Cupping is known by many names throughout the world. The Chinese call it Ba Hou Guan (fire cupping). In Yiddish it is Bankes. In Arabic it is Al-Hijama.
What is Cupping?
Cupping is an ancient therapy which started in East Asia and has traveled throughout many regions of the world. It was a common home remedy for colds, fevers, and muscle aches. Nowadays, it is more commonly performed in the offices of acupuncturists and doctors.
How is Cupping Done?
Cupping is performed by depressurizing the inside of the cup with a flame or a vacuum, so it then lifts up the skin below it. Traditionally cupping works to increase circulation and remove heat from the body. It is used for a wide range of conditions including stress, muscle pain, arthritis, chest colds and fevers, and even some skin conditions.
Plastic and glass are the most common materials used today. Cups may range in size from 1-3 inches across the opening.
Different cupping techniques are used depending on the therapeutic goal. Flash fire cupping is when the cups are rapidly and repeatedly placed close to one another on a region of the body, the upper back for example. Sliding cups are when a lubricant, petroleum jelly or a waxy balm, is rubbed into an area of the body, usually the back. The cups are positioned over the balm and slid back and forth throughout a region. These techniques are both considered dry cupping and are excellent for muscle pain, common colds, and chest congestion. [2,4]
Bleeding cupping, also called wet cupping, is another technique. The skin is pricked with a lancet and the cup is placed over the area. The suction from the cup will draw blood through the incision. The bleeding is thought to remove heat and stagnation from the body. Wet cupping is more often used for reducing swelling, inflammation, and removing heat from the body.
Cupping for Acne
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), acne is often caused by heat, dampness, and stagnation. Wet cupping, in particular, is used for acne because it can remove heat and stagnation. It has been theorized that wet cupping has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, which may be a reason it can be helpful for some skin conditions.
There are a number of small studies and reports for wet cupping alone or in combination with other therapies that have been successful in treating acne, [1,5-8] particularly for inflammatory and cystic acne. In TCM, it is very common to combine cupping with other modalities such as acupuncture or herbal medicine.
A meta-analysis of wet cupping concluded that cupping alone or in combination with herbal interventions is more effective than herbal interventions alone. Cupping combined with acupuncture was found to have a trend toward being more effective than acupuncture alone. For example, in a small, uncontrolled trial of wet cupping combined with an herbal face mask, the majority of patients saw significant improvement. Another study that examined wet cupping found that 10 of 11 people with acne had improvement in their symptoms. In these patients, cupping also significantly reduced serum IgE and IL-2 levels and significantly increased serum C3 levels.
These studies show the promising effects of cupping as an adjunctive treatment for acne, though further studies are needed.
Where is Cupping Done for Acne?
Cups are placed on different parts of the body for different conditions. For example, with chest congestion, the cups are often placed on the upper part of the chest, but for back pain, they would be done on the back.
When treating inflammatory conditions, such as acne, the goal is to remove heat and toxins. This is generally done through cupping on the back. Even if the acne is on the face or chest, it is most often done on the back.
How Does Cupping Work?
According to Chinese medicine, cupping helps to stimulate the circulation of qi and blood and remove heat toxins from the body. We don’t know everything about how cupping works yet, but some researchers are starting to piece it together. Wet cupping has been shown to have an antioxidant effect, and may also have an anti-inflammatory effect.
Is Cupping Safe for Acne?
Cupping is mostly safe for treating acne. Cupping will leave bruises on the areas around the cups. Anemia has been reported as a side effect from wet cupping so caution should be taken not to treat excessively. 
- Cupping has been used in cultures throughout the world to stimulate the circulation of qi and blood and remove toxins from the body.
- Cupping appears to have systemic antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and may be considered as an adjunctive treatment for acne.