiber. However, it has to be done correctly in order for it to work.
Hope Smith, founder of MUTHA, started dry brushing during quarantine when she could no longer get massages at the spa. “I used to brush from my feet up to my heart, and I thought it was that simple,” she says. “But the key is to start from the armpits and then move to the chest, arms, abdomen, legs and feet. For the abdomen, always brush clockwise in small circular motions to follow the digestive tracts— three-fourths of our lymph drains from the left armpit and one-fourth from the right armpit. If you have limited time, focus on the armpits, abdomen and groin.”
What About Gua Sha?
Gua sha has been popularized in the U.S. as a lymphatic drainage technique, but that’s incorrect, according to Sandra Lanshin Chiu, a licensed acupuncturist and expert in gua sha. “While facial gua sha improves lymphatic circulation, calling it a ‘lymphatic drainage technique’ is an inaccurate definition of a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practice,” she explains. “In TCM, the repetitive stroking of gua sha unblocks obstructed blood and qi (energy) in the face and neck. It aids circulation, and in turn reduces puffiness, improves skin texture, helps acne, and ‘sculpts’ facial features.” To practice facial gua sha safely and effectively, Chiu stresses the importance of learning from a licensed TCM practitioner.
MUTHA Body Contour Serum ($95)
Meant to mimic the results of a lymphatic drainage massage at home, this hydrating and resurfacing serum activates microcirculation to smooth and contour the body over time.
The natural cactus bristles on this dry brush are firm, yet soft to create the perfect amount of pressure for an energizing, circulation-boosting massage at the beginning of each day.
After dry brushing and showering, massage this lightweight, silky oil into damp skin to let the 100- percent plant extract formula sink in, helping to firm and tone skin as it deeply moisturizes.