Makeup not the secret to beauty? What really makes us more attractive

by Meghan Holohan /  / Updated 
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Some women shudder at the thought of leaving the house without a carefully applied layer of makeup. But the trick to appearing more attractive to others may have as much to do with our facial expressions or body language as the cosmetics we wear. 

It's been shown that when women wear makeup they appear more trustworthy and competent than their bare-faced peers. But a widely reported study published last May in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology had a different take: both men and women think ladies look better wearing less makeup. 

Woman seen with and without makeup
Facial cosmetics have little effect on attractiveness judgements compared with a natural appearance, according to researchers. Today

Alex Jones, Ph.D, lead author on that study, has continued studying makeup's effect on appearance. In a new report, Jones, a postdoctoral researcher at Gettysburg College, looked into how much more attractive does an application of makeup — smoky eyes or ruby lips — make someone? The surprising finding: Barely.

Jones discussed the paper, soon to be published in the journal Perception, via email with TODAY.  

What effect does makeup have on how attractive we appear to other people?

Jones: My colleague psychologist Robin Kramer and I collected ratings of attractiveness of 44 models with and without makeup and examined the variation of attractiveness in the ratings. None of the 62 raters (aged in their twenties) saw the same woman in both conditions. 

If makeup is important for attractiveness, it should overcome the variation in attractiveness between faces easily. But if it contributes little, then the variation between faces could overshadow any benefits of makeup.

We found that, while makeup did make faces more attractive on average, it only accounted for around 2 percent of the entire variation in attractiveness judgments. In other words, when someone makes a judgement of your attractiveness, makeup will only contribute to around 2 percent of that judgement. 

We thought the amount of makeup applied by the models might have caused this— was the makeup too strong or poorly done? But, no, the amount of makeup had little influence on the perception of attractiveness. 

Our result held when we considered the amount of makeup the models had applied, too. So it’s not a case of people being put off by the amount of makeup. Other factors play a larger role.

Can't makeup give us equal footing when it comes to appearance, or create a more unified appearance?

The conventional idea is that makeup might increase your attractiveness a great deal — moving you several points up a 1-10 scale, for example. When we examined the average change between ratings of faces without and with makeup, we found it’s moving people something like .5 of a point or even less along this scale.

If makeup has only a small effect, what other factors affect perceived attractiveness? 

Scientifically studied factors of attractiveness, such as facial symmetry, averageness and skin condition, are part of our natural appearance and likely influenced the participants' judgments of attractiveness at some level. These are largely out of our control, or take a concerted effort to change — diets or surgery, for example.

But other parts of our appearance like facial expressions, particularly smiling, increase attractiveness — and are under our control. 

Young woman with tilted head
Even simple things like the tilt of our heads can influence perceived attractiveness. Today

For example, women are considered more attractive when they tilt their heads slightly upwards. With head tilting, men find female faces more attractive when they are looking slightly up [See: Selfie], and females find male faces more attractive when they are slightly lowered. 

This is thought to be due to the consistent differences in body height we have evolved with — men often view female faces from above, and women view male faces from below.

Other factors contribute to attractiveness beyond the face and makeup, such as hormones or how you smell. 

Hormones influence our perceptions in many ways: females find different kinds of male faces attractive during different stages of the menstrual cycle. Smell is important, too; there is something called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC for short) which unconsciously guides our judgements of attractiveness. The MHC represents the diversity of our immune response to disease — those with a greater diversity to us should smell more attractive. 

Does this mean we should toss our makeup? 

Jones: While the effect of makeup was small, it still did increase attractiveness — certainly no reason to throw it away! 

Another factor to consider is that our study only examined one makeup look: that of a night out. Other styles may change attractiveness in different ways. The models also applied their makeup themselves. Makeup applied by a professional might be more effective, and result in a greater boost to attractiveness. 

There’s a lot we don’t know about makeup at the moment, at least from a psychological perspective.

My colleague Kramer explains: “Though makeup does make faces more attractive, it is a very small contributor to attractiveness judgments. If people do feel the need to hide behind it, they should know it’s not as effective as they might think!” 



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