The most attractive facial traits according to science

brunette woman winking


“You have such a pretty
face” might just be the most common backhanded compliment women
receive. But what even is a pretty face? Aside from being a
cringe-worthy snub, researchers and scientists think they’ve found the answer
to what makes a face attractive. Yes, facial attractiveness is, apparently,
quantifiable. While it’s true that looking like Natalie Portman or Amber Heard
is scientifically desirable — not that anyone actually needed science to
confirm that, of course — you might just be surprised to learn just which
particular facial traits have an influence over mass appeal. And, contrary to
what you might be thinking, It’s not all about having high cheekbones or pearly
Actually, as it turns out,
some of what convinces us that another person’s face is attractive is pretty
surprising and, well, kind of creepy. Without further ado, here are the most
attractive facial traits a person can possess — ahem, scientifically speaking.

Red-haired couple

If anyone has ever come up to
you and used the pickup line, “Hey, you look familiar. Do I know you from
somewhere?,” it is actually possible that you do look familiar. And, truth
be told, that might be why the person is hitting on you. An article for the Association
for Psychological Science revealed that “familiar faces are easy to
process and categorize.” It is thought that early in human history, people
“came to link familiarity and ease-of-processing with safety and trust and
good feelings.” However, that’s changed over time and attractiveness has
become “the modern equivalent of what our ancient ancestors saw as
trustworthy and safe.”
This was proved to be the case
through a 2012 study conducted by psychological scientist Jamin
Halberstadt in which participants rated local celebrities as more attractive
than morphed or averaged photos of different celebrity facial features.
Familiarity may sound a bit boring on paper, but our brains have convinced us
that familiar faces are actually attractive.
All about the average

Woman with "average" face

If someone were to tell you
that you’re average-looking, you probably wouldn’t be jumping up and down with
joy. However, the 2012 study conducted by psychological scientist Jamin
Halberstadt not only found that people prefer familiar faces, but they also
prefer average faces.
In this sense, an average face
is a blend of different facial features — a face that has been
“averaged” together. Using pictures of national celebrities,
Halberstadt digitally blended them together with faces of the same gender and
nationality. By the end of the study, the participants had consistently rated
the morphed images as more attractive with the exception of local celebrity
“It appears that a
morphed face is a good and easy-to-process example of a universal human ‘face’
— but it is a poor and difficult-to-process example of the original, locally
known faces,” the article “The Two Faces of Attractiveness”
reads. “The ease of processing the prototypical faces boosts positive
emotions, and these emotions generalize to make average faces generally
appealing.” Additional studies have also confirmed what Halberstadt found
to be true: an average face is an attractive face.
And familial?

Newly married couple with parents

Averageness may have an edge
up on familiarity when it comes to attractiveness, but you can’t discount that
humans like what they already know — especially when it comes to faces. And
whose faces do you know better than your own family’s? Yes, this is where it
gets a little weird, folks.
In 2010, a study consisting of
three separate experiments confirmed that people are attracted to others who
either resemble themselves or their parents, or, as the study put it,
“people find individuals who resemble their kin more sexually
appealing.” Jaime and Cersei Lannister apparently got this memo. However,
it’s important to note that this is on a subconscious, subliminal level.
The participants were very
much not attracted to their family members’ faces once they became aware of
their genetic connection. So, maybe more like Jon Snow and
Daenrys Targaryen? Game of Thrones characters aside, an earlier study
also found that people are attracted to others who resemble their opposite-sex
parent. “It is an incredibly complex phenomenon, as everybody knows,”
Professor Tamas Bereczkei of Hungary’s Institute of Psychology at the
University of Pécs told The Telegraph. Complex and cringey.

Woman with youthful-looking face

Having a youthful-looking face
— a babyface, as it were — is desirable. One study found that men rated
baby-like features including “large eyes, small nose, and small chin”
as most attractive. Caroline Keating, an expert in non-verbal communication
at Colgate University in New York, told BBC Future, “The big eyes, the
long lashes, the arched brows, the plump lips, the small chins, the round face,
the cute little nose — if I wasn’t describing a baby, I’d be describing a
Although how a person acts and
how a person looks are two very different things, people tend to consider those
with babyfaces to have childlike characteristics, including innocence,
according to Keating. “Forget expression — it’s the structure of the face itself
that conveys these signals,” she explained. “We get our first
impressions from the face and it sticks.” A 2009 study further
confirmed that “baby-faced individuals evoke feelings of warmth, trust and
cooperation.” Basically, it’s babyface for the win.
Keep it simple, stupid

