Experiments’ results found similar effects for men and women.

Japan is right in the middle of mask season right now. With the flu-conducive conditions of winter still lingering and the hay fever-inducing inundation of spring pollen on the way, every time you step outside you can count on seeing people going about their daily business wearing surgical masks over their mouth and nose.

But while the masks are little cloth saviors for those trying to avoid getting a cold or a face full of pollen, they have other fans too. In recent years, an increasing number of young people have been wearing for reasons unrelated to sickness or respiratory problems. They’ve become especially popular among young women who don’t want to bother with putting on makeup, and mask fans of both genders have voiced their appreciation at how wearing a mask helps keep their face warm.

But researchers from the University of Hokkaido and Nagoya’s Chukyo University have identified what they say is one drawback: wearing a mask can make you look less attractive. Junichiro Kawahara, associate professor at Hokkaido University’s Graduate School of Letters, and Chukyo University psychology professor Yuki Miyazaki have released the preliminary results from their joint research project. In the study, the pair began by photographing 66 men and 66 women, all between the ages of 20 and 39. Each person was photographed twice, once wearing a white surgical mask, and once without. The pictures were then shown to two different groups of survey respondents (with 29 men and women looking at the women’s photos and 26 men and women looking at the men’s) who rated how attractive they thought the people in the photos were, on a scale from one to one hundred.

When the responses were compiled, Kawahara and Miyazaki found notably lower evaluations for the photos of people wearing masks. The average score for females without masks was 49.1, compared to 44.7 for those wearing masks. The gap was even more pronounced between the highest-ranking maskless and masked women, who respectively received 65.4 and 56.5 points.

While not as severe, similar disparities were observed among the evaluations of the male photos, for which the average maskless score was 41.7 versus the masked average of 39. The top-ranking maskless male earned 56.5 points, while the number-one masked man came away with just 51.6.

The researchers have a number of theories as to why the people in the masked photos were consistently rated as less attractive. For starters, wearing a mask limits how much facial expression you can show, and also hides the skin and lips, two common points of attraction. Moreover, Kawahara and Miyazaki feel that a white mask, given its long-standing connection with hospitals, imparts a sickly or unhealthy aura.

All of those sound like reasonable explanations, but one can’t help but notice the startling low scores for even the maskless photos. On a scale of one to one hundred, it seems like anything under 50 would indicate “unattractive,” so the average maskless women’s and men’s scores of 49.1 and 41.7 suggest that the survey respondents’ personal preferences didn’t really align with the looks of the pool of photo models to begin with. Partially covering the face with a mask, of course, leaves the rest of the person’s appearance up to the respondents’ imagination, and if they aren’t really liking even what they can see, it’s possible many assumed the worst about what they couldn’t. It’s also probable that having both men and women rate the attractiveness of photos of a single gender caused the scores to skew particularly low.

Still, if Kawahara and Miyazaki’s result have you worried about being seen as both sickly and ugly, but you’ve still got your heart set on wearing a mask, maybe you’d be better off slipping on a pink one.

Follow Casey on Twitter, where he’ll probably start griping about hay fever any day now.

Source: Hokkaido Shimbun/Yahoo! Japan News