Somewhere in our not-too-distant evolutionary past, hair provided humans with warmth and protection against the elements. Today, it has become more of a fashion statement than a survival feature.

And, as we have evolved, so too have our views on the attractiveness of body hair — especially male facial hair. For instance, psychologists have found:

  • Facial hair is related to men’s success on the marriage market
  • Men with facial hair are judged by women to have higher social status and better parental skills
  • Women associate men’s facial hair with aggressiveness and dominance

A new paper published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology takes this research one step further.

A team of psychologists led by Lukasz Jach of the University of Silesia in Poland conducted two studies to better understand the preferences for male facial hair among men and women. They found that women’s preferences for male facial hair were ambiguous — in some cases they liked it, in other cases they didn’t. Men, on the other hand, preferred facial hair for themselves but not for other males.

The finding that men prefer facial hair for themselves but not for others has a clear evolutionary explanation.

“These results are in accordance with a signaling role of beardedness in intrasexual competition,” state the researchers. “Men may prefer having facial hair to deter their enemies and display greater masculinity or a higher social position.”

Moreover, the lack of consistent results among women underscores just how context-dependent ratings of attractiveness can be. In Poland, for instance, research has found that women prefer clean-shaven faces to faces with stubble and full beards. Other research in the United Kingdom has found British women to prefer light stubble over full beards and clean-shaven faces.

In this study, the researchers recruited 285 women and 287 men to take part in a short survey. The researchers asked women to indicate whether, in general, they liked men’s clean-shaven faces or faces with facial hair. They asked male participants the same question in relation to their own faces.

They found that 57% of women indicated a preference for facial hair while 43% preferred clean-shaven male faces. Among men, 77% preferred facial hair for themselves while 23% preferred a clean-shaven look.

The researchers then conducted a second study in which male and female participants were asked to view five visual examples of male facial hair (clean-shaven, light stubble, heavy stubble, light beard, and full beard) and were asked to indicate which look they preferred.

Preferences differed by gender. The authors write, “The majority of women preferred clean-shaven male faces (43.84%), followed by heavy stubble (26.03%) and light stubble (16.44%). Faces with light beard (10.96%) and full beard (2.74%) were the least preferred.”

For men, approximately 60% preferred some type of facial hair for themselves while 40% preferred a clean-shaven look. When judging other men, the results narrowed: approximately 50% of men preferred other males to have a clean-shaven look while 50% preferred some type of facial hair.

Perhaps the most convincing finding in this research is that women care a lot less about men’s facial hair than men might think they do. “The hypothesis that men’s preference to have facial hair is greater than the female preferences associated with male facial hair was supported,” conclude the authors.