When I first read the phrase “face exercises,” I thought I might be trapped in an especially bad nightmare. I’ll do a lot for good skin. I drench it in glycolic acid on a nightly basis. I hold my breath to avoid the fumes of my favorite, foul-smelling antioxidant serum. But working out my face? Come on. I only get to the gym in the morning if I’m still half-asleep, before I get the chance to talk myself out of it.
Facial exercises are nothing new—you’ve probably read about “face yoga” before—but they’ve been having somewhat of a resurgence lately. Thanks to the royal wedding, British aesthetician Nichola Joss has been getting a lot of attention for her sculpting “inner” facial, which involves massaging your cheek muscles from inside your mouth. (Meghan Markle used to regularly see Joss and is a fan of her treatment.) Ashley Graham had a pre-Met Gala session with her “trainer” at FaceGym, a UK-based face exercise studio opening later this month at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City. Meanwhile, everyone from Cindy Crawford to Natalie Portman swears by the work of Thuyen Nguyen, celebrity facialist and founder of FaceXercise Skin Fitness Studio, who gives facial muscles a physical therapy-like workout with his hands.
Think of facial exercises as a targeted, small-scale lymphatic drainage massage. “Massaging your facial muscles will immediately start working your lymphatic system, which keeps your body clear of toxins and fluids, and improves contours by removing tension and stress in the muscle,” explains Joss. “Also, it pushes blood with essential nutrients and oxygen into the skin and muscle tissue to nourish and improve cell renewal.” Not only does this help the tone and texture of your skin, massage can also refine pores, clear out congestion, and wrangle breakouts.
And its anecdotal effects are immediate. “You notice a less puffy and more toned and refreshed look after the first session,” says Nguyen. “My name got passed through the celebrity circle because this facial gave instant lift, while taking away the fatigue and water retention that often comes with long flights and grueling schedules.”
The before-and-afters posted online also make it an easy sell. The cost, however, might not. A 40-minute signature Face Gym session is $70, while a face massage with an expert aesthetician can set you back more than $300.
As I am neither Natalie Portman nor rich, I didn’t think much of it. But then, two things happened: A recent study published in the journal JAMA Dermatology found that daily facial exercises made women look three years younger than they were. The study was small, but promising. Next, I planned a trip that consisted of seven flights in three weeks, incidentally setting myself up for fatigue, water retention, and so much jet lag that I fell asleep mid-phone call with my boyfriend.
So I decided to try facial workouts for a week while on my trip. Since I don’t have a pro on-call to fix my face on a regular basis, I looked to the study, which consisted of at-home facial exercises developed with Happy Face Yoga and could serve as a guide for me. Just one big difference: Instead of an aesthetician doing the work for you, you’re in charge of moving your own muscles—like real exercise.
At night and on the planes, I practiced several facial moves used in the study, such as the Cheek Lifter, the Eyebrow Lifter, Happy Cheeks Sculpting, Scooping Jaw & Neck Firmer, the Temple Developer, and the Upper Eyelid Firmer. Each exercise is like interval training: You do each movement for 20 seconds and repeat three times for a minute total.
There’s a lot of smiling involved, so I was definitely flexing new muscles here. My favorite was the Upper Eyelid Firmer, because it a) involved closing my eyes and therefore resting, b) felt like an eye-area massage, and c) it was the easiest to figure out: All you do is smile, put your fingers together on your temples while you close your jaw, then clench your teeth. Other exercises, like Happy Cheeks Sculpting—where you smile, then push your cheeks up for 20 seconds—were more intensive and took a surprising amount of effort. (You don’t know how much effort goes into moving your eyeballs until you have to do it repeatedly.)
There’s so much facial movement that goes on I was worried it would actually cause more wrinkles, a concern the authors had already considered. “Frown lines and smile lines are caused by repetitive facial motions that we make for many hours a day over many years. On the other hand, we asked participants to do each individual exercises for just one minute per day,” explains Murad Alam, M.D., the lead author of the study and professor of dermatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “So it is likely that the exercises we recommended were enough to grow some muscles to fill out the face, but not enough to cause wrinkles.”
Even though I did an abbreviated version—about six minutes a day for seven days—I noticed a difference. My face was actually a little sore! After a 16 hour-long flight from Chicago to Hong Kong, my face didn’t look nearly as swollen and puffy as it usually does after a long haul. After a few days in Hong Kong, just as I was beginning to adjust to the time zone, I left for a wedding in Bangkok. And in photos, I actually look like myself, not the bloated doppelgänger that usually rolls through customs.
I then flew to LA and did the exercises on the flight (a mere 13 hours this time). This round was less successful, partly because I kept interrupting the exercises to check if the flight attendants could see me. I was paranoid that I’d be caught with my fingers holding up my cheeks and my eyes rolled all the way back—which is fine in the privacy of my own home, but less so in public. (The feeling reminded me of when I used a neti pot in my sorority house bathroom in college: Embarrassing but totally worth it. At least this didn’t involve snot.) But the attendants or fellow passengers didn’t seem to notice or care, thankfully. I probably made more of a scene when I sobbed during Coco.
Since I’ve returned, I’ve been slacking on my facial workouts, but I’ll probably reincorporate it into my routine, because the authors guess that face exercises may have a preventative effect. “Facial muscles, like any other muscles on the body, can be exercised and do grow in size with exercise,” explains Alam. “If you work to grow your facial muscle volume when you’re young, your face may not thin out as much with age.” And why not? It’s free and I can do it without leaving the couch. If that’s not a good way to take care of my skin, I don’t know what is.
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