Life history theory proposes that organisms make trade-offs between allocating energy toward their growth and development or toward reproductive efforts. We have spent most of our childhood, growing, maintaining and developing our bodies while sexual interests were subdued. As we become adults, our biological pathways increasingly orient us towards reproductive efforts.

Life history theory also posits that our various trade-off biological efforts and strategies between growth and reproduction are heavily influenced by ecological/ environmental conditions (Kaplan and Gangestad, 2005). Well, what does life history theory have to do with lipstick effects?

Lipstick effect (first used by journalists) is the notion that women might spend relatively more money on products that enhance their beauty during economic downturn (Nelson, 2001). During 2008, a year after what economists consider worst economic recession, L’Oreal announced that they experienced sales growth of 5.3% while the rest of the economy upended (Elliott, 2008).

Linking back to life history theory, individuals who are in harsh and unpredictable environment would very likely to allocate their resources toward reproduction rather than growth or development (One needs to “reproduce” quickly before death in harsh environment.) Therefore, economic recession indicated by poverty and resource scarcity might signal harsh-and-unpredictable-you-need-to-do-something ecological environment and lead people to allocate resources toward mating efforts (use lipsticks to beautify) and mating attractions. Using U.S. Census Bureau report on monthly retail spending from 1992 to 2011, Hill et al. (2012) found that as unemployment rate went up, people relatively spent significantly larger money on buying beauty-enhancing products (personal care and cosmetics), but not on other products (furniture, electronics, and leisure products).

Several experimental studies have also supported this lipstick effect. (Note: Evolutionary psychology is not just making up stories!) Participants in Hill et al. (2012) were primed either by reading news article about economic recession or a control article on modern architecture. Females who read the recession article reported a significantly greater desire to purchase appearance-enhancing products compared to those in the control condition. The other studies by the same authors also showed that the lipstick effects are dependent on women’s perception of products that actually enhance beauty. After being primed with economic recession article, women reported higher desire in buying luxury attractive products, that are perceived by majority to enhance beauty, not discounted brand items which might be perceived as less effective in enhancing attractiveness. And lipstick effect was observed in women across all levels of socioeconomic backgrounds, not dependent on the woman’s own resources predicted by social roles theory. Read the full study here:

Lipstick effects also seem to work at the level of automatic visual attention (Sacco, Bermond & Young, 2015). Female participants who were primed with economic recession article showed a stronger automatic attention bias, as measured by reaction time dot-probe task (Participants have to press either left or right button as soon as possible when they see the dot on the left and right sides of beauty-enhancing and non-beauty-enhancing products pictures), toward beauty products than non-beauty products while the results were not found in control conditions.

So why does lipstick enhance beauty? Evolutionary explanations may link to Sexual dimorphism (distinct differences between males and females). Women’s lips in general are fuller than men, and men reported to prefer females with relatively small chins, larger eyes, high cheeckbones and full lips (Cunnigham, 1996). Fuller lips, usually mimicked by lipsticks, are also linked to estrogen levels (female hormones), signaling fertility and health (Law Smith, et al., 2006).

Take a look at this article on BBC on lip size key to sexual attraction:


Cunningham, M. R. 1986. Measuring the physical in physical attractiveness: Quasi-experiments on the sociobiology of female beauty. Journal of Personality and Social Psychol. 50:925–35

Elliott, L. (2008, December, 22). Into the red: ‘Lipstick effect’ reveals the true face of the recession. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://

Hill, S. E., Rodeheffer, C. D., Griskevicius, V., Durante, K., & White, A. E. (2012). Boosting beauty in an economic decline: Mating, spending, and the lipstick effect. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 103(2), 275-291. doi:10.1037/a0028657

Kaplan, H. S., & Gangestad, S. W. (2005). Life history theory and evolutionary psychology. In D. M. Buss (Ed.), Handbook of evolutionary psychology (pp. 68–95). New York. NY: Wiley.

Law Smith, M.J., Perrett, D.I., Jones, B.C., Cornwell, R.E., Moore, F.R., Feinberg, D.R., Boothroyd, L.G., Durrani, S.J., Stirrat, M.R., Whiten, S., Pitman, R.M., & Hillier S.G. (2006). Facial appearance is a cue to oestrogen levels in women. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 273(1583), 135-140.

Sacco, D. F., Bermond, A., & Young, S. G. (2015). Evidence for the Lipstick Effect at the Level of Automatic Visual Attention. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, doi:10.1037/ebs0000061


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