There's now yet another reason to mask up, after a UK study uncovered a bizarre finding – that medical face masks can actually "increase facial attractiveness".
The research, conducted by a team at the University of Cardiff, involved showing a group of 43 female participants a series of male faces of "low or high attractiveness" which were either covered by a blue medical mask, a cloth mask, a book or completely uncovered.
The participants were then asked to rate them out of 10, based on their attractiveness levels.
The results show that faces were considered to be most attractive when covered by medical masks, and were also considered to be "significantly more attractive" when covered by cloth masks than when not covered at all.
The study, published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, was conducted in February 2021, seven months after face masks became compulsory in the UK.
Dr Michael Lewis, the study's co-author and an expert in the psychology of faces, said the results were quite surprising.
"Research carried out before the pandemic found medical face masks reduce attractiveness – so we wanted to test whether this had changed since face coverings became ubiquitous and understand whether the type of mask had any effect.
"Our study suggests faces are considered most attractive when covered by medical face masks. This may be because we're used to healthcare workers wearing blue masks and now we associate these with people in caring or medical professions.
"At a time when we feel vulnerable, we may find the wearing of medical masks reassuring and so feel more positive towards the wearer.
"We also found faces are considered significantly more attractive when covered by cloth masks than when not covered. Some of this effect may be a result of being able to hide undesirable features in the lower part of the face – but this effect was present for both less attractive and more attractive people."
Lewis said the results contradicted pre-pandemic research, which previously found masks "made people think about disease and [that] the person should be avoided".
"The current research shows the pandemic has changed our psychology in how we perceive the wearers of masks. 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."
Research is now being conducted using a combination of both male and female participants, in a bid to discover whether similar results were found across both genders.