What Our Faces Can Tell Other People About The State Of Our Health

Glowing with health. Shutterstock/Luba V Nel
Kristy Hamilton 12 Jul 2016, 14:58

Our facial appearance influences how we feel about ourselves – and other people’s faces influence who we choose to approach or avoid and who we’d like to form romantic relationships with. At a glance, a face reveals a wealth of information about how we are feeling, or the kinds of behaviours we might be about to engage in – but what does it say about us when we aren’t expressing emotion? As it turns out, it’s more than you could imagine.

Over the past few years I’ve learned how aspects of our personality are present in our faces, how symptoms of depression cause faces to appear less socially desirable, and how wearing make-up changes perceptions of social traits – but the most important signals that our faces can give are of health.

The face is a biological billboard and we are expert readers, always interested in what it has to say. We are attracted to healthy-looking faces and avoid those who are unhealthy –- think of the sensation you might have had the last time you were on the train or a bus near someone who looked unwell – but it is the question of what makes a face look “healthy” in our eyes that is the most intriguing.

There are many historical examples of people altering their facial appearance to appear healthier. Things like the influence of body mass index (BMI) on face shape, or the smoothness of skin texture play a role in how healthy we are viewed to be, but it is actually facial colouration that seems to be the most important.

The Conversation

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The lighter areas show where the skin of healthier looking faces are brighter (left), redder (middle), and yellower (right).

Early research has identified that faces with lighter, redder, and yellower skin were seen as the healthiest – and this was consistent across all ethnicities. There also seemed to be relevant biological processes associated with these colours: for example, lighter skin is associated with the ability to absorb more vitamin D. Greater redness, particularly when from oxygenated blood, may indicate more efficient circulation and blood supply to the skin.

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