Facial fitness is warming up — and it’s about more than the muscles.

The topic of skin health has expanded over the past few years beyond the epidermis to encompass what lies underneath. Bolstered by an influx of jade rollers, microcurrent devices, facials and procedures, facial muscles have garnered much attention. Now, a beauty industry newcomer is making the case that facial fat is just as fundamental to improving and preserving the overall health of the skin.

Adipeau is a beauty company cofounded by biotech entrepreneur Ivan Galanin, celebrity aesthetician Kristyn Smith and plastic surgeon Dr. Jacob Tower. The company, which derives its name from adipose tissue (aka fat), launched earlier this year with the Fat Balance Activator. Priced at $75, the product is meant to improve the health of facial fat.

The Fat Balance Activator was born out of an experiment by Galanin, who had been battling a years-long skin condition resulting in atrophy. The former head of commercial development at Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s Office of Technology and Business Development began to study the science of dermal fat and its impact on skin health.

“When you think about fat, you don’t think about collagen, elastin, hyaluronic acid. That’s associated with fibroblasts,” Galanin told WWD Beauty Inc. “If you have the right healthy fat cells, they signal to the fibroblasts, ‘Make collagen, make elastin, make hyaluronic acid.’ If you have unhealthy fat cells, they do the opposite: They undermine the productivity of the fibroblasts, and the impact is significant.”

Sales of skin-care tools and at-home devices surged in March and April, as beauty consumers began to stock up in preparation for coronavirus lockdown orders. These tools — and the in-person treatments they temporarily replaced — tend to target the facial muscles, but not necessarily the adipose tissue.

NuFace, which sells microcurrent devices meant to tone the face and body muscles, has experienced a surge in sales during COVID-19. Sales increased 180 percent from April to August over last year, according to the company.

Tera Peterson, NuFace’s chief executive officer, said the increase in sales suggests a solidification of skin-care devices as “mandatory” to consumers’ overall regimens.

“You have to stimulate the muscles to have full skin health,” Peterson said. “If you exercise and want to get in shape, 50 percent’s nutrition, which is your skin care, 50 percent’s fitness, which is your microcurrent. We’re advocates of stimulating the muscles, but that doesn’t mean contracting the muscles, [which] actually starts to deplete your ATP, the energy of our cells, by almost 50 percent. Studies have shown that microcurrent can increase your ATP by 500 percent, stimulating the muscles without actively contracting them.”

NuFace’s devices are geared towards the facial and body muscles, though microcurrent can play a role in preserving facial fat by encouraging cellular turnover, Peterson said.

Celebrity facialist and FaceXercise Skin Fitness founder Thuyen Nguyen is famous for his massage method that involves both lymphatic drainage and facial sculpting done solely with his fingers. Before working on million-dollar faces (Uma Thurman, Jennifer Aniston and Christie Brinkley, to name a few), Nguyen volunteered in the late Nineties as a massage therapist on paralyzed patients. There, he developed his now-signature method of massage as a form of passive exercise.

“When you go to the gym, it’s active exercise. When you have a knot in your shoulder, you go to a massage therapist to work it out because they’re bringing local blood to that area in order to detox the knot, which is a buildup of toxins, as well as calm the muscle down and tone the muscle,” Nguyen said. “Any professional athlete or dancer will tell you they have to have a traveling massage therapist because they have to not only repair the tissues they’re working out in a professional sport, but keep the tone of their muscle healthy for them not to get injured.”

Nguyen’s massage technique focuses on the facial muscles, not the fat.

“The massage cannot remove fat, it can’t remove fillers, it can’t disrupt anything,” Nguyen said. “All it does is enhance the cells, but it doesn’t break down fat. If anything, I make people look thinner based on getting rid of excess water fluid.”

FaceGym founder Inge Theron told Beauty Inc that she created the company, whose studios offer treatments resembling workouts for the face, on the premise of improving “the scaffolding” of the face.

“I wanted to make sure the message about facial fitness was simple: You take your body to the gym and you’ve got to do the same with your face,” Theron said. “If you want to get great skin, you have to work on the scaffolding of the muscles and manipulate them. Your skin becomes better as an incremental benefit of that.”

FaceGym has 12 international locations and is planning to open an additional one in New York City’s Upper East Side neighborhood during the holiday season. It charges as much as $285 for a Radio Frequency facial.

In March, after it was forced to close its New York and Los Angeles locations due to the pandemic, FaceGym saw a 560 percent increase in its online business for tutorials and retail.

Aesthetic acupuncturist Dr. Travall Croom uses acupuncture to relax too-tight facial muscles and activate sagging ones. Though the needles are inserted into the facial muscles, they can positively benefit the adipose tissue, too.

