New research published in the journal i-Perception indicates that wearing a sanitary mask can affect perceptions of facial attractiveness and that these perceptions have shifted in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
“Because the impact of COVID-19 is so strong, we wondered if the mask-wearing that became an ordinary behavior would alter our perception of attractiveness. We thought it would be interesting if we compare the present data with the one that we measured before COVID-19,” said study author Jun Kawahara, a professor at Hokkaido University.
In a study published in 2016, the researchers examined how sanitary masks impacted perceptions of attractiveness in a pilot survey and several experiments.
The initial survey asked 202 Japanese women and 84 Japanese men whether they believed that female facial attractiveness was increased or decreased by wearing a sanitary mask. They also indicated whether they thought wearing a sanitary mask made a person seem healthy, unhealthy or neither. After the COVID-19 outbreak, the researchers conducted a similar survey of 153 men and 133 women from June 26, 2020 to December 4, 2020.
Approximately 44% of participants said wearing a white sanitary mask increased the wearer’s attractiveness prior to the pandemic, compared to 70% of participants amid the pandemic. Kawahara and his colleagues also found that the number of participants who thought mask wearers were unhealthy decreased and the number of respondents who thought mask wearers were healthy or neutral increased in the wake of the pandemic.
Replicating some of their previous work, the researchers also conducted a web-based experiment from May 19, 2020 to July 30, 2020, in which participants rated the attractiveness of 66 young Japanese female faces, half with and half without masks. A similar experiment, conducted on January 15, 2021, asked participants to rate the healthiness of the facial images rather than their attractiveness.
Kawahara and his colleagues found that masks increased the attractiveness of female faces when their baseline attractiveness rating was low and decreased the attractiveness of female faces when their baseline attractiveness rating was high. The findings indicate that “the modulation of attractiveness by mask-wearing is related to the occlusion of critical features,” the researcher said. That is, masks can hide the negative features of unattractive faces while also hiding the positive features of highly attractive faces.
But mask wearing had no significant impact on the attractiveness of average female faces. The researchers also found that masked faces were perceived as less unhealthy during the COVID-19 pandemic compared with before the viral outbreak.
“People don’t have to worry about how they are seen by others. The data suggests that the average person may not be seen more attractive or less attractive. Just wear masks, if not vaccinated yet,” Kawahara told PsyPost.
But the study — like all research — includes limitations.
“We don’t know whether the same effect would occur when different kinds of persons are tested,” Kawahara said. “The present study used young Japanese female images with/without masks and raters were young Japanese male and female participants. We are currently measuring the effects across different groups of populations (cultures and age groups.)”
“We may be able to measure the progress of overcoming COVID-19 by examining the effect of mask-wearing on perceived attractiveness,” he added. “If people forget about the mask-wearing behavior, then its effect on attractiveness will return to a similar pattern that we measured in 2016.”
The study, “Effects of Masks Worn to Protect Against COVID-19 on the Perception of Facial Attractiveness“, was authored by Miki Kamatani, Motohiro Ito, Yuki Miyazaki, and Jun I. Kawahara.