Why do women wear makeup?

44% of American women do not like to leave their homes without makeup on. Research shows there are two primary reasons why women wear makeup:

  1. Camouflage – Women who are anxious and insecure tend to use makeup to appear less noticeable.
  2. Seduction – Women want to be noticeably more attractive. The women who use makeup for this reason tend to be more confident, sociable and assertive.

44% of women believe that if they show their natural, untouched face, they won’t be able to accomplish either of those things and that they will be treated differently. It turns out there is some science to back up the fears driving them to wear makeup everyday.

Women have it drilled into them from a young age that to be successful in everything from dating to job interviews to forming friendships with other popular girls that they need to be pretty and the basis for that isn’t entirely cultural. It may not be fair, but according to the Association for Psychological Science, attractive people are treated more favorably in every area of life from dating to jobs to criminal trials.

How Can Women Use Makeup to Be More Attractive?

Before we continue, I want to note that this article doesn’t take into account the beautiful diversity of who uses makeup and why.  The current research on this subject focuses on straight men and women and is based on the assumption that only women wear it. This is not to say that these tips do not apply if you don’t fit within this specific group, but the currently available research for multi-groups is limited.

Bonus Read: Woman’s Photoshop Experiment Shows There Are Many Ways to Be Beautiful 

What Biology Says About Attractive Female Faces

Researchers have discovered there are two universal characteristics that contribute to the attractiveness of a woman’s face.

#1: The amount of color contrast around the eyes and lips

Women tend to naturally have darker lips and skin around the eyes so our brains subconsciously note that as a sign of femininity. The more color contrast between a woman’s eyes and lips and her skin tone, the more feminine, and thus evolutionary attractive, she is seen. Lipstick and eye shadow are makeup staples because they enhance those features.

Note: The effect of enhanced outer eye and lip color is greatest on straight men since they are biologically wired to be drawn to feminine-looking, fertile women.

#2: How symmetrical and even her face is

The association for Psychological Science explains that we also like symmetrical faces even when we can’t perceive the symmetry. You may not realize, but the majority of faces are slightly asymmetrical–either one side will be wider than another, eye shape will have minor differences, one cheekbone may be a bit less pronounced, etc. and the fewer of these variations a face has, the more attractive it is perceived. Makeup evens skin tone and contouring, eyeliner and lip liner can also make those features appear more symmetrical.

Makeup is an effective tool to appear more biologically attractive. The question is how do you make the most of it?

Research Shows This is the Most Important Makeup Tip

If makeup isn’t your thing at all or there are some mornings when you wake up and don’t feel like you have the time or energy to put your face on, follow this one tip if you are going somewhere where other people’s impression of you matters:

Wear concealer/foundation

Research shows that foundation is the cosmetic that has the biggest impact on how women are perceived. This is especially important at work because research shows that women who wear makeup have higher earnings and promotion potential. Skin tone discolorations, tired eye bags and blemishes can make you look tired or sickly.

If you have acne scars or other blemishes, you probably already realize that foundation masks, but may not fully cover your marks. This means that even with foundation your skin tone is not completely even and you won’t yield the full benefits of wearing makeup. To avoid this, prior to applying foundation, put on enough concealer to make your marks disappear.

Similarly, oily skin can also lessen the evenness of your skin. Remove the distracting shine by applying powder on top of your foundation. Keep a compact in your bag so you can reapply as needed throughout the day.

Use These Science-Backed Makeup Enhancements

If you have the time, energy and inclination to do so, you can further capitalize on the power of makeup with these four enhancements:

  1. Blush: Studies show that having a pink tint to your cheeks makes you look younger and to the subconscious mind, slightly aroused, because for many, it resembles their natural color in sensual states.
  2. Mascara, eye shadow and eyeliner: Cosmetic surgeon Adam J. Scheiner, M.D. says that because women naturally have more color variation around their eyes, eye makeup enhances that and makes them look more attractive. You can also use these cosmetics to increase the perceived size of your eyes so you look younger.  
  3. Lipstick: Again, this increases the color contrast of the mouth. It is also probably no surprise that women who wear red lipstick are perceived as more attractive to straight men than those who opt for a more muted color of lipstick or none at all.
  4. Contour: As we previously discussed, our brains love symmetrical faces. Contouring your face can make it more symmetrical in addition to sharpening your angles.

For tips on how to do these types of makeup, seek the wonderful advice of beauty bloggers who can walk you through every type of makeup look step-by-step.

How the Social Psychology of Makeup Affects Your Relationships

Makeup does more than alter a woman’s attractiveness, it also plays a role in her ability to form new relationships. While straight men look at a woman’s makeup or lack thereof to help determine her attractiveness, straight women use makeup to help judge other women’s personalities.  

Research has discovered three key findings about how straight women perceive each other’s makeup:

  1. Women rate other women who wear makeup as more dominant. This perception that women who wear makeup are more powerful plays a role in why makeup is important to help women have successful careers.
  2. Women are more jealous of other women wearing makeup and perceive them as more promiscuous. This is particularly the case when women wear bold, sexy makeup like eye shadow and dark/bright lipstick.
  3. Women bond faster with other women who wear makeup that is similar to them. We’re naturally drawn to people who are like us so it’s no surprise that makeup is one of the characteristics women look for in determining who to form friendships with. If you think about it, makeup says a lot about women such as how much they value beauty, how much attention they desire, etc.

Men on the other hand, tend to have varied opinions of women based on how much makeup she wears and how attractive that makes her appear. One woman discovered this when she did a social experiment to find out how men react differently towards her depending on her makeup levels. To test this, she created three Tinder profiles with three levels of makeup ranging from natural to glamorous.

Check out the video to hear about the full experiment:

The three findings from this video that I want to hone in on:

  1. The account with bare-faced makeup received the most friendly–not flirtatious replies. Men appeared to see her as a potential new buddy as opposed to a sexually attractive partner.
  2. The account with an average amount of makeup recieved the most flirty replies and request for dates.
  3. The account with the glam makeup gave men the impression that she was looking for easy hookups.

If you’re single, consider these findings when you present yourself on online dating and in any other settings you use to find dates.

Final Note: Keep it Sweet and Subtle

Makeup is important, but too many women make the mistake of wearing so much that they lose its benefits.

One study had women do their makeup as they would for a night out and researchers took pictures throughout the process. Then they showed the pictures of women’s faces ranging from zero makeup to fully made up and several in between to men and women and asked them to judge which photos were the most attractive. They found that, on average, women were rated the most attractive with 60% of the makeup they put on for a night out. In other words, most women wear so much makeup that it exceeds what is considered attractive.

Another study found that when makeup is not overdone, it makes women appear more likeable, trustworthy and competent.

Bottom line: Be mindful of the impression you want to make and focus on using makeup to enhance your natural beauty.

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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