Facial Expressions:
"How Many Muscles Are Needed?"

Facial expressions define your character and your facial musculature is as unique as you are.

How are the facial expressions created? What muscles we use to express them?

This article is based on a study by Dr. Bridget Waller called Selection for Universal Facial Emotion.

It was published in 2008.

Six Universal Facial Expressions

The scientists say there are only six universal emotions that are found in every culture.

Those 6 universal emotions are:

  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Surprise
  • Disgust

I thought one would need a whole bunch of muscles to express those. But no, it seems you need only 5 main muscles (and a couple of assisting ones) to create all those six facial expressions.

But while you can indeed express yourself with five to eight muscles, doing so will result in expressions with little character.

Just Add Personality

What gives personality to your facial expressions? The little assisting muscles do.

The assisting muscles vary from person to person. As you can read from Are You Missing Any Facial Muscles? we don't all have the same facial muscles anyway. But we all have those five that are needed for most important facial expressions.

So let's make some faces. Try if you can create all the common variations of these expressions!

Here is a visual chart of facial expressions action units (AUs) to help you. I'll use the numbers of the moves in the following chapters.

Smile - Zygomaticus Major

The muscle needed is Zygomaticus Major, the lip corner puller.

When you smile, you pull the corners of your mouth towards your ears (AU12).

Some people also raise their cheeks (AU6), thus wrinkling the area around their eyes.

That was kinda obvious, let's take a harder one!

Zygomaticus Major is needed for smiling

Sadness - Depressor Anguli Oris

When you are sad, you'll pull the corners of your mouth down. Depressor Anguli Oris, the lip corner depressor, does that for you.

But this is where the variation starts. Can you create all these sad faces?

1. Pull the corners of your mouth down (AU15), while raising your cheeks at the same time (AU6)

2. Pull the corners of your mouth down (AU15), while frowning (AU4) and rising the inner side of your brows (AU1)

3. Do the previous one, but also pull your nasolabial folders deeper into your cheeks (AU11)

All people cannot easily do the last one, as they may not have the muscle needed. For all these expressions though, one can use other muscles to compensate for the missing ones.

Depressor Anguli Oris, needed for expressing sadness

Anger - Orbicularis Oculi and Orbicularis Oris

This is definitely the facial expression with most variation! And you'll be needing two of the five major muscles.

You'll use Orbicularis oculi, the round muscle around your eyes and Orbicularis oris, the round muscles around your mouth.

Lower your brows and bring them together (AU4). Raise your upper eyelids (AU5). At the same time, tighten your eyelids (AU7).

That is the base expression, common to all variations of angry expression.

Do the base expression and press your lips together (AU24) or tighten your lips (AU23)

Do the previous, but also raise your chin (AU17)

Now, a harder one, raise your upper lip (AU10) and tighten your lips at the same time (AU23), also funneling them (AU22)

Last, do the previous, but don't tighten your lips, only funnel your lips.

You can also skip raising the upper lip and just do the tightening or funneling.

Surprise - Frontalis

This one is easy. You'll use your Frontalis to raise up your brows (AU1+AU2), then you'll raise your upper eye lids (AU5).

Fear - Frontalis

Fear and surprise are very similar, and use the same major muscle.

For fear, do the surprised expression and pull your brows together (AU4).

Some people also stretch their lips (AU20).

Frontalis creates facial expressions of surprise and fear

Disgust - No Dedicated Major Muscle

What surprised me is that disgust does not have its own major muscle. So there are plenty of ways to express disgust.

Start by raising you upper lip (AU10). Then either raise your chin (AU17) or pucker your lower lip (AU16)

A Variation is to start by wrinkling your nose (AU9). Combine it with puckering your lower lip (AU16) and lowering the corners of your mouth (AU15)

Or just combine nose wrinkling with chin raising.

Smile Once More

Did you notice how your mood follows your facial expressions? Don't finish reading this article disgusted.

Smile your best smile and take a deep breath. It is a wonderful day today!

Also, did you notice when you are supposed to use the large Frontalis muscle that wrinkles your forehead? Only when you are sad, surprised or in fear.

If you have a bad habit of wrinkling your forehead when you think or talk, try to wean yourself from it.

Be happy and you'll have less wrinkles!

You are reading - Facial Expressions: "How Many Muscles Are Needed?"

Go back to Look-Younger-Naturally.com home page.


Selection for Universal Facial Emotion, Bridget M. Waller, James J. Cray Jr., Anne M. Burrows, the American Psychological Association, 2008, Vol. 8, No. 3, 435– 439 1528-3542/08/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/1528-3542.8.3.435

Images from Wikipedia.