In a shocking twist to anyone who wears makeup, you don’t actually have to be healthier to seem attractive to people—you just have to look healthier. And apparently warm skin tones are where it’s at.
People may not turn blue when they eat blueberries (except those magical Willy Wonka ones), but they do turn orange-y when they eat carrots. A lot of carrots. Probably more carrots than you’ll ever want to eat. That’s because they contain beta-carotene, a pigment also used as a food coloring agent. You can also find beta-carotene in other foods, like pumpkin, sweet potato, and—confusingly—spinach, but it’s most abundant in carrot juice.
If you consume enough beta-carotene it turns you a very unpleasant shade of yellow-orange. But if you eat just the right amount, it simply tints your skin a bit. Carrot-colored skin might not sound very attractive, and yet studies show that people with a yellow-red hue to their skin look more healthy—and are judged as being more attractive. That’s called sexual selection or, more specifically, indicator choice—the idea the signs of health in another being make them more sexually appealing. Or, in reverse, the things you find appealing in another human are often indicators of good health.
The question is: are we attracted to health, or just signs of what could be health? Beta-carotene is a great tool for answering this question because it changes skin tone to align with what people think of as a healthy look without actually improving health. There have been claims that beta-carotene acts as an antioxidant and produces several benefits, like assisting immune system function and reproductive health. But there isn’t evidence to back this up. Birds use beta-carotene in a similar way, also with no health benefits, by using the pigment to color their feathers. Brighter feathers make birds sexier (to other birds, at least), so beta-carotene also seems to signal sexual attractiveness to other creatures. Some birds even seek the substance out in the feces of other animals, chowing down on poo for the sake of attracting a mate. And you thought Tinder was bad.
But maybe those birds are on to something. In a study published on Monday in the journal Behavioral Ecology, psychologists at University of Western Australia gave a group of men enough beta-carotene to slightly shift their skin tone. Women rating their pictures found them more attractive after the supplements than before, despite the fact that the researchers could find no signs that the men had gotten healthier by any measure. They looked more yellowish-red, and so they gave off the appearance of health. And that was enough.
It’s not clear yet whether improving your health with an antioxidant that doesn’t pigment your skin would make you seem more attractive. But hey, if you don’t care about actually getting healthier, you can always eat more carrots. They won’t improve your eyesight, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder anyway.