Applying makeup causes women over 30 to look younger, but those under 30 to look older (and has no effect on perceived age for those aged 30).
The study, “Differential effects of makeup on perceived age”, sought to test the hypothesis that makeup makes faces appear younger. Many previous studies have concluded that makeup does indeed make faces appear more attractive, but little is known about how makeup changes age perception.
Study 1: more makeup makes you look closer to 30
The first of two studies in the research looked at the effect that different intensities of makeup has on both attractiveness and perceived age.
This study recruited 32 people (8 in each age group of 20, 30, 40 or 50 years of age) who had makeup applied by a professional makeup artist. The makeup artist was instructed to make the women “more beautiful” and was blind as to the hypothesis of the study.
The makeup was applied in four different intensities, with a bare skin “control group” (referred to as “no makeup”). The four intensities were lipstick and eyeliner (“skin and lips”),
Photos were taken, with lighting and style of photography kept
The study then asked 130 female participants to estimate the attractiveness of each morphed face. Participants were then split into 2 groups. One group estimated the age of faces under the “skin and eye region” and the “full intense” level of makeup. The other group estimated the age of faces in the “skin and lips” and “full natural” levels of makeup.
Effect of different intensities of makeup on perceived age vs actual age
The results were then replicated using a larger group of participants that included men and women from different “cultural backgrounds”. The same results were found: 20 year olds looked older, 40 year olds looked younger, and 30 year olds looked no different.
Study 2: further evidence that makeup ages young people
Because the results of study 1 were surprising – that makeup caused younger women to look older – further research was done.
In this study, makeup was applied to 44 young women (rather than 8 as in the initial study). The makeup was not professionally applied in order to replicate a more real life scenario. Individuals were asked to apply makeup “as if they were getting ready for a night out” and photos were taken. Rather than morph faces, each face was shown to the participants.
Despite a different methodology, the results of study 2 replicated the results of study 1.
Faces without any makeup had a mean age of 22.3 years old. Faces with makeup had a mean age of 23.5 years old.
Study 3: makeup is associated with adulthood
A final study was created to test the hypothesis that people associate makeup use with adulthood.
Text only vignettes were created describing a female shopping with relatives. Participants were asked to estimate the female’s age. Whether or not the female was described as buying makeup varied, as did who the female was shopping with.
The relatives differed and were sometimes described as the female’s dad and older brother, dad and younger brother, husband and eldest son, son and his newborn child, or grandson and his wife.
The hypothesis was that, when the target was described as having relatives that, by implication, would depict her as a teenager, she would be perceived as older when she bought makeup. When the female was depicted as an adult, she would be perceived as no different in age whether purchasing makeup or not.
The results suggest that makeup is associated with adulthood, but not necessarily with older women.
Where the female was described as shopping with her father or younger brother, she was perceived as being significantly older when buying makeup. When she was described as an older woman (for example, because she was shopping with her grandson and his wife, or with her son and his newborn child), there was no difference in age when described as buying makeup.
Real world significance
The authors of the study point to its real world significance. It states that both younger and older adults are subject to ageism, with women more likely than men to experience ageist attitudes in the workplace. The study cites research that looking too young can be detrimental as people are perceived being “naïve” and “less competent”.
What causes this effect?
The study theorises that makeup modifies perceived age through two mechanisms: a “bottom-up” stimulus driven route and a “top-down” cognitive route. The “bottom-up” route relates to the effect that makeup has on three areas associated with ageing: facial contrast, skin homogeneity, and facial feature size. This is why bottom-up stimuli are most activated when makeup is applied to an older woman and so leads to the perception that they are younger.
However, when makeup is applied to a younger woman, it instead activates social norms that connect makeup use with adulthood. For example, makeup is usually banned from schools. It is this top-down cognitive route that leads to the perception that someone is older.
The limitations of the study
The study was limited by resources, so its scope was quite narrow.
The study looked only at the effect that makeup has on the perceived age of women, so the same results may not be found when applied to men.
For example, it may be that the “top-down cognitive” route mentioned above would not occur as there is no social norm connecting male makeup use with adulthood (at least, not yet). This means that young looking 20 year old men struggling to be taken seriously in the workplace will probably not be able to resort to makeup to age themselves.
All female faces involved in the study were white. The effect may not be the same when carried out over other ethnic groups.