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Published on March 27, 2020

3 ways to stop touching your face

Touching Face

Want a low-tech way to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases?

Stop touching your face…like you probably just did.

Think of it this way: Ewwwww!

“Everything and anything is on your hands,” said Joycelyn A. Datu, MD, who practices internal medicine at Mashpee Primary Care at Cape Cod Healthcare’s Rogers Outpatient Center. That could include benign and normal skin bacteria, she said. But it also could include things much more sinister. “There are a lot of lethal and fatal viruses that can be on our hands, like COVID.”

That’s one reason why washing our hands correctly is so important. But, just like our mothers said, we need to keep our hands away from our faces.

Touching our faces is human and often unconscious: We scratch our noses, bite our nails, rub our eyes without giving it a second thought. Some of us put glasses on and off several times a day. But every time we do that, we are offering germs easy access to our bodies in a “free-for-all,” said Dr. Datu.

“There are three major [openings] on your face: your eyes, your nose and your mouth,” she said. “And different microbes will target where they think they will find a place that they could use for growth. I think that’s one major reason why our face is so important, and it’s not protected.”

Our ears are less vulnerable, she said. The tympanic membrane (eardrum) serves as a barrier between the skin and mucous membranes. Although the ears are better protected as a result, there is still the potential source of infection.

Dr. Datu, who is also director/chairperson of the Love for Life Foundation of Philippine American Physicians in America, mentioned that our skin serves as a barrier and protectant against potentially harmful environmental invaders.

But the vulnerability of our faces makes it extremely important to be vigilant, not only about hand-washing, but about keeping our hands away from mucous membranes, she said.

That's easier said than done.

Researchers say we touch our faces more than 20 times an hour. An observational study of 26 medical students in Wales found participants touched their faces between 10 and 45 times every hour, with an average of 23. Almost half of those touches involved mucous membranes of the mouth, eyes or nose.

Breaking the Habit

Face-touching is not an easy habit to break, according to the Behavior Insights Team, a public-private partnership in the United Kingdom that advises governments and others on how to change social habits. When it comes to face touches, the team recommends three strategies:

  • Using a tissue or, at the least, the back of our hands or arms, to scratch an itch on our faces.
  • Asking a loved one or pal to say something when they see us touching our faces unconsciously. We need to consider what triggered the touch to make us more aware.
  • Creating a habit that makes us less likely to touch our faces. For example, keeping our hands in our pockets during video calls so we don’t touch our face or rest our chins in our palms. Keeping our hands busy with a stress ball or string of beads.

And if we wear glasses or hearing aids, we should be aware of how and when we touch them or where we put them down, Dr. Datu said. Don’t put glasses down on a public counter or desk and then put them back on without washing hands and wiping the glasses down with disinfectant wipes. If you’re going to take them off, wash hands first. She recommends the same process for hearing aids.

“We’re just going to have to go through 10 extra steps now,” she said. “The best way is to be extremely diligent, and it means changing your behavior. This is going to be a lesson that we'll learn from, even when this is all over.”