Woman with simple facial features

Simple faces are not only
easier for our brains to compute, but they are also what men find most
attractive, according to one 2016 study. “Think about an emoticon,”
Bill von Hippel, a University of Queensland psychology professor, explained to “You have two dots and a curved line that immediately
everyone processes as a smile. It’s sparse, it’s plain. It’s familiar, and it’s
easy to understand.” That’s not to say we literally prefer faces that look
like emojis, of course, but our brains like faces that are relatively simple.
The professor went on to
explain, saying, “The part of the brain processing these things means it
is very much an involuntary, automatic, probably largely unconscious
reaction.” First impressions, he surmised, are thus very important. As the
article noted, this could be part of why simple online dating apps like Tinder
with swipe left/right technology have taken off.

Woman with symmetrical face

Scientists have long known
that symmetry plays an important role in facial attractiveness, but researchers
weren’t sure why. In the past, it was thought that symmetry served as an
indication of health whereas asymmetry was thought to be indicative of numerous
health problems, such as tonsillitis, mumps, and chicken pox. However, a study
led by researcher Nicholas Pound proved that asymmetry — at least in
adolescents — is not at all related to health. So, if it has nothing to do with
health, why do we dig symmetrical faces?
Another theory, the
“perceptual bias,” suggests that symmetrical faces are easier to
process. Yes, symmetrical faces are simple and easy on our brains. However,
researchers have called this theory into question. According to a 2003 study,
“symmetry is preferred even in familiar faces.” If it was all about
ease of processing, this likely wouldn’t be the case. The science isn’t crystal
clear on why humans like symmetry, but researchers do agree that symmetry is

Woman with asymmetrical facial features

Though a face cannot be both
symmetrical and asymmetrical, it’s entirely possible for people to find both
sorts of faces attractive. It’s also possible to prefer an asymmetrical face
over one that is perfectly proportionate. “If you have a very symmetric,
very easy to process face, then you have one problem: You won’t be remembered
so well,” Claus-Christian Carbon, a professor of psychology at the
University of Bamberg in Germany, told Nautilus. The expert pointed to Meryl
Streep’s slight asymmetries to explain this theory. “The little imperfections
of her face can be [read] as a sign of authenticity,” he added. Her
features also make her more distinct, more recallable. 
Margaret Livingstone, a
neurobiology professor at Harvard Medical School, also explained to the
publication that the human brain processes faces holistically, or as a
grouping, not necessarily per trait. Additionally, our brains go about this
work starting from the left and ending at the right. This means people don’t
always spot asymmetries. David Perrett, professor at St. Andrews
University’s School of Psychology and Neuroscience, explained, “I think
because we are busy processing one side at one time, we don’t notice the
left-right differences.” 
Facial weight

Woman looking surprised

One study demonstrated that
“facial adiposity, or the perception of weight in the face, significantly
predicts perceived health and attractiveness.” From the research obtained,
it was revealed that “participants could reliably estimate BMI from facial
clues alone.” Cue eye roll. Researchers have also found that adiposity
also influences the perception of attractiveness — go figure. However, it seems
whether people prefer thin or full faces is decided by who has the internet and
who doesn’t. For real. “We found that people without internet access
preferred … women with higher adiposity than people with internet access,”
the study, which was conducted in El Salvador, found.
In an additional study
conducted in the UK, women were found to prefer “a lower level of facial
adiposity for attractiveness than for health” whereas men did not
differentiate “between the ‘most attractive’ and ‘most healthy’ looking
level of facial adiposity.” It may not exactly be a surprise that
thin is the more the accepted ideal — even when it comes to faces.
A smiling face

Smiling woman

Smiling is a great hack one
can use to appear more attractive, it’s true, but that’s not to say people —
especially women — should be forced to smile. “Men tell women to smile
because society conditions men to think we exist for the male gaze and for
their pleasure,” activist Bené Viera explained to HuffPost.
“Essentially what a man is saying when he tells a woman — one he doesn’t
even know — to smile, is that his wants outweigh her own autonomy over how she
exists in the world.” When you smile is up to you and we’d venture to
guess that it’s never going to be while walking down the street and at some
rando’s request. 
That said, if you want to
smile, science has backed up the notion that flashing a grin does indeed have a
positive influence on one’s attractiveness. In one study, it was discovered
that photos of smilers were not only rated as more attractive than those with a
neutral expression, but they were also perceived to be kinder.
The “Johnny Depp

