Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Does Your Makeup Matter at Work?

You know better than to bust out the glitter eye shadow in the office—but if you’ve been thinking that a low-key approach to makeup will win you professional acclaim and respect from your co-workers, a new study says you should think again.

The study, conducted by researchers at Boston University and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, found that women who don a “professional” amount of makeup in the office were regarded as “capable, reliable, and amiable,” and ultimately, “more competent” than those women who shunned the use of it.

Twenty-five women of white, African-American, and Hispanic ethnicities, ranging in ages from 20 to 50, were photographed in four stages: first, bare-faced, then with levels of makeup the researchers categorized as “natural,” “professional,” and “glamorous.” When the 149 adult participants (61 of whom were men) were shown the photographs and asked to judge these varying makeup looks within seconds, the “professional” look was the winner in terms of competence and likeability. And when 119 different participants (30 men this time) were given “unlimited time” to examine the faces, the results were the same.

While wearing makeup was seen in a positive light, the “glamorous” look (although admittedly attractive at first glance) tended to wear off on its observers over time, leaving the glammed-up women being regarded as untrustworthy.

So what does this mean for our makeup bags? If you’re an “au natural” kind of gal, should you be setting your alarm 20 minutes or so earlier to gussy up before you head into the office? If you love to don red lipstick, should you leave it at home, lest becoming known as the Sneaky Sally of the boardroom?

My opinion: neither. Achieving the happy medium of makeup application may sound easily attainable in theory, but when we’re not compared side-by-side to three other versions of ourselves, the difference between “natural” and “professional” may not be so clear. And the standards by which we're judged on such matters can differ—a lot—from person to person. When it comes to making a professional impression on those around us, we're always going to be vulnerable to the whims of others’ perceptions, and that extends far past the makeup we wear.

Personally, I’ve never been a big makeup girl, and I’m usually content to stick with a quick swipe of mascara. I’ve accepted that no matter how I adorn myself for the office, someone is going to disapprove. So I read this study, but I won’t be changing my routine. If my “professional” lipstick color is what’s going to make me seem more likeable and competent, I think I’ll pass. Maybe this makes me a renegade, or maybe it just means I'm comfortable in my skin.

Here’s my advice: Wear your makeup in a way that makes you proud and confident. It’s good to be aware that your makeup—like your choice of attire—is going to play into how you’re judged. But that doesn’t mean there’s a cookie-cutter “right” way to apply it any more than it means you have to wear pressed shirts and pencil skirts for the rest of your life.

Based on this study, will you be making any changes to how you wear your makeup into work?

Photo courtesy of iamtheo.