The 5-Minute Facial Workout, and the Placebo Effect

Like this, but for your face.

It would be easy for a critical beauty blogger comme moi to make fun of the book “The 5-Minute Facial Workout: 30 Exercises for a Naturally Beautiful Face.” I mean, the setup is all there, beginning with the title of the first chapter (“Facial Gymnastics: Why?”—my question exactly), through its promises that exercises will “revascularize the dermis” for “significant” results of “a younger and more relaxed face,” all illustrated with photos of a pleasant-looking, vaguely yogic woman doing things like extending her tongue to the corners of her smile, or doing what looks like an exaggerated pout.

But, like I said, that’s easy. I don’t want to take a potshot at the author of “The 5-Minute Facial Workout,” Catherine Pez, who has done a fine job of explaining how, theoretically, these exercises work. (In short, the idea is that by performing a daily ritual of face exercises, you strengthen the muscles of the face, thus ameliorating the saggy effects of maturity and helping to “sculpt” the face and keep it looking as it did before the ravages of time shat upon your visage.) Frankly, given that the entire book is a guide to facial gymnastics, it’s remarkable how non-goofy the exercises actually are. If you’re going to embark on a self-guided natural face-lift, you may as well do it with Pez leading the way and allow the book’s earnest, utterly guileless tone to carry you through. I wish you voluminous cheeks, stimulated neck fibers, fleshier lips, and all of the other things the book promises to deliver your way. Merry pouting.

No, the question here isn’t this actual book, or even the entire genre of face exercises, which includes not only “The 5-Minute Facial Workout” but sisters such as “The Ultimate Guide to the Face Yoga Method,” the “Tal Reinhart Facial Workout,” “Facial Fitness,” and my personal favorite, “Facercise.” The question of face exercise is really the question of what’s at the root of plenty of beauty work: the placebo effect.

Face exercises to prevent signs of aging are the ultimate candidate for the placebo effect: They work as well as you think they work. An aggregate study recently looked at nine individual studies that purported to find evidence that facial gymnastics worked to counteract signs of aging. But the authors of the aggregate study found that the “existing evidence is insufficient to conclude whether facial exercises are effective for reducing signs of aging.” None of the individual studies had a control group, none of them were randomized, three of them were case studies of a single person, and the highest number of participants of any study was 11. (Interestingly, the only studies the researchers could find were in South America, and indeed in Brazil it’s apparently considered a legitimate thing—aesthetic logopedics—stemming from facial exercises’ existing role in speech pathology. Anyway.) All of that may make for shaky research, but here’s the kicker: In all but one study, the participants themselves were involved with ranking results, with some of the studies’ results consisting entirely of merely asking participants if they noticed any changes after doing the exercises for a set length of time. So the people who had chosen to invest regular amounts of time in facial gymnastics were asked not only if said gymnastics made them feel better but if they made them look better. Most people wouldn't want to believe they’ve wasted their time fluttering their lips at themselves in front of a mirror for nothing, so is it any surprise that all participants said they’d noticed visible changes?

That’s not to say that they didn’t look better, though. And that’s the beauty—or the trouble—of the placebo effect when it comes to our appearance. When you’re talking about a quality as difficult to articulate as loveliness, merely believing that something “works” can be enough to lend you the light that you’re seeking. The practice or product itself becomes beside the point if the effect approximates what you were after in the first place. As beauty editor Ali put it in our interview a ways back, “If you just shelled out $300 for a cream, your brain is in this mode of, This is going to work. You have that optimism that can actually make you radiant. If you’re thinking, Oh, I just got this $5 bojangle cream, I don’t give a shit—then no, it doesn’t work.”

A red lipstick either reddens your lips or it doesn’t; you know immediately whether its essential task is fulfilled. But when it comes to products promising something more ethereal—like the “radiance” or “re-energizing” properties avowed by various creams and serums—who’s to say whether it works? Enter facial gymnastics, the promises of which are essentially immeasurable. "Redrawing” the chin? “Modifying” a “sad mouth”? “Strengthening” the “musculature of the eyelids”? Not to mention its vague assurances of improved circulation and cell renewal. Do enough facial contortions with enough devotion, and you just might see your eyelid musculature strengthened, because who even knows what a muscular eyelid looks like?

Of course, there’s a chance that placebo effect aside, these exercises do work. (Remember, the aggregate study said the evidence was inconclusive, not that the practice was ineffective.) For starters, practicing making your face more animated could conceivably lead to your face being more animated in daily life, and people with animated faces are more likely to be perceived as friendly and as leaders, thus making you possibly more attractive. And, of course, our faces do have muscles, and muscles can visibly grow with use, so, hey, why not. “The 5-Minute Facial Workout,” just $14.50, folks! (Of course, I’d argue that if you’re working your face in specific ways with aesthetic results in mind, you might well increase a generally unwanted aesthetic result—wrinkles—but I’m no dermatologist, yo.)

Still, there’s something underneath facial workouts that bothers me: In essence, these are prescribed drills of movements that most of us would perform in the course of a day. We smile, we frown, we press our lips together, we grimace, we tilt our chins upward. We move. But when these movements become formalized, they give birth to a promise: This will do something that living your everyday life won’t. It takes normal human action and shifts it from being something we do to live into something we do to stop the appearance of having lived. When I picture women doing these exercises in front of the mirror, the image that comes to mind isn’t one of relaxed joy or of self-care. In fact, the image is downright grim, though I hope I’m mistaken in this. Do these exercises if you wish, o ye of deflating cheeks; may it give you what you’re looking for, whether it be placebo effect or not. But I urge you to laugh about it too. Consider it a bonus workout.