No, those viral face exercises can’t change your face shape, experts say

Face exercises, also known as "face yoga," are one of the latest wellness trends, with plenty of videos demonstrating how to perform them on social media. Dr. Taz Bhatia, a board-certified medical doctor with an interest in Eastern medicine, even showed off some examples of face exercises on a Jan. 4 segment on TODAY.

Many people believe face exercises, which you can easily perform from the comfort of your home, can lift and tone your face, reduce wrinkles, help you look younger and just generally improve your face shape and appearance.

"The face is a reflection of your overall health, right? It’s really telling us a story," Bhatia said on TODAY. "We want procedures and things that we can do at home before we're thinking about fillers and lasers and the more expensive stuff."

It sounds like a no-brainer that you should give it a try, right? But before you make face exercises part of your 2023 routine, here are some things to know, from what the scientific evidence says to other ways the repetitive movements may affect your skin and face.

What do face exercises do?

To understand how face exercises may work, you should know about the anatomy of the face, which is made up of skin, fat and muscle layered on top of the skull. The outermost layer of skin on your face, what you see and wash every day, is called the epidermis. Underneath that is a thicker layer called the dermis. Underneath that is a layer of subcutaneous fat, explained Dr. Murad Alam, vice chair of dermatology at Northwestern University.

Beneath the subcutaneous fat is "a series of fat pads, which are plump, fat-containing areas that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle … to create the volume that gives our face shape,” said Alam.

Below the fat pads and above the bones of the skull are the facial muscles. You can smile, frown, raise your eyebrows, chew and do other facial movements all thanks to these muscles, Alam added.

Your fat pads play a role in the fullness of your face; the fuller your face, generally speaking, the younger you look.

“As we get older, the fat pads in particular begin to atrophy, meaning they thin and become less plump … and as they do this, they also sag (due to gravity),” said Alam. That sagging can create a "hollowness" in the upper part of the face as people age.

Performing face yoga or other exercises cannot increase the plumpness of the fat pads or make them sag less, according to Alam. Face exercises also do not change the look or feel of the skin itself.

“The purpose of the facial exercises seems to be to help to grow muscles under the fat pads such that, as you exercise them, they become larger in size and begin to perform some of the functions the fat pads were performing before to make your face look fuller,” said Alam.

What are the best face exercises?

Several experts told TODAY there's not enough evidence to support that face exercises can transform your jawline, slim your face or reduce wrinkles, so it's difficult to say which are the best use of time.

That said, an informal study in 2018 at Northwestern University conducted by Alam found that face exercises from videos by Happy Face Yoga founder Gary Sikorski helped the participants' — 16 middle-aged women — cheeks look a little fuller. It also found that their "estimated age" dropped by 2.8 years after 20 weeks of doing the exercises for at least 30 minutes daily. However, there were many limitations to the study, including a small sample size and no control group, according to the authors.

Some of Sikorski's face exercises include:

  • Face exercise jawline: Place your hands at the base of your neck, raise your chin and slightly tilt your head back. Then extend your lower jaw, push the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth, and smile so the neck muscles tighten. Sikorski holds this face pose for 30 seconds.

  • Face exercise for cheeks: Smile without showing your teeth and roll your lips outward so you're making a "sour puss" expression. Continue to try to smile with the corners of your mouth so you're pushing your cheek muscles upward. Press your finger at the corner of your lips on either side and slowly slide them up toward your cheekbones with firm pressure. When you get to the top of the cheek bone, continue to press firmly for 20 seconds.

  • Face exercise for wrinkles: Place three fingers from each hand between the eyebrows, press down and pull up so you're lifting your eyebrows, stretch them apart, and frown your eyebrows down. With your fingers still firmly pushing down on your forehead, slide them in opposite directions toward either side of your head. Sikorksi suggests doing 10 repetitions.

Bhatia also shared some exercises on TODAY in a segment on 2023 wellness trends. She recommended doing them for 10 minutes twice a day.

  • The forehead press: Interlink your fingers on your left and right hand, place them on top your head, push down for 10 seconds and rub side to side. Repeat the same motion on your forehead. Bhatia said the exercise can release tension and relax the muscles in your forehead.

  • The cheek lifter: Put your thumbs under the chin, put your pointer fingers at the corners of your mouth, smile and push your fingers up to puff up your cheeks. "You're really giving some mobility to the muscles of the face," Bhatia explained.

face exercise cheek lifter (TODAY)
face exercise cheek lifter (TODAY)

Numerous wellness influencers on TikTok have also shared their own face exercise routines, though it's not clear if these exercises have been studied or what their benefits might be, if any.