“I’m putting [needles] in to increase the circulation to the face to help slow down deep fat layer loss and bone loss,” Dr. Croom said. “One way of thinking about the aging process is a decrease of circulation. As we age, it takes longer for our bodies to get stuff from point A to point B. Our blood supply is what brings in the new nutrients and pulls out the old toxins. If that process takes longer, that means it’s taking a longer time for the cells to get new nutrients. That means they’re breaking down.

“When things start to break down or the circulation starts to decrease, the skin — besides the fat layer, which you can’t see — will also become thinner,” he continued. “Once the he
alth of the face starts to pick back up, the skin itself will thicken up. It will turnover more.”

Dr. Croom said although Botox is often thought of as slowing down the aging process, it can actually speed it up. The plastic-y or shiny look that occasionally results from longtime Botox use is due to a lack of circulation to the treated area, he said.

“[Botox is] really blocking off the nerve to the muscle,” Dr. Croom said. “After a while, the body no longer sees that muscle because it’s blocked and decreases the circulation to the area. Botox treatments are, in the long run, speeding up the aging process as opposed to preventing something. It’s more of a circulation issue regarding the skin. Once that picks back up, the skin gets more nutrients, the layers build back up, and it becomes firmer and thicker.”

The positioning of facial tools and treatments as an active part of one’s skin-care regimen is something that Adipeau’s Galanin aims to apply to facial fat. In a paper, “Facial Fat Fitness: A New Paradigm to Understand Facial Aging and Aesthetics,” published in Aesthetics Plastic Surgery, Galanin counters the common thinking that fat is more of a nuisance than a benefit. Fat, he wrote, is not a passive tissue, but an active factor of skin health, elasticity and structure.

There are three layers of facial fat in the face — dermal white adipose tissue, subcutaneous white adipose tissue and deep white adipose tissue — and their health depends on a state of equilibrium supported by factors such as healthy diet, moderate exercise and limited sun exposure.

“Moderate exercise is really good for fat. It keeps the fat cells toned,” Galanin said. “Extreme exercise is bad for fat because the body devotes all of its energy to sustaining you on that extreme exercise path and it shuts down everything that’s nonessential, [including] new fat cell formation.”

Inflammation, Galanin said, is often the primary interferer with fat fitness.

Contrary to the belief that people lose facial fat with age, Galanin said that most actually gain it. Sagging skin, he said, is a result of facial fat losing its health, consequently causing weakening of the skin.

There are two main aging paradigms,” Galanin said. “One, from the dermatologist perspective, is focused on fibroblasts and how do you get fibroblasts to be productive. The other is from a plastic surgeon’s perspective. For years, plastic surgeons were saying that people lost fat and volume in the face and they needed to be injected. Our scientific adviser, Yale-associated plastic surgeon [Dr.] Jake Tower, published a paper on facial aging. He did serial CAT Scans and showed that most people don’t lose fat in their faces, they gain it. It actually makes intuitive sense.

“You’ll find that 99 percent of dermatologists, even Park Avenue dermatologists, don’t know anything about [dermal fat],” he continued. “It’s not really their fault. They were trained in a certain mind-set or era of science, and the whole science around dermal fat is actually pretty new. It was just rediscovered in 2014. They say it takes 10 years for research discoveries to make it into practice.”

Black ginger and safflower are the active ingredients in Adipeau’s Fat Balance Activator, which will enter Net-a-porter in January 2021.

“Ingredients are instruments,” Galanin said. “They’re sending a message and playing a particular tune. It’s easier to get that tune right when you only have a couple of instruments playing.”

The product is also sold direct-to-consumer via Adipeau’s web site, which relaunches Sept. 25. The company will begin clinical trials, which were previously delayed due to the pandemic, in September.

The Fat Balance Activator is marketed for the face and is meant to be used in tandem with existing products in one’s skin-care regimen, Galanin said. Adipeau is working on future launches for the body.

“There are some exciting things we can do for the body that are not just putting the cream into a bigger bottle,” Galanin said. “We’re not going to do things like branch out into areas that other companies are really good at. There’s no reason for us to come up with another moisturizer or face oil or serum. We make it clear that Adipeau is one part of a regimen and it’s OK if other parts of that regimen come from other companies.”

Top Takeaways:

  1. The treatment category is increasingly more than skin deep, with new brands targeting the muscular structure and even facial fat in their approach to antiaging and skin health.

  2. Many believe that increasing circulation in the face is the key to a younger-looking appearance, rather than topical treatments.

  3. The at-home market for tools and techniques to tone facial muscles has soared during the coronavirus pandemic, with some brands reporting triple-digit increases.

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