Facial Aerobics: They Are A Thing, But Do They Work?

Illustrated by Sandy Ley.
Our brains went a bit berserk when we first heard about facial exercises. “A workout…for your face?” we exclaimed, amused and dubious. “There’s no way that could actually do anything. Right? Right?! TELL US EVERYTHING!!”
We’d never been more distraught (except for maybe the time we realized our love affair with cheese might be causing us to break out). After all the countless serums, peels, masks, creams, and lasers we’ve undergone, was the answer to a firmer, tighter visage simply the same as the answer to a firmer, tighter butt? What does exercising your face even entail? Was there a face-exercise gym we could visit in the nearby vicinity?
Desperate for answers and feeling the hysteria setting in, we consulted with three experts in the skin-care industry to weigh in on facial exercise — what it is, how to do it, the benefits, the doubts, and everything in between. What we found out was very interesting... here’s the scoop.
Illustrated by Sandy Ley.
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Illustrated by Sandy Ley.
What is facial exercise?
We’ve been referring to facial exercise as “face aerobics” because 1.) it’s hilarious and 2.) we enjoy picturing ourselves decked out in neon leotards ski masks, wiggling our eyebrows along with an imaginary Richard Simmons-esque instructor chanting “one two three FOUR five six seven EIGHT!”

In reality, facial exercise is a much more low-intensity practice that involves stretching different areas of your face repeatedly to tone and firm (we’ll still treasure the previous visual though). Think of it like crunches... for your epidermis. Skin Fitness creator Julie Lindh incorporated facial exercise into her Ageless Beauty program after clients started referring to her as their “personal trainer” for the face. Her Skin Fitness regime divides the face into four areas (forehead, eyes, cheeks, and chin) and takes users through a series of soothing stretching exercises to tone, tighten, and contour their visage. We recommend you do these in the privacy of your own home, lest you draw any unwanted attention on the subway.
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Illustrated by Sandy Ley.
What are the benefits?
Facial-exercise advocates say that daily targeted stretching can increase blood flow to the face, stimulate collagen production, and lead to firmer, tighter skin. “The face has several large and small muscles,” Lindh says. “Just like the body, these facial muscles can be exercised and increased in strength. The more you build, the tighter [these muscles] get. The stronger the muscles beneath the skin, the tighter it looks on the surface.”

L.A. dermatologist Dr. Jessica Wu agrees that stretching certain sections of the face can lead to increased blood circulation in that area: “Every time you work your facial muscles — just like in your arms and legs — it's pumping blood closer to your skin,” she says. For example, Wu attributes wan, sallow “smoker skin” to lack of circulation, which is why smokers can usually see an improvement in skin tone and condition immediately after quitting. In the short term, increased blood flow can lead to healthier-looking skin (think youthful, rosy cheeks); in the long term, Wu says increased blood flow can help bring oxygen and antioxidants to the surface of the skin, as well as nix toxins and free radicals.
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Illustrated by Sandy Ley.
But wait…
Though Wu agrees that exercising your face can lead to increased blood flow, she’s skeptical about the claim that it can stimulate collagen production or lessen wrinkles. “Studies show that stretching the skin with injectable fillers like Restylane wakes up the fibroblasts (which are your skin’s collagen-producing cells), and actually makes them produce more collagen,” she says. “Facial exercise may stretch your skin, but isn’t necessarily stretching your fibroblasts — it’s a big leap.”

Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mt. Sinai Hospital in NYC, agrees that flexing muscle does affect our appearance since we lose muscle tone in our face as we age, but doesn’t see the connection between that and skin laxity. Instead, he thinks there’s actually potential for facial exercise to exacerbate the problem: "Repetitive movements of facial muscles definitely contribute to wrinkling — especially around the eyes and mouth, between the eyebrows and in the forehead.”
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Illustrated by Sandy Ley.
Facial exercise vs. Botox
Facial exercise might be attractive to some women because it doesn’t involve a knife, needle, or syringe and can be done in the comfort of their own home. “My clients come to me for treatments and facial services,” says Lindh, “but this gives them something to focus on their own time. They are in control of the work they do and the areas they want to focus on.” Result-wise, Lindh says that facial exercise can “release tension in areas of deep expression” and considers it a natural alternative to surgery.

Zeichner isn’t so sure: “If anything, it would do the opposite! Botox relaxes the muscles, while repeated facial exercises would build them up.” Wu agrees with Zeichner on the opposite effects of Botox and facial exercise, but thinks the results depends on which muscles and side of the face you are working on. “If you’re working the muscles around the mouth by puckering and pursing your lips, you’re going to deepen those wrinkles. If you squint your eyes, you’re going to create deeper crow’s feet."

However, there are some areas of the face she says that could benefit from exercise: "This is something a facialist friend of mine told me years ago. She's in her '60s and has beautiful skin and an amazing jawline! One time I asked her for her secret — she says she parts her mouth and pushes the tip of her tongue against the top of her palette for a few seconds at a time, five to 10 times morning and night. This can help firm saggy muscles under the chin.”
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Illustrated by Sandy Ley.
Scientific evidence
In the end, the effectiveness of face aerobics (sorry, the phrase never gets old) is still up for debate. A new review published in the January 2014 edition of the Aesthetic Surgery Journal took a look at nine separate studies that examined the effects of facial exercises and skin rejuvenation. Even though all of the authors of the studies reported positive outcomes, the research team concluded that the lack of randomized and controlled environments prevented them from drawing any firm conclusions. Le sigh.

Tell us — are you a face-exercise believer or skeptic? Is there anyone out there who has tried it and can attest to its powers? Sound off below in the comments!
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