One person with the username @kvitka_app shared face exercises for double chins, per the video caption. The first move involves tilting your head back, sticking your tongue out, curving the tip upward and moving the tongue up and down. Another face exercise demonstrated in the video starts with pressing up under the cheek bones with two fingers while your lips are rolled into your mouth and smiling to move the corners of the mouth upward.

A skin care influencer who goes by Odisseya shared a multipart routine that they say targets the forehead, eyes, cheeks, chin and jawline. The routine includes raising the eyebrows, massaging your forehead, blinking, smiling without showing teeth while massaging the corners of the mouth, and moving your whole head to look up and then lowering it back to eye level.

Another influencer, Steph Flockhart, posted a video showing off what they say is the before-and-after of doing face exercises. Flockhart's involve pulling out the lips with your fingers and manually pulling up the skin on the side of the eye by the temple. In the clip, Flockhart also tries out an LED mask and gua sha.

A trend called “mewing” — which involves pressing the tongue to the roof of the mouth while keeping the jaw closed — has also skyrocketed on TikTok, with many users claiming that it can transform the jawline.

Can face exercises really work?

“I think the benefits (of face exercises) are quite limited,” Dr. Adam Friedman, professor and chair of dermatology at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, told TODAY. “Strengthening those facial muscles has no real impact on the support structures in the skin that over time break down and lead to the signs of aging.”

Even if you can strengthen your face muscles through exercises, there is a limit to how much you can actually grow these muscles and how much improvement you can see, said Alam.

“When we train (our muscles), we overload them, and the muscle adapts to that stress with hypertrophy or increasing its volume,” Sebastian Cotofana, associate professor of anatomy in the department of clinical anatomy at Mayo Clinic, told TODAY. But facial muscles are a totally different story.

“The facial muscles are embedded in a three-dimensional framework of connective tissue, like a honeycomb, and when you move the muscles, all the soft tissues move, which is how facial expression works,” said Cotofana, adding that face exercises are largely just moving the skin around.

This may increase blood flow to the face and the oxygenation of the soft tissues, said Cotofana, but the visible effects of this, if any, would be very short-lived.

“There is no evidence that these muscles adapt to stress in terms of an increase in volume. ... One of the reasons could be that the stress you can apply to these muscles is limited, or you don't apply the correct stress to them,” Cotofana explained.

In other words, you can't strength train your face like you would your biceps by lifting weights.

However, the temporalis and masseter muscles, which help open and close the mouth, can be trained more directly through chewing or clenching, said Cotofana. It's possible to grow these muscles to the extent that the jawline appears more square and contoured — but these exercises can worsen temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems, and not everyone wants a wider jawline, he added.

While mewing could theoretically engage these same chewing muscles, said Cotofana, there isn't any research to back up the viral claims that it can reshape the face or jaw, the experts noted.

“On social media, even if one person has had a tremendous response, that is not the scientific approach,” said Friedman.

Can face exercises cause wrinkles? 

Probably not, according to the experts. “I think the likelihood of harming yourself with these is very, very low. … The worst case scenario is you waste a little bit of time, and you don’t see as much improvement as you would have liked,” said Alam.

It makes sense that people would be concerned about wrinkles and fine lines, which are in part caused by repeated facial movements, said Friedman. However, there isn’t evidence that facial exercises accelerate that process or create new wrinkles, the experts said.

When someone has “elevens,” or two lines in between their eyes, for example, it’s typically not because the muscle becomes stronger, said Cotofana. “It’s because at some point the skin gives in, like when you have a new pair of shoes that break (or crease).”

Bottom line: Face exercises probably won’t do any harm, but there is not enough hard scientific evidence suggesting they are effective at this point, said Cotofana. And they are definitely no replacement for things like fillers, botox or surgery, the experts noted.

“No matter what you do, there’s no quick fix,” Friedman said. "If you're going to invest time or money into something for the purpose of maintaining or improving the appearance of your face ... you might as well invest in things that actually have some supporting evidence," said Friedman.

If you're looking for simple and accessible things you can do with respect to the classic signs of skin aging, you're much better off focusing on moisturizing and sun protection, said Friedman.

Anyone who is concerned about their skin or the appearance of their face should consult a dermatologist, the experts noted.

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