Why You Can’t Stop Touching Your Face

It’s a human trait, a subconscious action, a scientific inevitability. Sigh.

Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

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TThe coronavirus (COVID-19) threat is educating us (by fire) about hand hygiene. Washing hands is the most important tool to prevent the spread of the new virus, which at this point has no known treatment or vaccine.

The other piece of hygiene advice commonly dispensed at this unnerving time: Don’t touch your face. This is wise, no doubt, as touching happens with our hands, our tools for interacting with the world and its microbes. And hands can introduce unwanted microorganisms right into our bodies.

As a physician, I’ve learned to treasure my hands as wonderful instruments, but also to be wary of their role in spreading germs.

Respiratory infections, such as the flu, the common cold, and also COVID-19, spread through droplets that infected people send into the air. But you can also transfer microorganisms directly into your eyes, mouth, and nose with your own hands, hands that were in contact with microbes. And it’s not just viral respiratory infections that spread this way. Bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus live peacefully in the noses of up to a quarter of the population, and can move from there to infect other parts of the body — as well as the bodies of other people.

Why is it so hard to stop touching your face?

So, now that you’ve been told to stop touching your face, can you do it?

What helped me realize the difficulty of following this directive is noticing how many times my face stings after cutting hot peppers. I cook with jalapeños and other spicy peppers often, and although I try very hard not to touch my face as I prep them, I feel the burn all too often. So obviously, I’m touching my face without even being aware.

That’s likely because to do so is to be human.

It’s a human trait, a subconscious action, and much like intermittently changing our posture or scratching an itch, it’s hard to stop.

We may not mean to touch our faces, but it’s a human trait, a subconscious action, and much like intermittently changing our posture or scratching an itch, it’s hard to stop.

Touching our face is a trait we share with gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees, who touch their faces as often as we do, although we humans have a chin-touching predilection unique to us.

A study in the American Journal of Infection Control observed the face-touching behavior of medical students in Australia, and found that they did so on average 23 times an hour. Medical students, who are far more aware than the general population, were touching their mouth four times an hour on average, and their nose three.

A recent study of face-touching found that participants touched their faces on average about six times in 14 minutes. Another study observing Japanese and British people for 10 minutes at a time found that both nationalities touched their face frequently. In 10 minutes of being observed while doing nothing, British people touched their face more than eight times — the chin in particular. The Japanese participants touched their nose and eyes more often.

Touching our face is a trait we share with gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees, who touch their faces as often as we do.

Recommended methods for breaking the hand-to-face cycle include keeping your hands busy, covering your hands with gloves, and thinking about it.

I find that thinking about it works for a short while. Try it and see how long you last. If you have hair falling into your face, putting your hair up in a ponytail can reduce your face touching. If you wear glasses you’ll touch your face more, but can you see without your glasses?

Because touching your face is a natural human behavior, it’s hard to control for long. Once you’re no longer concentrating on not touching your face, your hands will likely find their way to your favorite spot again. For better or worse, there’s a certain inevitability to it that overrides public health recommendations.

Don’t touch your face with contaminated hands

Rather than emphasizing the don’t-touch-your-face directive, perhaps we should alert people to the fact that they do touch their face quite often, which makes the practice of excellent hand hygiene all the more necessary. Hand washing is within our control — touching our face much less so.

The coronavirus outbreak is rapidly evolving. To stay informed, check the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as your local health department for updates. If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, reach out to the Crisis Text Line.

Physician (pediatrics and medical genetics), entrepreneur, artist, innovative plant-based cook and mother of three

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