Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Gel Can End Blushing

By Stephen Luntz

As much as a quarter of the population is frightened of blushing, and many of them may avoid situations in which they fear their cheeks will give them away. Prof Peter Drummond of Murdoch University’s Psychology Department thinks that an easily available gel may be the answer.

Blushing involves a mixture of causes, but one of these is an inflammatory reaction in the blood vessels of the face. Production of the prostaglandins that induce this reaction can be blocked with ibuprofen. Indeed, since prostaglandins also sensitise nerve cells it is this capacity that makes ibuprofen a pain reliever.

Drummond placed ibuprofen gel on a patch of one cheek of 30 subjects and a control gel on the other. Both were then covered with sensors to check blood flow before the participants were invited on stage to sing Gloria Gaynor’s karaoke classic I Will Survive.

“To heighten their embarrassment, we interjected every now and then asking them to sing louder, be more expressive, sing in tune,” Drummond says. While it may seem surprising that the study won ethics committee approval, Drummond found blood flow was only half as intense on the cheek to which ibuprofen had been applied.

The sensors prevented observations of how colour changes, but Drummond thinks the placebo effect will also be substantial for many of those who fear blushing.

Fear of blushing is so intense that some people have surgery to destroy the nerves that feed the face’s blood vessels. While the majority of those who have undergone surgery report satisfaction with the results, a range of unpleasant side-effects can occur, making the provision of a gel an attractive alternative.

The reasons why blushing evolved remain debated, with Drummond saying his own theory is that it is a way of removing the excess body heat associated with any form of excitement, including embarrassment. “It is part of getting back to equilibrium from the fight-flight response,” he says.

Drummond doubts the idea that blushing is a sort of non-verbal apology noting: “This only works if you can see the blush. For a lot of the population, and particularly our ancestors, that would be very hard to do.”