Do Face Masks Make Men More Attractive? – Psychology Today

When everyone masked up during the pandemic, we lamented the changes to our appearance. Sure, there were a few benefits, women enjoyed skipping the lipstick, and creative mask selection provided yet another way to express personality. But few people considered whether masking enhanced attractiveness. Recent research unmasks some surprising revelations.


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The Attraction of the Masked Man

Hies and Lewis (2022), in a piece entitled “Beyond the Beauty of Occlusion,” studied the impact of medical masks on facial attractiveness.i They began by referencing the “sanitary-mask effect,” which found that wearing a medical face mask can elicit an association with disease, making the wearer appear less facially attractive. But during the pandemic, the opposite was found: medical masks can apparently increase attractiveness.

To investigate this issue, the authors showed female participants a series of male faces that were either high or low in attractiveness, occluded with either a cloth mask, a medical mask, or not occluded, and requested attractiveness ratings. Results demonstrated that the men’s faces were rated most attractive when covered by medical masks and even significantly more attractive when occluded with cloth masks than when the faces were not occluded.

Hies and Lewis noted that contrary to what they expected to find, the base level of attractiveness did not interact with occlusion type, which suggests the finding is not merely explainable to hiding negative features.

Face Masks and Attractiveness

Hies and Lewis cite prior research by Miyazaki and Kawahara (2016) investigating the impact of medical mask-wearing on perceived facial attractiveness in a Japanese sample. The experiments showed participants images of female faces rated as high, low, or medium in attractiveness. Some were wearing medical masks, others had the lower half of their face covered by a card or notebook (referred to as “control occluders”), and other faces were not occluded with anything.

The researchers found that faces occluded by a medical mask were viewed as less attractive than those that were not—regardless of previously rated attractiveness, a result they termed the “sanitary-mask effect.” This result was not found in faces covered by control occluders.

Hies and Lewis note that Miyazaki and Kawahara explained the sanitary-mask effect by noting that people associated medical masks with disease. Consequently, masked faces are frequently perceived as less healthy than faces that are unmasked, and due to the association between medical masks and poor health, masked individuals are perceived as less attractive.

In contrast to the findings of Miyazaki and Kawahara, Hies and Lewis found that masked faces were perceived as more attractive as compared to faces that were non-occluded. But there was more. They noted that not only did their findings suggest that cloth masks can improve facial attractiveness, but they recognized that a medical mask does more than just hide undesirable features. It may be associated with medical professionals.

In the same way that prior research shows that women rate male doctors as more attractive if they wear a white coat, a similar association could be found between a person wearing a mask and being in a caring profession. Hies and Lewis also note that the white-coat effect could also explain the contrast between their findings and those found by Miyazaki and Kawahara.

They also noted that although medical masks might reflect possible disease, they can also be viewed as a hallmark of being a responsible, caring citizen, enhancing perceived attractiveness. Although physical attraction is important, social factors also can impact how a masked man or woman can make a great impression.

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