"How having just the one drink can make you look more gorgeous, according to science," The Independent reports. But the "science" turns out to be an experiment carried out under highly artificial conditions.
The headline comes from a small study looking at whether drinking alcohol makes people more physically attractive to others. It found photographs of those who had consumed a "low-dose" alcoholic drink (a large glass of wine) were rated as more attractive than images of sober individuals.
But photographs of people who went on to have a second drink were not rated as more attractive than those who drank nothing, and the apparent effect of alcohol on perceived attractiveness was only slight.
The point of this small study is unclear, although the authors say they are interested in the relationship between alcohol and risky sexual behaviour.
If the researchers do go on to find a relationship between alcohol and risky sexual behaviour, the results would hardly be surprising.
It may well be true that a small amount of alcohol can help someone relax and therefore appear more approachable, but whether we needed a taxpayer-funded study to tell us this is debatable.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Bristol and Macquarie University, Australia.
It was funded by a European Research Advisory Board grant. The Medical Research Council paid for the article to be published on an open-access basis.
It was published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, and is free to access online. Articles in this journal appear to be internally reviewed with some sent to independent referees. It is unclear whether this study was sent for external peer-review.
Both The Independent and the Mail Online's headlines failed to make clear the highly artificial nature of this study: it didn't involve people speed dating in a wine bar, just students looking at photos.
Both news outlets deserve some praise, however, for making it clear that the alleged effects of alcohol on attractiveness were limited to only one drink.
But the Mail's claim that the study found "wine and other alcohol can dilate pupils, bring on rosy cheeks and relax facial muscles to make a person appear more approachable" is misleading.
This was the speculation of the authors of the study, but the study itself did not look at what mechanisms might increase facial attractiveness after consuming alcohol.
What kind of research was this?
This study set out to examine whether alcohol consumption leads to the consumer being rated as more attractive than sober individuals.
The authors point out that alcohol consumption can cause mild flushing and also result in facial changes that may indicate changes of mood, sexual arousal or expectancy of sex, making people more attractive.
Alcohol consumption is known to be associated with sexual behaviour, particularly risky sexual behaviour, and they say it is important to understand the mechanism through which alcohol might influence such behaviours.
While previous studies have looked at whether drinking alcohol leads the consumer to rate others as more attractive, the effects on the attractiveness of the consumer have not been explored.
What did the research involve?
Researchers recruited 40 people aged between 18 and 30, half of them women. The participants were all heterosexual students who typically consumed between 10 and 50 units of alcohol a week (males) and between five and 35 units a week (females). They were all required to be in good physical health and to not be using illicit drugs (except cannabis).
They were asked to look at photographs of around 36 students. These students were all in a heterosexual relationship, and each partner participated in the study because the researchers say there are "strong correlations observed between the attractiveness of romantic partners".
Each volunteer had been photographed three times:
- when sober – they had not had an alcoholic drink
- after the consumption of 0.4 g/kg of alcohol – equivalent to a large glass of wine (250 ml) at 14% alcohol by volume for a 70kg individual
- after the consumption of a further 0.4 g/kg of alcohol (a total dose of 0.8 g/kg of alcohol)
All photos were taken with applicants in the same position, from the same angle and distance, and with a neutral expression.
When sober, participants were asked to complete an attractiveness rating task where they were presented with pairs of colour photographs of the same person displayed on a monitor, comprising either:
- facial images of them sober and after one alcoholic drink, or
- facial images of them sober and after two alcoholic drinks
Participants were then asked to decide which image was more attractive and to what extent, using the number keys 1 to 8 on the computer.
Values 1 to 4 indicated that the face on the left was preferred (1 = strongly prefer, 2 = prefer, 3 = slightly prefer, 4 = guess), while 5 to 8 indicated the face on the right was preferred (5 = guess, 6 = slightly prefer, 7 = prefer, 8 = strongly prefer).
They had previously completed a validated questionnaire rating their mood.
What were the basic results?
Researchers found images of individuals who had consumed one alcoholic drink (a "low dose") were rated as more attractive than images of them sober.
The preference for an "intoxicated" face (of someone who had had one drink) over the "sober" face was slight (mean preference 54%, 95% confidence interval [CI] 50-59%).
However, when comparing someone who had not had a drink with someone who had had two drinks (the "high dose"), there was a slight tendency to prefer the "sober" face over the "intoxicated" face (mean preference 47%, 95% CI 43-51%).
They also found that in those who had one alcoholic drink, the skin tone in facial images was slightly redder and darker compared to the sober state, but no different when comparing sober with high-dose or low and high doses.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers say their study suggests alcohol consumption increases the attractiveness of the consumer to others, and they may therefore receive "greater sexual interest" from potential mates.
The mechanism for this apparent increase in attractiveness is unknown, although they suggest it is driven by a change in appearance after low alcohol consumption – a flushing of the skin and a relaxation of facial muscles.
"Understanding the mechanisms through which alcohol influences social behaviour, including factors that may impact on the likelihood of engaging in risky sexual behaviour, is important if we are to develop evidence-based public health messages," they argue.
This small study found a slight increase in the perceived attractiveness of people who had consumed (on average) one large glass of wine, compared with images of those who had consumed no alcohol. But what this finding adds to our knowledge of alcohol and risky sexual behaviour is unclear.
All kinds of factors might influence whether someone is considered attractive, including the mood and preferences of the onlooker, as well as the mood of those being photographed.
Also, the sample was drawn from a student population and the results might not be generalisable to other groups. It is also highly likely that the student participants recognised the students in the photographs, which could have influenced the results.
The official NHS guidelines on alcohol consumption are:
- men should not regularly drink more than 3-4 units of alcohol a day
- women should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units a day
- to avoid alcohol for 48 hours after a heavy drinking session
Three units is the equivalent of a large glass of wine (alcohol content 12%) or a pint of higher strength beer, lager or cider. Read more about alcohol units.
Regularly drinking above these limits can lead to alcohol misuse problems. Alcohol misuse can trigger a range of health issues, such as weight gain, impotence (in men), jaundice, and various types of cancers.
Read more advice about how to enjoy alcohol responsibly.
Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Website
Links to the headlines
The Independent, 4 March 2015
Mail Online, 3 March 2015
Links to the science
Alcohol and Alcoholism. Published online February 25 2015