By Diane Mapes
What it is: Flex-Away facial exerciser and toner, $49, www.flexawaysystem.com
What it claims to do: The manufacturer, Hanna Ibes, Inc., says the Flex-Away facial exerciser gives the face and neck muscles the "workout they need to stay fit and healthy." It promises users will see their "down-turned lips become rounded and lifted, giving the entire face a younger appearance" and "lower cheeks appear hollower for a classic sculptured look."
The device promises to exercise the "large and powerful muscles surrounding the lips," which supposedly connect to the rest of your face muscles like "the hub of a wheel, with many spokes."
Our experience: When my Flex-Away arrived in the mail, it sat on the coffee table for a month. Why? I was terrified of the thing.
The mouthpiece – a soft rubber horseshoe threaded by a large rubber band – looked like a cross between a horse bit and something out of "The Silence of the Lambs." But after weeks of sidelong glances – and a growing awareness of yet another looming birthday – I decided to put my money where my mouth is.
Thankfully, there was a DVD included with the kit (also included: about 250 rubber bands), otherwise I wouldn't have been able to figure it out with the Step-by-Step User's Guide. I'm sure it's just me, but the pamphlet's instructions – "Slide the shield along the outside of teeth all the way back into mouth, while pushing in the front so half-moon flaps rest behind front teeth. Study this drawing which shows how the device would look if you could see inside your mouth" – were confusing and the crude drawings reminiscent of a 1911 doctor's book I used to scare myself with back when I was a child. But after viewing the DVD about 10 times, and using a hand mirror (as recommended), I finally figured out how to slide the "bit" into place so I could "flex away the signs of aging and stress."
Flex-Away users are directed to do between 40 to 70 "pushes" per session with a minimum of two sessions per day. Basically, you stick the thing in your mouth and make an "O" face over and over again. I did mine for two weeks – about 50 "pushes" per session – even achieving this much was difficult since the device never seemed to stay in place. Whether this was due to a design flaw in the Flex-Away or in my jaw is hard to say.
I can say that after using the Flex-Away I did feel something: tenderness in the corners of my mouth (among the optional components are a few pairs of foamy "bumpers" which you can thread onto the device to guard against this), a gagging sensation and muscle soreness (caused either from the device's "Patented Vertical Lift" or from the rictus of horror that passed over my face each time I looked in the mirror).
But after two weeks of use, I did not see any difference in my upper and lower cheeks, labial and marionette lines, or jaw line, chin and lips. I still looked old.
What the experts say: Dr. Anthony Youn, a Michigan-based, board-certified plastic surgeon and msnbc.com contributor, says I shouldn't feel bad about that my Flex-Away didn't revitalize my aging face.
"There's never been a study that's shown that flexing the muscles does anything," he says. Youn says there are three main ways that a face ages. First, by the loss of volume in the skin; second, by changes in the skin such as fine lines and wrinkles; and third, by drooping skin and muscles. "The idea for some of these flexing devices is that by flexing the muscle, it becomes stronger and hopefully doesn't droop as much," he says. "But the problem with a drooping muscle is not that it's weak; it's that it's lax; it's stretched out. Scientifically, as a physician, and one who's taken many gross anatomy courses, it makes absolutely no scientific sense to me at all that these claims are true."
Bottom line: While I fit snugly into the boomer demographic that the Flex-Away folks are aiming at (and am certainly as vain as the next gal), this is the not the anti-aging product for me. The thing didn't fit in my mouth right and it felt uncomfortable to wear. Plus, I kept worrying that it was going to take out a tooth or something. And speaking of teeth, every time I looked in the mirror at the soft white rubber nestled up against my aging choppers, it made me realize that my anti-aging efforts (and money) might be better spent on a bleaching kit. For me, the Flex-Away was not the "The Quintessential Beauty Enhancer," although I did feel much prettier once I stopped using it.