Are Facial Exercises Worth the Effort?

We investigate the latest in facial yoga and facial exercises. 
Are Facial Exercises Worth the Effort?Michael Stillwell

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Facial exercises may be one of the oldest anti-aging tactics in the book. Yogis in India have practiced it for thousands of years, and various iterations of facial gymnastics have been in and out of vogue in popular culture since the early 20th century. The notion seems sound: just as we exercise our bodies in the gym to keep them supple and strong, it would follow that the muscles in our face might also become more lifted and taut with regular workout sessions. And now, with technologies such as Emface entering the game, and at-home electrical-current muscle-stimulating devices becoming increasingly effective and accessible, there may be more ways to strategically build facial muscles than ever before, potentially resulting in a more youthful look. Here's everything you need to know.

What is facial exercise?

Essentially, it’s exactly what it sounds like: making repetitive motions and exaggerated expressions in order to activate and build muscles. Consider it resistance training for the face—by strengthening the matrix that holds everything up, sagging around the jaw and eyes might be less likely over time. Facial aging is caused by a loss of elasticity, as well as by the gradual displacement of fat pads between muscle and skin, which tend to slide downward over time. The idea behind doing exercises is that by building up the muscle, the fat pads will be more prone to stay in place, making the face appear fuller and more youthful.

Does it work?

Maybe! A 2018 study conducted at Northwestern University showed that 20 weeks of daily facial exercise did indeed yield measurably firmer skin, and fuller upper and lower cheeks. The protocol involved 30 minutes a day for the first 8 weeks of the study, then every other day thereafter. Participants—sixteen women aged between 40 and 65—deemed themselves to look up to three years younger at the study’s completion, while impartial dermatologists gauged a slight but significant increase in cheek fullness. Since this was the first, and so far only, credible academic study to measure the effects of facial exercise, consider it a cautiously optimistic indication that there probably is a benefit to facial exercise—provided you dedicate a significant amount of time to it, and stick with a regimen.

“I recommend facial exercises to be done every day,” says New York dermatologist Doris Day, MD. “We exercise our face every time we make expressions, and most people overuse certain muscles which ends up weakening the opposing muscles. When you frown often enough to create a crease, you're overusing those muscles and weakening the muscles that lift and smile, because you’re using those muscles less. Another rule is that muscles can only pull in one direction. So for every muscle pulling down, there's an opposite/paired muscle that pulls up. I try to teach my patients (and I have a section in my book Beyond Beautiful devoted to this) how to do facial exercises to lift and rejuvenate. It helps in-office treatments last longer and in many cases it can even help delay the need for treatment.”

Young woman doing face massage, close up
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What are the best anti-aging facial exercises to do at home?

The Northwestern University study involved exercises developed by Gary Sikorski of Happy Face Yoga. Two that proved to be most effective were The Cheek Lifter and the Eyebrow Lifter. For the Cheek Lifter, open the mouth to form an O, pull the upper lip up over the top teeth, and smile to lift the cheek muscles up. Then place fingers lightly on the top part of the cheek, release the muscles to lower them, and lift back up, repeating several times. For the Eyebrow Lifter, smile, then press three fingertips of each hand under your eyebrows to force your eyes open. Try to frown your eyebrows down against your fingers, then close your upper eyelids tightly and roll your eyeballs up. Hold for 20 seconds, then relax.

Day recommends what she calls The Invisible Smile: “It’s all the motions of a big smile, so big that your ears move back, but without showing any teeth,” she says. “This lifts the jawline, makes you feel happy and helps you be engaged and present. It’s also the opposite of a frown, so you don't furrow the brows and the corners of your mouth come up.”

Is there a cheat?

Not exactly. But there is a different approach: stimulating the facial muscles with massage. This is the theory behind the wildly successful FaceGym, founded by Inge Theron, formerly the Spa Junkie columnist for the Financial Times. “I really wanted the workout to mimic what you do in the gym,” she says. So each facial involves a warm up, followed by “cardio for draining and detoxifying,” then “sculpting, for the toning and tightening the muscles.” She considers is “a personal training studio for the scaffolding of the face.Our trainers go through an intensive 3-week boot camp to learn and perfect the deep tissue massage and muscle manipulation techniques, which are used along with the addition of tools such as the FaceGym Pro, Face Ball, Guasha Stone and Gold Roller. It’s the unique combination of muscle work, tools and highly efficacious skincare that provide dramatic results.”

Celebrity facialist Thuyen Nguyen, who regularly works with Michelle Williams, Cindy Crawford, and Amal Clooney, espouses a similar concept with his FaceXercise, but he believes that all of the work can be done with the hands—no microcurrent or rollers required [which he says can deliver better results, and more quickly, than facial exercise alone could ever do]. “It’s very difficult for people to keep facial exercise up, because they have to do it for 20 to 30 minutes a day. Most of us barely have time to shower,” he says. “When you’re 20 something years old, you don’t even have to work out and your muscle tone is held because your metabolism is so fast. But five to ten years later, your body just doesn’t keep the muscle tone, so you have to work out more. It’s the same philosophy for skin. I just do the work while the clients lie back.”

The difference, he says, between active facial exercise, which can strengthen muscles, and passive facial exercise—delivered through massage—is that the former “can’t help with elasticity or with pores,” while the latter can. “You see the tone come back,” he says, “and just like when you work out the body, you raise your endorphins, you raise your immune system, and your skin gets a glow from all of the blood circulation.” Nguyen typically sees clients once a or once a month, depending on schedule and budget. “But when I start with most people, I have them come back one week after the first session, because just like a trainer I’m capturing muscle memory. The more I push the blood in, the more cheek expands, and the more they work with me the more resilient their skin and muscles become. Just like the body looks better and feels less lethargic the more you exercise, it’s the same with the face.”

Facialist Joanna Czech believes that the best approach is a combination of regular facials involving microcurrent with an at-home regimen of muscle-stimulating massage—and if you have the time to do facial exercises, go for it. “I recommend facial massage to all my clients,” she says. “It’s different from facial exercise, and it’s what I consider the lazy way to stimulate your muscles and skin. It can actually change the shape of your face, lifting the brow and jawline and sculpting the cheekbone. It stimulates blood flow, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to the tissue and results in a brighter, healthier complexion. All of my treatments include facial massage, but I cannot do facial exercises on clients—they have to do those themselves.”

Need a little help in the facial massage game? Check out these facial tools below:

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