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What it feels like to get your buccal massaged by a stranger

Kristen Bateman tries out the latest facial contouring treatment

Lying on a table at Karine Kazarian’s spa in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighbourhood on a sunny spring afternoon, esthetician Aiza Karimova has been rapidly massaging the lower part of my face for a good 30 minutes with Biologique Recherche cleanser. I am trying the buccal massage – a one-hour treatment that promises smoother skin, increased contour of the mouth, jaw, and cheekbones and an increase in the production of collagen. Karimova has flawless skin, so I feel like I’m in great hands.

The treatment is comprised of two parts: a 30-minute face massage and another 30-minute massage inside the mouth. The first half hour of the treatment focuses on the lower part of the face. With aggressive sweeps, Karimova taps, pats and pulls my face upwards. There’s an emphasis on the area around my cheekbones and on my chin. The deep kneading on my cheekbone area is the only time I felt pain – similar to what one might feel while getting a deep tissue massage.

Buccal massage is a highly specialized treatment – so much so, that only a handful of spas in New York City offer it. Estheticians claim that by massaging the fascia inside and outside the mouth, the treatment increases blood and oxygen supply and collagen production. It also reportedly releases muscle tension that may lead to deep wrinkles or expression lines. “We have the most stress in the jawline,” explains Karimova. “When we’re angry or have negative emotions, we have the most stress there. The earth’s gravity pulls everything down to there.”

For those unfamiliar with buccal massage, the treatment that can be traced back to the mid-1980s and is currently enjoying a bit of a resurgence thanks to Meghan Markle who swears by the treatments she receives from London-based Nicola Joss. Karimova credits the famed French skincare guru Joëlle Ciocco as leading the current buccal massage movement as well as Yakov Gershkovich, who has innovated the technique throughout training seminars around the world. According to her, other estheticians and herself have updated the massage to be more targeted to the chin and jawline. One of the reasons she suspects that the treatment has taken off is because of its non-invasive method and the effects that follow. Face massages, in general, have become so popular, that Face Gym, a dedicated spot to get your face tapped, prodded and pulled into perfection, recently opened inside Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.

Back on the spa table and Karimova has now moved onto the second half of the treatment. “I promise this won’t hurt,” she says, putting her hands inside my mouth. It's a more intense version of the first half. I wouldn’t say it was painful per se, but it wasn’t pleasant. Karimova explains that the “chewing muscles” are the most stressed and therefore need the most work. Thus, similar deep tissue strokes are applied to the inside of my cheeks while she sweeps over the outside areas too. Yes, there is drool and I am told to try to relax and to keep my eyes closed.

While the treatment itself is promoted as a facelift without the need for any needles or knives, it’s also a treatment that Karine Kazarian’s spa recommends to adults of any age, because it’s preventative and not just corrective. ”It’s the best natural alternative to improve your face. Injections and plastic surgery can have side effects. A face massage has no side effects it’s very natural,” explains Karimova. She describes the experience of getting this treatment done regularly as “like going to the gym.”

According to Karimova, the ideal scenario is you get the treatment every other week while also maintaining your own facial muscles with exercises in between appointments. For example, smooshing your lips together with your hands or deeply pushing into the area below your cheekbones to lift it. There’s a world of YouTube videos out there making buccal massage and facial massages in general extremely accessible as a beauty treatment if you don’t want to pay the price of $250 per hour. Joss has even posted a tutorial diagram on her own Instagram.

We’re in the spa and the massage is over. I sit up and inspect my face. It's definitely looking less puffy and appears to be tighter and more defined around the jawline. And it definitely feels different – it feels just like Karimova says, like going to the gym; everything feels tight and slightly sore. As a 20-something with little concerns about wrinkles, I was far more invested in the treatment as a way to get super sculpted cheekbones and jawline as well as a way to reduce puffiness. My face had puffed up due to travelling to three continents in four weeks -- much more so than it usually is --, so I did see and feel a significant difference, just in terms of a more defined (though slightly red from the pressure) face as soon as the treatment was finished.

A few days later as I apply my foundation with a Beautyblender sponge, the area around my cheekbones still feels sore as I press into it. Opening my mouth wide I can feel a little soreness in the muscles, too. But the benefit is that my jawline and cheekbones still feel more pronounced than they usually do. I’d take a buccal massage over going to the regular gym any day.