There have been precious few positives during the Covid pandemic but British academics may have unearthed one: people look more attractive in protective masks.
Researchers at Cardiff University were surprised to find that both men and women were judged to look better with a face covering obscuring the lower half of their faces.
In what may be a blow for producers of fashionable coverings – and the environment – they also discovered that a face covered with a disposable-type surgical mask was likely to be deemed the most appealing.
Dr Michael Lewis, a reader from Cardiff University’s school of psychology and an expert in faces, said research carried out before the pandemic had found that medical face masks reduced attractiveness because they were associated with disease or illness.
“We wanted to test whether this had changed since face coverings became ubiquitous and understand whether the type of mask had any effect,” he said.
“Our study suggests faces are considered most attractive when covered by medical face masks. This may be because we’re used to healthcare workers wearing blue masks and now we associate these with people in caring or medical professions. At a time when we feel vulnerable, we may find the wearing of medical masks reassuring and so feel more positive towards the wearer.”
In the first part of the research, carried out in February 2021 by which time the British population had become used to wearing masks in some circumstances, 43 women were asked to rate the attractiveness of images of male faces without a mask, wearing a plain cloth mask, a blue medical face mask, and holding a plain black book covering the area a face mask would hide, on a scale of one to 10.
The participants said those wearing a cloth mask were significantly more attractive than the ones with no masks or whose faces were partly obscured by the book. But the surgical mask – which was just a normal, disposable kind – made the wearer look even better.
“The results run counter to the pre-pandemic research where it was thought masks made people think about disease and the person should be avoided,” said Lewis.
“The pandemic has changed our psychology in how we perceive the wearers of masks. When we see someone wearing a mask we no longer think ‘that person has a disease, I need to stay away’.
“This relates to evolutionary psychology and why we select the partners we do. Disease and evidence of disease can play a big role in mate selection – previously any cues to disease would be a big turn-off. Now we can observe a shift in our psychology such that face masks are no longer acting as a contamination cue.”
Lewis said it was also possible that masks made people more attractive because they directed attention to the eyes. He said other studies had found that covering the left or right half of a face also made people look more attractive, partly because the brain fills in the missing gaps and exaggerates the overall impact.
The results of the first study, looking at how women perceived men in masks, has been published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications. A second study has been carried out, in which a group of men look at women in masks; it has yet to be published but Lewis said the results were broadly the same. The researchers did not ask the participants to spell out their sexual orientations.