If you have passing knowledge of American football you’ve seen many players put on those two black strips of paint right below their eyes. For those of us who don’t watch or play football, this is probably where our knowledge of face paint ends. Honestly, who even knows if it’s made of paint? What’s the football face paint for?
Further Reading: What Were the Original College Football Bowl Games?
What’s it Even Made of?
For starters, that face paint isn’t made of paint. It’s called eye black and the most commonly used types are made of grease. Sometimes football players use stickers that serve the same purpose, since not everyone wants to rub grease on their faces. People who don’t like the stickers will probably tell you they fall off when you get sweaty, though. Especially the bad ones. It’s a pretty real concern considering how much football players are exerting themselves–especially if you sweat more than the average person.
There was also that time Tim Tebow tried to put Bible verses on eye black stickers. Which is… not allowed anymore. Also putting a lot of white print on the black surface might defeat the entire purpose eye black has.
A Functional Purpose
Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, eye black is worn, sometimes primarily, as a tool for intimidation. Early use of eye black in the 1930s is largely credited to Babe Ruth, who did actually try to use it functionally. Also, he wasn’t playing football.
But eye black serves the same purpose in football as it would in baseball. It’s meant to limit glare that goes into your eyes–especially when it’s sunny and when there’s more sweat on your face. Eye black is, well, black. That means it absorbs more light than human skin, which is already more reflective than you might think because it’s actually quite oily. Plus, sweat is even more reflective and would just compound the issue. You’ll notice that eye black is commonly worn right under any given athlete’s eyes. Light hitting their face scatters around, and the light that ends up right below the eye is going to go right back into an athlete’s eyeball. Which is a problem when you’re trying to see a tiny ball on the other side of the field.
But Does it Work?
Well… Maybe. Two of the most significant studies into eye black (from Yale University and the University of New Hampshire) have ended up with slightly different results. The former study found that eye black can increase users’ sensitivity to contrast. Generally they didn’t find too many differences between the common greases used in eye black, like beeswax or paraffin. However, they didn’t find any discernible effects for eye black stickers. This study was criticized for a handful of reasons, one of the primary ones being that test subjects probably knew what was being put on their faces; introducing biases that could swing results.
So came the second study from New Hampshire, that sought to improve on the previous. In the end, though, they only found that eye black reduced glare for test subjects who didn’t have blue eyes. In the end, though, none of the results that came out of the New Hampshire study were statistically significant. This means the effects of eye black broadly can’t be reliably generalized to anyone outside of the testing pool. We suppose it does mean eye black isn’t going to make your day worse?
See if you know all the NFL teams here. Bonus points for knowing who uses the most eye black.