A series of six studies on students of Gettysburg college found that faces with makeup were seen as more attractive, more symmetrical, more feminine, healthier, and more similar to faces of typical women than the same faces without makeup. Faces of younger women with makeup were, however, perceived as older than faces without makeup. The study was published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.
Makeup, as a form of body art has been used for millennia to enhance the beauty of the face. Styles of cosmetics have varied between cultures and through time, but actual modifications to the face were quite similar – makeup focuses on making the skin appear more even and facial features more prominent.
Studies have found that makeup changes the perception of traits such as trustworthiness, earning potential, sexuality and dominance, but most of the work focused on whether makeup increases attractiveness.
“Millions of people wear makeup, and research has shown that female faces look more attractive with makeup, but there is little scientific understanding of how this works. Our research sought to narrow down the range of possible explanations, by investigating which factors of facial beauty are responsible for the effect of makeup on attractiveness,” said study author Richard Russell, a professor of psychology at Gettysburg College.
To answer this question, the researchers organized a series of six studies. In each of these studies, they showed Gettysburg College students two sets of female faces of different age, each set consisting of faces with and without makeup. The average age of women whose pictures were in the first set was 21 (range 18-27). The second set consisted of pictures of groups of pictures of women around 20, around 30, 40 and 50 years of age. The average age for the second set was 32 years.
In each of the studies, students were asked to rate one trait – attractiveness or a beauty factor of presented faces. In study 1, they rated attractiveness of presented faces (“How attractive is this face?”). In study 2 they rated symmetry. It was deviation from faces of other women, femininity, age, and health in subsequent studies, respectively. Between 50 and 66 students participated in each study.
Results were very consistent – students found faces with makeup to be more attractive, more symmetrical, more similar to faces of women they know, more feminine and healthier than faces without makeup. Faces with makeup were, however, seen as older, but this was the case only for the first set containing pictures of younger women. Faces with makeup were not seen as older when faces of older women were rated.
In their final analysis, authors examined whether makeup affects attractiveness by modifying the studied factors of beauty that in turn affect the perception of attractiveness. They found that makeup did modify perceptions of health and femininity and these factors, in turn affected the perception of attractiveness of the face. The same was the case with symmetry in this analysis, although when this factor was analyzed individually this effect did not appear.
“Makeup makes faces look more attractive by making them look more feminine and more healthy,” Russell told PsyPost. “We think that this happens because makeup manipulates visual features that are associated with whether a face is male or female, and whether it is healthy or unhealthy.”
Makeup altered perceptions of age and similarity of the face to faces of other women, but these changes did not translate into different ratings of attractiveness of the face.
“We investigated five known factors of facial attractiveness — symmetry, typicality, age, femininity, and apparent health,” Russell explained. “We found that makeup affects all of those factors, but our findings suggest that the effect of makeup on attractiveness is due only to the modification of femininity and apparent health. In other words, the effect of makeup on perceived symmetry, typicality, and age is irrelevant to how makeup makes faces look more beautiful. That was surprising to me.”
“There was already some empirical evidence for makeup affecting femininity, health, and age perceptions, but this is the first study to show that makeup makes faces appear more symmetrical and more average,” noted co-author Carlota Batres, the director of The Preferences Lab.
The study highlights psychological mechanisms through which makeup makes us perceive faces as more attractive. It should, nonetheless, be taken into account that the study was done solely on college students, and all faces that were rated were white Europeans.
“One major caveat is that we only used the faces of White women,” Russell said. “Also, the faces were all in the age range of 18-52, and most were younger than 30. It will be important to study these questions with a wider range of faces.”
“Our findings increase the scientific understanding of how people manipulate their appearance through decorations like makeup,” he added.
The study, “Makeup Works by Modifying Factors of Facial Beauty”, was authored by Carlota Batres, Alex L. Jones, Christopher P. Barlett, Aurélie Porcheron, Frédérique Morizot, and Richard Russell.