Smiling makes people under 60 look older: study

Two people smiling. File photo courtesy of © Can Stock Photo / Kurhan

If you’re concerned about looking older, you should stop smiling, according to a new study out of Western University and Ben-Gurion University in Israel.

Neuroscientists at the two post secondary institutions found people in their 20s and 30s were “strongly” and “reliably” identified as being older when smiling than if they had kept a straight face.

“Faces contain an amazing number of social cues. Among the many critical dimensions that people readily extract from faces, age is often considered as primary,” said Melvyn Goodale, study author and founding director of Western’s Brain and Mind Institute. “Accurate identification of a person’s age is crucial for understanding social roles and determining the nature of social interaction.”

The study builds on the team’s previous research which found a smiling face can make people appear one or two years older. Participants were shown hundreds of photos of people between the ages of 20 and 80 with either a smile or neutral expression. They were then asked to estimate each person’s age.

People in their 20s and 30s sporting a smile were more commonly identified as being older, matching the results of the previous study. In contrast, smiling did not add additional years to those in the 60 plus category.

“This suggests that older people already have so many facial wrinkles that any smiling-related wrinkles make little difference to their overall appearance and their perceived age,” said Goodale.

For individuals between the ages of 40 and 60, smiling increased the likelihood of looking older for men more than it did for women.

“Not only do middle-aged men have more wrinkles than middle-aged women – the prominence of those wrinkles around the eyes increases more when middle-aged men smile than it does when middle-aged women smile,” said Goodale.

Researchers also noted the use of makeup had no bearing on the difference in age perception between middle-aged men and women. Only a handful of the photos used in the study were of women wearing makeup. When those pictures were removed from the analysis, smiling men were still more commonly identified as looking older than smiling women.

Goodale added that the results of the study reinforce the idea that wrinkles around the eyes are the biggest factor in age perception and that facial expression can affect the prominence of those wrinkles and, consequently, the perception of a person’s age.

“These findings are particularly relevant in the time of COVID when so many people are wearing masks, leaving only our eyes visible,” said Goodale.

The full results of the study were published Friday in Scientific Reports.