Wearing Masks Can Make People Appear More Attractive During The Pandemic

young Black couple wearing masks

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study found that women tend to find men more attractive when wearing a mask.
  • Between wearing cloth and medical masks, the latter had higher rates of attractiveness.
  • This data echoes previous studies conducted during the pandemic.

When 2020 began, we did not stuff our bags and pockets with extra masks, and whether a person spent time in large groups was no one else’s business. Over two years later, the world has dramatically and permanently shifted.

How we ascertain others’ compassion and values has become tied to their methods to stop spreading a deadly virus. So, how has that changed who we view as attractive?

According to a recent study from Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, mask-wearing boosts attractiveness.

The Study

Researchers showed women images of 40 different men of varied races and perceived levels of attractiveness and had them rate their appearance. They were estimated to be between ages 18 to 30, and none had facial obstructions such as glasses, piercings, or beards.

The men were shown with a neutral face, wearing a cloth mask, wearing a medical mask, and covering the bottom half of their face with a black notebook. Images of men covered by a medical mask ranked the highest for overall attractiveness, followed by cloth mask, notebook, and full face, respectively.

The researchers hypothesize that the “white-coat effect” may explain the difference between attractiveness ratings for medical and cloth masks. This is the idea that women are more likely to find doctors attractive while they’re wearing their white medical coats or associating someone with being in a caring profession. It also may be due, in part, to the understanding that medical masks are more protective against the spread of COVID-19 than cloth masks.

“I think that during our current time, this is the case because someone can be viewed as more responsible and caring by wearing a mask during a pandemic. It is very common for humans to associate good virtues with a higher level of attractiveness,” says Dr. Julian Lagoy, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health.

Lena Queen, LCSW, a clinical somatic sexologist

Finding a person attractive and not fully being able to see their face may give people an opportunity to truly be seen.

— Lena Queen, LCSW, a clinical somatic sexologist

The attractiveness associated with mask-wearing has undoubtedly shifted since the pandemic began. A 2016 study in Japan found that people wearing a medical mask were perceived as less attractive than when without it—a result deemed the “sanitary-mask effect.”

Researchers believed that people underestimated how attractive someone was under the mask and associated its wearing with unhealthiness. However, when the study was repeated in 2021 (during the pandemic), the association of masks with unhealthiness decreased.

Overall, participants in the most recent study highly agreed that masks have become a standard part of life and effectively limit the spread of COVID-19. It’s worth noting that the study women comprised the entire study, and almost all were white and between the ages of 18 to 24.

The Link Between Mask-Wearing And Trusting A Potential Partner

According to Whitney F. Cloin, LCSW, a therapist, owner of Saxifrage Counseling & Advocacy, and part of the Frame therapy community, participants’ positive view on mask-wearing is critical to the results. In believing in and feeling a responsibility towards mask-wearing, respondents view others wearing one as a person they would agree with and who would keep them safe. 

A mid-2020 study previously found that people wearing masks were perceived as more trustworthy and socially desirable than a bare-faced control group during the pandemic.

“Even if just perceived by the person wearing a medical or cloth mask, the feeling that the person can be trusted and cares about safety could create feelings of security,” says Cloin. “Although for this study we are just talking about attractiveness, subconsciously if someone is viewing another person as a potential partner—which often starts with the first moments of attraction — then they are seeking security which can directly be tied to a felt sense of safety and trust with that individual.” 

Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist

It is very common for humans to associate good virtues with a higher level of attractiveness.

— Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist

Trust and safety are critical to maintaining a healthy, stable relationship, echoes Lena Queen, LCSW, MEd, a clinical somatic sexologist and owner of Journey Wellness and Consulting Group. “Emotional intimacy allows for vulnerability, connection, and feelings of emotional availability and investment,” they add. “It is important to note feeling more secure towards another person requires feeling secure in one’s own ability to trust themselves and their ability to recognize whether a person is trustworthy or not.”

Feeling trust and safety raises oxytocin levels, the neurotransmitter associated with feeling more secure and at peace, says Lagoy.

As for why participants viewed men with half their face covered by a notebook as more attractive, it may have to do with mystery. As Queen says, it leaves “the viewer to imagine the attraction of the person based on their understanding of what is attractive to them. While there is a science as to what facial types are attractive, wearing a mask and in western society, value is relayed largely via socio-economic status, popularity, and wealth. All of these values can add to the perception of attraction of a person.” 

The pandemic has changed so many parts of day-to-day life, including who you find attractive and why. Priorities have shifted, and things that once would have never seemed important are deal-breakers. As for masks, they’re a rare outward indication of who a person is on the inside. “Attraction is so much more than what we have, weigh, or wear,” says Queen. “Finding a person attractive and not fully being able to see their face may give people an opportunity to truly be seen.”

What This Means For You

As your values change, so will what you find attractive. The pandemic has upended how we date and who we desire. Someone who acts safe in the current context is more likely to be someone you are interested in.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Miyazaki Y, Kawahara JI. The sanitary-mask effect on perceived facial attractiveness. Jpn Psychol Res. 2016;58(3):261-272. doi:10.1111/jpr.12116

  3. Kamatani M, Ito M, Miyazaki Y, Kawahara JI. Effects of masks worn to protect against COVID-19 on the perception of facial attractiveness. i-Perception. 2021;12(3):204166952110279. doi:10.1177/20416695211027920

  4. Olivera-La Rosa A, Chuquichambi EG, Ingram GPD. Keep your (social) distance: Pathogen concerns and social perception in the time of COVID-19. Pers Individ Dif. 2020;166:110200. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2020.110200