A possible COVID benefit: Medical face masks make us more attractive, study finds – USA TODAY

The pandemic has upended a lot of aspects in our lives, but it may have also changed what we find attractive in others.

Medical masks, originally a social taboo associated with sickness and disease, have now been found to increase attractiveness, according to a new peer-reviewed study by Cardiff University researchers published on Monday.

Admittedly, a mask does cover half of your face, so the increased attractiveness could be tied to the “beauty of occlusion,” the researchers say.

The study was part of continuing research exploring attractiveness and mate choice and how those norms have shifted after COVID. It involved the participation of 43 Cardiff University female undergraduate psychology students, who viewed 40 male faces, 20 of which were attractive and 20 of which were unattractive, based on previous ratings.

The faces of the men were shown in four different ways: with a medical mask, with a cloth mask, with a book in front of their face or with no covering at all. 

Female participants found the faces of men most attractive when they wore medical masks, researchers said.

Also, female participants found men wearing cloth masks more attractive than men with no mask at all, but still not as attractive as men with medical masks.

MIchael Lewis, one of the co-authors of the study, was surprised by the results.

“One might have expected fashion masks to improve attractiveness more so it was surprising that medical masks had the greater effect,” Lewis told USA TODAY.

Fact check: Post about surgical masks’ effectiveness against COVID-19 is missing context

In 2016, notably prior to the pandemic, a study in the journal Japanese Psychological Research found that attractive Japanese women were viewed as less attractive when wearing a sanitary mask. Based on surveys with the participants, which included both men and women, participants expected that facial masks would make women appear more attractive, but in actuality, it associated them with unhealthiness, the study found.

The results of the 2021 study show a dramatic shift in how masks impact attractiveness, the study says

“The previous link between face masks being associated with illness has reduced, and now face masks are associated with caring professions,” Lewis said.

And the mask effect did not come into play just because it covered half the person’s face, obscuring potentially undesirable features. The trend held for men who were rated as very attractive along with men who were rated as unattractive. Additionally, both attractive and unattractive men who had their faces half covered with a notebook were considered less attractive than when they had a medical or cloth mask on.

While medical masks may signal disease, they can also be seen as a “sign of being responsible and caring citizens, which may positively impact perceived attractiveness,” the study explains.

Another study conducted by Japanese researchers suggests that women wearing masks may be seen more attractive, too.

The study, published in the journal i-Perception in June 2021 involved 286 adults, both men and women, who participated in a survey regarding the facial attractiveness of women who were wearing sanitary masks. The women’s faces were rated more attractive and healthier with the presence of masks, a marked difference from the 2016 study.

You can reach the writer Michelle Shen @michelle_shen10 on Twitter. 

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