How to Not Touch Your Face: Why We Do It and What it Takes to Stop
- Posted on: Mar 20 2020
There’s nothing like a worldwide pandemic to make you reassess even the most basic health habits. And with government and health officials recommending everything from social distancing to indefinite at-home work and childcare, it’s hard to figure out how to get through the day, much less untangle the practical side of actually putting those recommendations in place.
While you’re juggling the “new for now” world order, we offer this comprehensive guide to that most puzzling and frustrating recommendation . . . “Don’t Touch Your Face!”
Read on for how when and why we do it, as well as some good tips for breaking the habit.
Touching Your Face: Why All the Fuss?
Communicable viral infections, like the coronavirus spread through tiny droplets released when someone sneezes, laughs or coughs. Doorknobs, elevator buttons, your kitchen counter . . . all play host to these droplets and transfer them to the next person who unwittingly touches that surface.
That’s why touching any part of your face often – like the nose, eyes, or mouth – can be an efficient point of entry for the virus. It’s also why constant handwashing is so important. But no matter how vigilant a handwasher you become, you’ll also need to become a vigilant non-face-toucher to truly protect yourself.
And that’s easier said than done, because face touching isn’t just a human habit, it’s an ingrained social behavior that all of us have . . .
Why We Touch Our Faces
It turns out that we touch our faces more than any animal, or closely related primate, and we even have different reasons for doing it. While most primates use self-touch as a form of grooming, we’re more likely to touch our faces as a “self-soothing” mechanism, according to Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.
And research has even shown that touching our face with our fingertips, for example, or rubbing a spot on our skin, or resting our chin in our hands . . . results in the release of the calming and stress reducing hormone oxytocin. It’s also a way we communicate subconsciously, to flirt, for example, or signal a transition from one social state to another.
The biggest obstacle is all that subconscious touching. Most of the time, we’re not even aware that we’re doing it. A 2015 study in the American Journal of Infection Control observed a group of medical students touching their faces an average 23 times an hour.
All this means that simply deciding to give up touching our face isn’t going to work. Here are three practical tips for heading off the habit . . .
Make Touching Your Face Hard or Uncomfortable
The first step in reducing the number of times you touch your face is to become aware of how frequently you do it. A good way to learn this is to make touching your face hard, so that you notice each time you try.
Wear Cold Weather Gloves
Time to raid the ski gear box! Pull out any gloves you can find – preferably a pair that are thicker than surgical gloves, but not too bulky to hinder your work or daily activities. Wear them for an hour and note how many times you want to remove them – to rub your face or scratch an itch.
Break out the Glasses
If you don’t normally wear glasses, pull out some sunglasses and make a conscious effort to wear them for a few hours. Ski goggles also work if you’re working from home. Glasses or goggles are a great barrier for the area around your eyes. If you have to remove them to get to that spot you normally touch, you’ll notice quickly how often you rub your eyes.
When it’s a physical need, like an itch, we can make some headway by introducing a substitute behavior. Try keeping a handkerchief or even a clean paper towel square handy. Every time you’re tempted to touch your face for that reason, use the handkerchief or napkin instead. If you don’t have either, try to get into an alternate habit like using the back of your arm.
Practice Self Awareness and Leave “Notes to Self”
If you’ve got a task to complete – for example, writing an article about how not to touch your face – go into it with an action plan in mind.
That can be anything from documenting how many times you’re touching your face – for this writer it was just under 20 – to using any of the tricks that make touching your face more uncomfortable. The end goal is to keep a running list of the ways you’re most likely to touch your face during a given work task. The simple act of writing them down, posting them in your work space on a sticky note and reading them the next time you sit down to work can be a helpful first step.
Touching your face isn’t a habit you’ll eliminate overnight, or even entirely. So don’t worry too much if you can’t seem to completely stop your face touching. Like most health habits, you have to start with an awareness and build to general good health. If you’re washing your hands consistently and manage to cut the number of times you touch your face, even by half, you’ll be greatly reducing your risk of infection and improving your skin health!
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