COVID-19: Face masks make people look more attractive, according to new study

If my boyfriend told me I look more attractive with a mask on, my reaction would not be a happy one - but according to new research, you can say goodbye to fillers, foundations and filters as people are apparently better-looking in face masks.

Smudged concealer and smeared lipstick aside, researchers from Cardiff University in Wales have found that both men and women are considered more attractive when a mask is obscuring the lower half of their face. 

And while sleek and fashionable alternatives may be the best to accessorise an outfit with, the study also found that bog-standard disposable surgical masks are likely the most appealing to potential admirers. 

Research carried out prior to the pandemic found medical face masks reduced a person's attractiveness as people associated the coverings with disease or illness, said Dr Michael Lewis, a Reader at Cardiff University's School of Psychology and an expert in the psychology of faces.

"So we wanted to test whether this had changed since face coverings became ubiquitous and understand whether the type of mask had any effect," Dr Lewis said.

"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."

The first stage of the research was conducted in February 2021, seven months after face masks became mandatory in the UK. In the study, 43 women were asked to rate the attractiveness of male faces from one to 10 in a series of images - without a mask, wearing a cloth mask, wearing a blue medical face mask, and covering the lower half of the face with a plain black book.

"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," Dr Lewis explained.

Although the participants found men wearing blue, disposable masks the most attractive, the study also discovered that faces are considered significantly more attractive when covered by cloth masks as opposed to completely uncovered. 

"Some of this effect may be a result of being able to hide undesirable features in the lower part of the face - but this effect was present for both less attractive and more attractive people," he said.

Overall, the new research demonstrates that the ongoing pandemic has changed our psychology in how we perceive people who wear 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."

The researchers ultimately found at least three effects at play in the interaction between face masks and attractiveness. The first, the sanitary-mask effect, is the reduction of facial attraction due to the association between the mask and disease. However, the pandemic has seemingly reduced its influence.

The second, the occlusion effect, is the increase in attractiveness produced simply by obscuring the lower part of the face. This effect can be produced by any object - such as the black book used in the study - and is not dependent on a mask. 

A third, the medical-mask effect, is observed when medical masks increase facial attractiveness, possibly due to the association of the masks with medical or caring professions. 

"This effect may only be present during the COVID-19 pandemic and, so far, has only been shown for male faces. The exact relative contribution of these three effects across genders, cultures and global health crisis remains to be fully explored," the study said.

The findings, published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications on January 13, will be followed by a second study. The additional research asked a group of men to rate the attractiveness of women in masks to determine if the results are true for both genders. 

According to The Guardian, the research - which has already been conducted but has yet to be published - returned similar results to the first study. The researchers did not ask the participants to disclose their sexual orientations.