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I Tried a Terrifying Electric Face Toner

Because it's better than doing face yoga?

Electronic beauty devices are hot now, and tons of beauty brands are sinking money into developing them. (You can thank the popularity of the Clarisonic for that.) From acne-curing light masks to anti-aging handheld home lasers, you can get electronic gadgets for pretty much any skincare concern. Now that even includes one for exercising your facial muscles, in the form of the FDA-approved, newly-released StriVectin Labs Microcurrent Facial Toner ($199). 

Why would you want to tone your face, you ask? The theory goes that as you age, you lose muscle mass in your face the same way you do in the rest of your body. And since facial muscle isn’t attached to bone the way, say, your quads are, the lack of muscle volume, along with the decreased collagen production that comes along with aging, contributes to that sagging, hollowed-out facial appearance.

Theoretically, this device can do for your cheeks what squats do for your booty. Dermatologist Dr. Neil Sadick told me that microcurrent technology should be used as an adjunct to other anti-aging measures like Botox, fillers and lasers, which provide more superficial results. “What those treatments are doing are addressing collagen or the nerve muscle junction, or they’re filling the dermis or fat pad,” he explains. “This technology actually gives stimulation to the muscle via electrical current to tone the muscle.” (Side note: Remember when face yoga was all over the Internet last year? A lot of dermatologists debunked it because the facial movements you have to make have the potential to increase wrinkles and lines.) Think of microcurrent technology as the equivalent of one of those vibrating plate machines -- a “workout” that requires absolutely no effort on your part.

Microcurrent facial treatments, usually in the setting of a spa or medical office, have been around for quite a while, and the technology is used in other fields of medicine as well. There’s some evidence (summarized nicely in this Elle article from a few years ago) that a gentle electric current can do everything from energize cells to help stimulate collagen. While there are a few handheld microcurrent devices on the market, like the NuFace, StriVectin’s version kicks it up a notch. The device delivers 30,000 microamps of current (compared to NuFace’s 400) which allows it to reach deeper tissue and muscle, according to the company. In clinical studies on the Facial Toner, participants had an 18 percent increase in "muscle thickness" and 80 percent of them reported increased firmness, tone and lift.

I was intrigued, so I decided to try it out. I almost put it right back in the box and shipped it back when I saw all the warnings on it, though. You can’t use it if you have heart issues, cancer, epilepsy, cognitive dysfunction, are pregnant, have “any serious illness or injury not mentioned in this guide,” you bleed internally, you take insulin, you have “facial muscle problems,” or if you’ve had Botox or other fillers injected within the last day. The following thoughts all ran through my mind while reading that: “What if I have an undiagnosed heart problem? I have no idea if I bleed internally! I could be pregnant maybe?” All of the warnings are summed up with the statement: “The long-term effects of using electrical stimulation are unknown.”

Whatever. I’ve done this, this, and this, so what’s a little bit of facial electrical stimulation? I opened the box.

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The device itself looks like airline headphones, which you plug into a white control unit that has four arrows for controlling the amount of current on each side of your face. After placing gel pads, which you can use for about six sessions, on the paddles, I positioned them in the middle of my two cheeks, then turned the unit on and started increasing the intensity on each side. The intensity setting ranges from zero to 99, and the manual states “you should increase the intensity to a level where you can see small facial muscle contractions and then reduce the intensity one step at a time until this stops.” Until I can see contractions? I had no idea what this meant, so I positioned the pads on my face and lugged it into the bathroom and looked in the mirror.

At this point I had washed my face, taken my contact lenses out, and put my glasses on. I was terrified to leave my glasses on during the treatment for fear that they would act like a lightning rod to my brain or eyeballs or something. I took them off, squinted at myself in the mirror, and turned the machine on.

“You may find the sensations unusual at first...” says the manual. That is an understatement. At an intensity level of a mere 17 out of 99, the skin around my lips started twitching in a disturbing way and it felt like I had little ants crawling under my skin. It was completely disconcerting. So I turned it down a few notches, and waited out the 10-minute cycle, all the while hoping I didn’t suddenly have a seizure. I couldn’t even distract myself with my phone, because you’re supposed to keep all devices “2.3 to 7.3 metres” away from you during treatment. 

After I removed the paddles, I didn't notice any residual twitching, which supposedly can occur. My face felt like I'd been chewing a big wad of gum for a few hours. I took it as a good sign. No pain, no gain right?

I used the device the next four nights -- you're not supposed to do it more frequently than every 24 hours -- and was only able to increase the intensity up to 24. But by the last treatment I got used to the sensation and increased the cycle from 10 minutes to 20. 

I'm going to continue using it because if I can't have a six pack on my belly, maybe I can achieve that on my face instead.