Young Johnny Depp

From a biological standpoint,
male and female faces differ slightly. According to a report by the School of
Psychology at the University of Aberdeen and the Department of Psychology at
the University of Stirling in Scotland, hormones dictate many of these
differences, like “more prominent cheekbones” and “larger
jawbones” in men. It’s been found that these “sexual
characteristics” — that is, predominantly masculine features and feminine
features — are attractive. Though, why this is the case is not fully known. The
researchers said these traits may be considered attractive because they could
signify “good genes” or perhaps health.
In 2016, researchers also
discovered what they called the “Johnny Depp effect” — which is when
male faces with feminine features are thought of as more attractive. As
explained by Jamin Halberstadt, a professor at Otago’s Department of
Psychology, people actually generally prefer more feminine faces — “unless
the context forces the viewer to put the face into rigid gender boxes.”
Ambiguous faces aren’t just a
preference in the West. As part of the study on facial adiposity conducted
in El Salvador, people without internet access were also found to prefer men
with more feminine facial characteristics and women with more masculine traits.
Healthy-looking skin

Man applying cream to healthy skin

Scientists have performed
countless studies using blended images. However, researchers from the School of
Psychology at the University of Aberdeen and the Department of Psychology at
the University of Stirling in Scotland pointed out the problem with this
technology. “The more images that are blended together the smoother the
skin texture becomes, as imperfections such as lines or blemishes are
averaged,” they explained in their report.
Still, one study did take
on the challenge. The results indicated that the “apparent health of
facial skin is correlated both with ratings of male facial attractiveness … and
with being a visual cue for judgments of the attractiveness of male
faces.” Another study which evaluated Caucasian men with digitally altered
skin tones also found that women highly favored faces with a so-called healthy
glow, that is skin with more yellow and red tones.
The reason for this may be
rooted in health, the study’s co-author Ian Penton-Voak explained to National
Geographic. Yellowish hues can indicate healthy eating habits whereas a more
reddish color can indicate fitness. Healthy skin was also found to be much more
important to women than masculine features, which actually didn’t seem to play
any significant role.

Joaquin Phoenix
Facial scars as so hot right
now. Scientists at the University of Liverpool revealed that men with facial
scars are considered to be more attractive to women who are looking for a
fling. It’s true. This is interesting because facial scarring doesn’t exactly
fit the bill for what is generally considered attractive, like symmetry, skin
health, or simplicity.
As part of the study, men and
women were asked to view images of faces that were scarred from either injury
or illness and then asked to the rate the person’s attractiveness for both
short-term and long-term relationships. Rob Burriss of University of
Liverpool’s School of Biological Sciences explained the study in a public
release (via EurekAlert!): “Women may have rated scarring as an attractive
quality for short-term relationships because they found it to be a symbol of
masculinity, a feature that is linked to high testosterone levels and an
indicator of good genetic qualities that can be passed on to offspring.”
Men without any facial scarring, on the other hand, were rated as “more
caring” and thought to be better suited for long-term relationships. It
might just be, Burriss speculated, that women find facial scarring attractive
because it historically signifies bravery.
Facial hair

Man with full beard

Just as women rated men with
facial scars to be variably attractive depending on potential relationship
status, men and women in another study found beards more attractive than shaved
faces when looking for a long-term relationship. Why? Researchers can only
speculate. It could be that, as the study’s authors explained, “beards
consistently render men with an older, more masculine, socially dominant and
aggressive appearance.” Or beards could just be considered more attractive
to women when looking for something long-term because “they indicate a
male’s ability to successfully compete socially with other males for
As great as beards were found
to be for long-term relationships, the female participants found “heavy
stubble,” or “10 days of beard growth,” to be the most
attractive form of facial hair overall. It may surprise you that clean-shaven
faces came in last place across the board. Irrespective of potential
relationship status, an overwhelming portion of the over 9,000 participants (more
than 8,000 female and 1,000 male) did not prefer shaved faces.
Facial maturity

George Clooney

The “George Clooney
effect” — not to be confused with the “Johnny Depp effect” — is
what psychologists have dubbed the relationship between older men and younger
women. According to Business Insider, a study in Scotland found the more
financially independent a woman is, the more likely she is to date a handsome,
older man. This isn’t what researchers thought would happen. “We’d assumed
that as women earn more, their partner preferences would actually become more
like those of men, with a tendency towards preferring younger, more attractive
partners rather than those who can provide and care for children,” the
study’s lead researcher, Fhionna Moore, revealed in a statement. She continued,
adding, “We think this suggests greater financial independence gives women
more confidence in partner choices, and attracts them to powerful, attractive
older men.”
Whatever the reason, many find
agedness — including aged faces — attractive. As it happens, the authors of a
study on facial hair confirmed that the maturity factor is part of what makes
stubble so alluring.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.