Does Exercise Deliver for Skin Care?

Just as everyone wants the perfect flat stomach, many people would love a quick way—short of a surgical face lift—to firm up their faces.

That's the hook behind a recent spate of articles, books, videos, and even tiny devices touting facial exercises as a vital addition to the daily fitness routine. Promoters say these exercises can minimize wrinkles, eliminate under-eye bags and firm double chins. They can, according to the promises, restore or maintain that youthful profile.

But do they really work? Probably not, says Rodney Basler, M.D., a member of the American Academy of Dermatology. "The only thing that's going to push those wrinkles out is if you increase the volume of your face, like blowing air into a balloon," Dr. Basler says. Unfortunately, you can't pump up tiny facial muscles with exercise, he says. And no amount of heavy jawing can improve skin tone.

Looking for the real cause of skin wrinkling and aging? "It's not muscle laxity," says Fred Fedok, M.D., director of facial plastic and reconstructive surgery at Pennsylvania State University. "It's more due to damage from the sun."

The sun causes an abnormal distribution of elastin and collagen, vital components of the skin's thickest layer, Dr. Fedok says. The result: Skin begins to lose its structural integrity.

Most 40-somethings got 75 percent of their sun-damaging exposure before they were 18—at a time when the dangers of tanning weren't known, Dr. Fedok says. Now, most people know to use sunscreen liberally, to wear hats and cover-ups, and to avoid the "working on a tan" sunbaking that was popular 25 years ago.

What else causes sagging and wrinkles? One culprit is the inevitable effect of gravity acting over time on the connective ligament-like tissues that hold the fat pads of the face in place, Dr. Fedok says.

Another cause: Remember when your mother warned you not to make a face—it might freeze that way? Well, she had a point. Exaggerated facial expressions connected with strong emotions eventually can cause changes in the tissues under the skin. Laugh lines are just that.

Facial exercises, which work on the muscles underneath the skin and not on the skin or connective tissue itself, do nothing to reverse these wrinkle- and jowl-making sources, Dr. Fedok says. In fact, exercises are probably unnecessary because—except in cases of facial paralysis, burns, stroke or trauma— constantly moving facial muscles tend to stay toned. "Practice relaxing the muscles, not toning them," he says. "Toning is happening already every moment of the day."

When you fight wrinkles, dermatologists say, you're fighting destiny. Dozens of techniques have been promoted as wrinkle-busters. Many are useless. Nevertheless, there are some things you can do to offset the effects of time, sun and heredity:

Avoid excess sun

Use sun block, avoid deep tans or burns and wear sunglasses and a hat. Don't assume you're safe because you're in the shade under a boardwalk or a beach umbrella: Concrete and sand can reflect most of the sun's harmful rays.

Exercise

While facial exercises may not give you better skin, overall body exercise probably will, dermatologists say. "You do, as a matter of fact, get a look of health with people who do exercise," Dr. Basler says. "You get better color, because exercise temporarily increases your blood pressure and helps you get more blood to the skin, which brings more oxygen and nutrients to your facial skin."

Cleanse sensibly

A regular cleaning regimen will do your skin a world of good, says Nelson Lee Novick, M.D., a dermatologist at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. A gentle washing with mild soap and warm water is enough. Too much cleaning and scrubbing can dry your skin, making wrinkles more prominent.

Don't smoke

Not only does it slow the flow of oxygen to your skin, the constant puckering motion of dragging on a cigarette wrinkles your upper lip.

Use treatments that work

Make sure you have your doctor's approval. The best treatment is a cream called Retin-A, the trade name for retinoic acid, which is available only by prescription. The vitamin A derivative, first used as an acne treatment, was later discovered to be an effective remover of smaller wrinkles.

Be skeptical

Other wrinkle fighting tactics have minor benefits, dermatologists say. But if you're concerned about aging and your face, they may be worth considering. Such techniques include sleeping on your back and trying to keep a relaxed facial expression.

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