"Don't touch your face!" The slowing of the spread of Covid-19 depends on it.
While the No. 1 strategy is to avoid close contact with infected people, according to the CDC, the virus can also spread through contact with contaminated surfaces. To halt that line of infection, the CDC wants you to wash your hands, use hand sanitizer when soap and water aren't at the ready, and "avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands."
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In brief, we do this because "it's possible to pick up COVID-19 after touching something an infected person touched, then touching your own eyes, nose, or mouth," Debra Jaliman, MD, board-certified dermatologist and American Academy of Dermatology spokesperson told Health.
Don't worry about absorbing Covid-19 through your fingers themselves, though. "The intact skin on your hands is fairly impervious to infection, but the mucosal tissue lining your eyes, nose, and mouth is not so tough." David Cutler, M.D., family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica told Health.
Note that none of these experts says it's easy to stop touching your dang face. Most everybody is more likely to relate to Estelle Tang in Vogue, who wrote: "As soon as I found out that touching your face is something you shouldn't do, I discovered just how much I do it. My face is itchy; I scratch it. My eye is watering; I dab the goo away. Is my forehead itchy again? Do I have drier skin than everyone else? My nose runs from the cold. A hair drifts gently across my cheek, alerting every nerve ending in the vicinity that I want to touch it."
Keep in mind, touching your face is a human habit, not some character weakness. One landmark study of 26 medical students in 2015 found that each subject touched his or her face 23 times an hour on average. And a study published in the PLOS ONE journal in 2019 asserted that "every human being spontaneously touches its eyes, cheeks, chin and mouth manifold every day. These spontaneous facial self-touches (sFST) are elicited with little or no awareness... Self-touch frequency has been shown to be influenced by negative affect and attention distraction and may be involved in regulating emotion and working memory functions."
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The constant reminders not to touch your face? Not helping, New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine associate professor of psychiatry Gail Saltz told Health. "The problem with telling anyone to not do anything that is a habit is that generally it makes them do it more," she said. "In attempting to remember to stop doing something, that thing is in front of your mind. This means trying to find the urge can often feel more intense."
What does help? This bevy of suggestions from medical experts and those who have been combating their face-picking tendencies for years before Covid-19 developed. Here are 13 ways to (try to) stop touching your face to prevent the spread of coronavirus:
- Look at what part of your face you touch. People "might pick their nose, pick at dry skin on their lips, smooth their eyebrows, touch their eyelashes," Saltz added. "We are highly aware of our face because our senses (seeing, smelling, hearing) are basically housed on our face and head."
- Determine what triggers face touching. A few examples include "brushing your hair out of your face, picking at a pimple on your forehead, scratching an itch on your nose—but stress and boredom can exacerbate the urge to touch your face too," according to Health. "Of course, the best route for treating persistent stress and anxiety is to seek professional help, but if you find yourself biting your nails more often when scrolling through coronavirus news on Twitter, or watching back-to-back COVID-19 coverage on TV, it may be time to cut back a bit."
- Try a stress ball or fidget spinner. Henry also recommended a distraction to help you break the habit, with the idea that your hands can't touch your face if they're busy.
- Wear a bracelet or rubber band on your wrist. You're trying to halt your fingers and the mindless fidgeting before your mouth, eyes or nose get involved.
- Hold something in your hand. Borrow a page from those people who didn't want to shake hands for decades, even centuries, before this novel coronavirus made its appearance. Good options: A cloth handkerchief, the (clean) television remote, your coffee cup, a cat.
- Sit on your hands. If you notice when you're chewing your cuticles or soothing yourself by rubbing your temples, make sure to tuck your hands under your thighs or butt at those times. "Simple behavioral changes will make you more aware when your hands become free and more aware of what you are doing with them," Robin Kerner, a clinical psychologist at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York City told Women's Health. "I tell [people] to sit on their hands for a while to help break the habit," Saltz added. "It may take a while, but after a few weeks you really can break the habit of constantly touching your face."
- Walk with your hands behind your back. Yes, you might look like a pompous boarding school exam proctor. But this definitely helps you to stop touching your face, particularly since the whole posture will feel a bit awkward, reminding you that you're trying to do something different and why.
- Wear an alarming scent on your fingers. If your nose is alerted that your fingers are approaching, you may halt midway through your face touch attempt. Consider dabbing a pungent essential oil on your fingertips, or a bit of Vick's Vapor Rub.
- Wear gloves. If you're one of the legions now working from home, no one can see you anyhow. When your fingers are covered in uncomfortable textiles (wool especially), you're less likely to touch your face. This is also a good time to get out those fingerless working gloves so you can still type or do chores. They do leave your fingers free to touch your face, but the oddity of having them on your hands makes you much less likely to subconsciously pat or wipe your face with your hands.
- Get your hair off your face. If your hair dangles into your face, you're going to want to push it back and you'll touch your face for sure. Instead, consider pony tails, clips and barrettes, wide headbands and bandannas and even (freshly laundered) hats.
- Wash your hands before bed. It's just a habit to rub your eyes on waking like a cute little kid, and this takes care of the risky behavior.
- Record yourself. Once you think you're doing well at breaking the habit, do a reality check. "Set up your cell phone or webcam to record a portion of your day, then play it back to discover how you touch your face, and how often," Women's Health added.
- Establish "competing behaviors." Dying to touch your face? Touch your elbow, knee or the top of your head instead. "It's a method of redirecting away from the face-touching," added Saltz in Health.
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After giving this important duty in the war on coronavirus your all, you might find that you're still failing. That means you'll have to concentrate even more than most on tactics that let you touch your face and still reduce the rate of infection. "For instance, carry tissues at all times so you can wipe away tears or catch a sneeze or cough," Saltz suggested. "Use your knuckles to touch an elevator button instead of your finger, and a paper towel to open a door instead of your hand."