A healthy love of red: flushing faces and healthy appearance

Ok, I was GOING to post this last night. But Sci’s laptop had epic internet fail. Hopefully it will work again anon. As it is, you’re getting your post late. Sci was going to do something for April 1. Too late now!
In the meantime, let’s talk about flushing. Being female, Sci had a certain amount of exposure to things like makeup growing up, and the one thing I could never understand was this:
blush.jpg
(Photo courtesy of makeuptips.com)
Blush. I could never understand blush. If I put on too much, I looked like a clown, if I put on too little, I might as well not put on any at all! To this day, blush remains somewhat of a mystery to Sci. Though I know the proper application, etc, I’ve never thought it really added anything.
But what if it does? What if a little extra flush to my cheeks would make me look…a little more robust?
ResearchBlogging.org Stephan et al. “Skin blood perfusion and oxygenation colour affect perceived human health” PLoS ONE, 2009.


We all know that some animals use bright colors to signify things like mating potential and dominance. Birds are especially well known for this, but mammals are too. In particular, primates, such as macaques, are known to get red in the face in response to changes in reproductive hormone levels. But what about humans? We certainly have varying levels of redness in our skin. Not only that, red is a color that humans pay a lot of attention to. We see sports teams wearing red as being more likely to win. Women can seem more attractive to men, simply by wearing red.
But does natural redness, especially in the face, affect how healthy we seem to each other? To test this, the authors of this study took a whole bunch of photographs in a gray room, where light was controlled to be as mediocre as possible. These photos were then given to subject participants, who were allowed to give the face more oxygenated blood (to make it more red), or more deoxygenated bloog (to make it more bluish-red).
flusing 1.jpg
As you can see in the figure above, participants were presented with either a very red face, or a very UN-red face. They were then asked to press a mouse key to give the faces more of less oxygenated blood to make the faces appear as healthy as possible. Not surprisingly, they added more red to faces that started out low in redness, and less red to those starting out high in redness.
This means that a significant amount of the faces had red added to them, regardless of how red they were to start out with, though of course the very red faces had some taken away. Not only that, participants added more red to women’s faces than men’s, though it didn’t matter whether the participant themselves was male or female. Overall changes made were an increase in redness, and a small decrease in blueness.
It seemed clear from the results that more oxygenated blood (more red) was better for apparent health than less red. Participants rated mosr of the faces (96%) as healthier when there was more oxygenated blood. But the researchers wanted to look at effects of facial ethnicity as well. In most cases, facial ethnicity and the ethnicity of the participant did not affect how much red was added to the faces. There was, however, a significant interaction between participants of African origin and African faces, with African participants increasing redness significantly more than other participants. But in the end, it doesn’t matter what your ethnicity, more red is still better.
The authors conclude that people are cued to think of redder faces as more healthy, and thus possibly as more attractive, than faces with less red. So I guess this whole trend for models that are pale and thin and scary is…to shock people?
flushing 2.jpg
(Courtesy of Project Rungay)
Maybe a little less red around the lips and a little more in the face, Mr. McQueen. As for me, I might have to get out my blush a little more. Sci needs all the health she can get!
Stephen, I., Coetzee, V., Law Smith, M., & Perrett, D. (2009). Skin Blood Perfusion and Oxygenation Colour Affect Perceived Human Health PLoS ONE, 4 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005083
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12 Responses

  1. Sci, the quickest way to apply blush is to get a fairly natural lipstick that goes with your skin. Apply lipstick to lips. Remove the excess with quick swipes of one fingertip from each hand. Transfer excess lipstick to your cheekbones. Spread it around a little with a couple of swipes up and back. It should go where you turn pink naturally when exercising. If it’s a brownish hue, you can run it under the cheekbones to give them a little more shadow. Regard the result. If it’s too much, remove some by blotting.
    Not surprisingly, this gives you a co-ordinated, minimal-makeup look. Practice. If you want more, go for a make-up lesson from a store, image consultant, or teenage girl whose makeup you like.
    BTW, that model’s hat seems to have a built-in image of a mustachio’d Alice-in-Wonderland Caterpillar.

  2. Monado: believe me, I am a past master at the all over color stick.🙂 I love that thing. All you need out of life is your all over color stick and a little mascara. Generally, I get this: http://www.eyeslipsface.com/face/all_over_color_stick_
    Sci actually has a TON of makeup experience. Unfortunately this doesn’t make her like it. 😦

  3. You know, it’s kind of funny … I was just ruminating on this last night🙂. I do a lot of 3D renders of people using a tool called DAZ Studio, and I find that many of the skin textures that can be applied have a weird blue-green as the default diffuse color, giving the people a very (to me) alien look. I am forever changing the diffuse colors to a pale pink, to make them look more “real”… Now it turns out I have scientific evidence to back me up!🙂

  4. My day just got a little sadder. I’m so pale.

  5. My Mom’s father was very strict back in the 30s and would not allow her to wear any make-up so she learned to rub and pinch her cheeks and bite her lips to make them redder.
    When I was older she taught me to do this too, saying that look was what I should strive for with makeup, so MY father wouldn’t say anything.
    But no…. I was stupid and this was the 60s when black eyes and whitish lips were stylish. My Dad’s response was, of course, to tell me to wipe that stuff off. He said it made me look sick and now I know he was right.
    I’ll call him tonight and tell science has finally proven it!

  6. My makeup experience is limited to zombie makeup.
    But I do sometimes suspect that people say things around me because they know I blush heavily and easily. Does the research you cite above extend to the “I’m interested” flush I’ve heard some mentions of in regards to mating interactions?

  7. Ha, those of us with CUshing’s are so used to hearing “You don’t look sick. You look so healthy and robust.” Between the obesity and the red-face….well, anyway. It can certainly be deceiving!
    Nice post.

  8. Like SciMom, Sci has very nice natural coloring and hardly needs to use any makeup at all, in our totally unbiased opinion.

  9. Wow, nice to see this. Only a week or so ago I noticed myself responding to the blushed cheeks of a friend, as she had just finished a bicycle ride to come see me. Oh my, manipulated by biological signals again!
    She is pale, and you pale folks shouldn’t feel bad about your paleness. Because of it, your natural blushing becomes more obvious and pronounced. This is actually a good thing!

  10. I just found an interesting (and big) article: Neuronal Control of Skin Function: The Skin as a Neuroimmunoendocrine Organ by Dirk Roosterman, Tobias Goerge, Stefan W. Schneider, Nigel W. Bunnett and Martin Steinhoff. For some reason, it’s open access, despite being a very large and recent. Thought you might be interested, if you don’t know about it already.

  11. it’s also interesting to note English, Scottish and Irish people. Naturally people of this ethnic background are VERY pigmentally challenged (my family for example.) I noticed that when I lived in England most children in these countries tend to have VERY red, rosy cheeks. I wonder if it’s from the cold air bringing the blood to surface in their cheeks? My daughter is like this and had naturally red, rosy cheeks as a pre-schooler. Now that she’s 6 – 7 her whole face just gets bright red with any exercise or exertion.

  12. it’s also interesting to note English, Scottish and Irish people. Naturally people of this ethnic background are VERY pigmentally challenged (my family for example.) I noticed that when I lived in England most children in these countries tend to have VERY red, rosy cheeks. I wonder if it’s from the cold air bringing the blood to surface in their cheeks? My daughter is like this and had naturally red, rosy cheeks as a pre-schooler. Now that she’s 6 – 7 her whole face just gets bright red with any exercise or exertion.

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