Researchers at Cardiff University conducted their experiment in February 2021, about seven months after face masks were made compulsory in places like supermarkets and public transport in the UK.
“Research carried out before the pandemic found medical face masks reduce attractiveness,” said Dr Michael B Lewis, one of the study’s authors, in an article on Cardiff University’s website.
“We wanted to test whether this had changed since face coverings became ubiquitous and understand whether the type of mask had any effect.”
Forty-three female psychology undergraduates were asked to rate 160 male faces for attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 7.
These 160 stimuli consisted of 40 male faces in four variations: Full uncovered face, covered by a notebook, covered by a cloth mask and covered by a medical mask.
The women were also asked whether they agreed that “face masks have become part of everyday life in the past year” and “the use of face masks is effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19”. They showed high levels of agreement with the statements.
Results showed that faces covered by medical masks were “significantly more attractive” than cloth masks. Faces covered in cloth masks were in turn “significantly more attractive” than uncovered faces.
The advantage for covered faces was consistent with general findings that covering facial features increases attractiveness, regardless of which features are covered and the “base attractiveness” of the face, said the study’s authors.
But “there appears to be an advantage to medical masks beyond this”, they added.
“The advantage for a cloth mask can be attributed to the effect of occlusion, but the effect of the medical mask goes beyond just hiding undesirable features,” the authors said.
“It is possible that the additional advantage for medical masks comes from their associations with medical professionals.”
They added that this effect “may only be present during the COVID-19 pandemic”.
Dr Lewis said the research shows that the pandemic has “changed our psychology” in how mask-wearers are perceived.
“When we see someone wearing a mask we no longer think, ‘That person has a disease, I need to stay away,'” he said.
“This relates to evolutionary psychology and why we select the partners we do. Disease and evidence of disease can play a big role in mate selection – previously any cues to disease would be a big turn off.
“Now we can observe a shift in our psychology such that face masks are no longer acting as a contamination cue.”