Consequences of Beauty

An evolutionary perspective on cosmetics.

Posted Dec 16, 2019

FamilyPhotoStudio / Pixabay
Source: FamilyPhotoStudio / Pixabay

This post was co-written by SUNY New Paltz psychology student, Nicole Elyukin. 

“I’ll be right there!” Tina yells downstairs. At 49, she has been struggling with the aging process. Last week, she spent nearly $100 on various cosmetic products, including anti-wrinkle cream, lip plumper, and mascara. Not to mention the blonde hair dye that took an hour to apply last week. She and her husband are running late to a dinner party but she has been in the bathroom for 45 minutes and still is not satisfied with her reflection in the mirror.

“Honey, is everything OK?” Tom asked, sounding a bit stressed

 ***

American women spend billions of dollars a year on cosmetics (see Buss, 2017). From an evolutionary perspective, many cosmetic products, such as anti-wrinkle cream, serve the primary function of helping women appear younger than they actually are. This effort toward youthful looks closely bears on the fact of menopause: When women reach menopause, they stop being able to reproduce. And male mating psychology evolved a general preference for youthful looks in response to this fact (see Buss, 2017).

Behavioral science research on the nature of cosmetic products suggests that such products actually have profound psychological effects that go well beyond simply “looking attractive.” 

Want to Seem Competent? Buy Some Eyeliner

While makeup seems to have obvious effects connected with physical attractiveness, it turns out that its effects  go well beyond the physical when it comes to the impressions that we give to others. In fact, people tend to view women who use relatively glamorous make-up as more attractive, likeable, and trustworthy, and even more competent. And when someone looks at a woman’s face for a relatively long glance, the effects on perception of greater attractiveness and competency remain (see Etcoff, 2011). 

This pattern of findings indicates that cosmetics affect both our immediate and more long-term perceptions connected with not only a woman’s attractiveness but also her inner psychological attributes, such as competence. This broad-reaching effect goes beyond the need for makeup to look younger and more fertile. And these facts may well push relatively young women, especially those just starting out in their careers, to feel pressure to use cosmetics. 

This pressure, of course, carries a hefty price tag: The desire for an attractive appearance facilitated by cosmetics has given rise to a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry in the US alone. But it gets worse: When it comes to the lives of real women, the costs associated with the cosmetics industry go beyond money. 

The Unhealthy Truth About Cosmetics

While women may be, unconsciously, using cosmetics to present themselves as fertile, attractive, and healthy, the ingredients inside the products that women are actually applying to their bodies may be causing the exact opposite to occur. In other words, modern beauty products may well lead not to increased health but, ironically, may instead being all kinds of adverse health risks. 

Low regulations on the ingredients that companies are required to be transparent about, as well as an overall lack of knowledge among consumers about the dangers of certain ingredients, are, in combination, permitting women to apply hazardous products on themselves daily. You would probably be a lot less likely to wear that lip gloss if a note on the package in big letters read, “Contains diethylhexyl phthalate, which may harm the reproductive system, can affect the developing fetus, and is classified as a possible carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.” The truth is, this is just one of the under-regulated ingredients that may be found in products and that might be simply labeled as “fragrance.” (Faber, 2019)

From an evolutionary perspective, it is, of course, deeply ironic that many products that women use in an unconscious effort to appear to be relatively youthful and fertile often include ingredients such as diethylhyxyl phthalate, which have potentially damaging effects when it comes to reproductive health. It turns out that these chemicals are used in a broad range of products, such as hair sprays, body creams, and deodorants.

Some activist groups are taking this issue on. Organizations such as the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org) work to fight for tighter regulations by providing resources such as databases in which people can share research cosmetic products and learn more about their ingredients. 

Bottom Line

The multi-billion-dollar cosmetics industry can be seen as a response to the fact that fertility in women has a limited window. Cosmetics largely serve the function of making women appear more likely to be fertile and healthy than may actually be the case. Interestingly, not only do cosmetic products make women appear younger, but such products also have something of a halo effect, making women appear more competent, likeable, and trustworthy along the way. 

We need to realize that cosmetic products come with a price that goes beyond dollars. Various cosmetic products have toxic ingredients—many of which might have adverse health effects, including, ironically, adverse consequences regarding reproductive health. 

From an evolutionary perspective, the modern cosmetics industry represents a classic case of evolutionary mismatch (see Geher & Wedberg, 2020): Ancestral women did not have the option of using modern cosmetic products to enhance their appearance. These days, women have these tools available. But at a price ... 

Acknowledgements and claps to all the students in our Fall 2019 Advanced Research in Evolutionary Psychology class for all the kindness (and editorial help)!

References

Buss, D. M. (2017). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating (Revised edition). New York: Basic Books.

Etcoff NL, Stock S, Haley LE, Vickery SA, House DM (2011) Cosmetics as a Feature of the Extended Human Phenotype: Modulation of the Perception of Biologically Important Facial Signals. PLoS ONE 6(10): e25656. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0025656

Faber, S. (2019, April 3). The Toxic Twenty Chemicals and Contaminants in Cosmetics. 

Retrieved December 4, 2019, from https://www.ewg.org/californiacosmetics/toxic20.

Geher, G. & Wedberg, N. (2020). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.