Last month at Gwyneth Paltrow’s first Goop Health Summit, Miranda Kerr revealed her try at a leech facial and comical attempt to take the slithering bloodsuckers home afterwards and care for them.
While Kerr’s foray into the vampire-like therapy may indeed be bizarre, it is by no means a stranger to the celebrity world (Demi Moore admitted to undergoing leech therapy during a cleanse she did in Austria) or to medicine (both new and old). But while we (passively) gasp at the stars and their expectedly odd behavior when it comes to beauty, the question remains: how about the rest of us?
Should we, too, be getting leech facials? Here’s what you need to know about leech facials and, well, leeches in general. Try not to squirm.
What is Leech Therapy?
Leeches are a type of segmented worm that are a lot like the kinds of worms you’d find in your backyard. They mostly live in freshwater, although there are some that live on land. Leeches are found all over the world, mostly in damp areas, such as streams, ponds, and rainforests.
Unlike regular worms, leeches feast on blood. When they are sucking blood, they release an anaesthetic, which is the reason why one doesn’t feel leeches when they bite. They then use suction and mucus to stay on their host and secrete an anti-clotting enzyme called hirudin into the bloodstream so that blood will keep flowing.
Records show that Egyptians were using leech therapy more than 3,500 years ago to treat a slew of ailments, from headaches to hemorrhoids. Bloodletting was common among the Mesopotamians, Greeks, Mayans, and Aztecs. Leech therapy, or hirudotherapy, remained popular throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. In the 1800s, the French imported some 40 million leaches per year for medicinal purposes while the English imported six million leeches from France alone.
Dr. Joshua D. Zuckerman, MD, FACS, a board-certified plastic surgeon practicing in New York speaks on leeches’ benefits, "I have used leeches in reconstructive plastic surgery. Generally I employ them post-operatively when micro-surgery has been employed to transported or reconnected tissue. If I am worried about venus outflow, which is potential threatening to a new tissue flap or reconnected appendage, leeches prevent the tissue from getting congested. In layman's terms, they prevent a situation where there is blood flow in but not sufficient blood flow out.”
In 2004, the FDA allowed for the commercial marketing of medicinal leeches, determining that leeches fit the description of a medical device. But while leeches may have a history of medicinal use, should their purpose extend to the cosmetics industry? Or, have Miranda Kerr and others gone to far, and in vain?
How it Works
The misconception I had about leech facials is that the leech is applied directly to the facial skin and boosts circulation by drawing blood to the surface of your skin. Dr. Zuckermann quickly puts that notion to rest.
“I would not recommend using leeches on the face, because the patient will have a wound where the leeches bite them," he says. "Leeches also have bacteria in their digestive tract, so any patient must also be on antibiotics while the leeches are being used. Leeches don't improve circulation; they just pull blood out of tissue (i.e. make you bleed).”
What really happens during a leech facial is this: first, the leech is placed somewhere on the human body (not directly on the face), such as on the stomach. The leech attaches itself to the skin and begins to soak up blood. Once it is engorged, the hirudotherapist removes the leech, squeezes your blood out of it, and then applies the blood to your face. After the blood sits for a bit, it is wiped clean. That’s a leech facial.
On its website, the Silesian Holistic Center in Brooklyn lists leech facial benefits, which is a result of the bioactive enzymes in leech saliva, and include increasing blood and lymph circulation, improving skin elasticity, reducing inflammation, rejuvenating blood vessels, dissolving unwanted impurities, providing natural antibiotics, killing unwanted bacteria, and relaxing and soothing the skin.
Whether these claims have actual scientific basis is murky. It is troublesome to assume that leeches are completely purified organisms that will leave behind no bacteria in the wake of a facial. While we wait for more concrete evidence of their efficacy, let’s stick to the sector where leeches are proven to be vital: plastic and reconstructive surgery. Meanwhile, a regular facial (or slightly less wacky one) will do.