Why we touch our faces and why it’s so hard to stop

Written by: Top Doctors®
Published: | Updated: 27/03/2020
Edited by: Cameron Gibson-Watt

At a time when it is more important than ever not to touch your face, unconsciously, you are probably touching your face more than ever. Health experts around the world have offered everyone three pieces of important advice in a bid to reduce the spread of COVID-19 infections: avoid large gatherings, wash your hands frequently and stop touching your face.


But as anyone who has consciously tried to adhere to the latter knows, it’s quite difficult.


A 2015 study by the American Journal of Infection Control suggests that we touch our faces an average of 20 times every hour, and 44% of the time this involves direct contact with our eyes, mouth and nose: exactly where viruses enter the body.



So, why do we touch our faces?

Touching our faces is an act that we do without thinking and is part of our DNA. In other words, it is essentially a habit, but underneath this, there are two main reasons we touch our faces: to express emotion and to respond to a sensation on our faces.


According to psychologists at the BBC, when we touch certain areas of our face, what we are really doing is calming ourselves. There are certain pressure points on the face that activate the parasympathetic nervous system: the body’s internal coping mechanism.


This can explain why we touch our faces when we are shocked, surprised, stressed, concentrating, worried or upset. Subconsciously, our body is touching areas of the face - commonly the forehead, chin and mouth - to soothe anxiety and therefore, protect us.


As a child, we model the same behaviour as our parents. So if our parents, when they are surprised or stressed go to touch their faces, we are very likely to copy them. These actions performed routinely, over our entire lives, simply become a habit. So when we experience a small itch or pain on our faces, the body moves the hand to your face - the same motion is has performed for years - to respond to the sensation. Most of these times, we don’t even realise our bodies are doing it.


Then, how do we stop touching our faces?

Although it is hard, and almost impossible to completely stop, there are certain ways to break this cycle in order to reduce the number of times we touch our eyes, mouth, and nose.


Health experts argue that one of the most effective ways to accomplish this is by making your face more difficult to touch. That could be by wearing gloves more often, using glasses instead of contact lenses, wearing less make-up to not need to top it up throughout the day or, if you have allergies that cause your eyes and nose to itch, ensure you are controlling them properly by using anti-histamines and staying away from anything that provokes an itchy reaction.


Some people are even trying to learn a new way to respond to an itch or pain on the face, by developing a new routine. This can be done by setting rules, like only using a new tissue when you need to touch your face or carrying objects, such as a pen in their pockets to scratch their face with.


To begin breaking a habit though, we need to be very conscious of how we are using our hands, especially when talking or working at a computer. When we talk to someone, we use our hands to express ourselves and help us explain concepts. Picking up our hands makes it easy for them to fall on our faces if you are moving them around in front of you - which is much more likely if you are sat down with your elbows on the table. Similarly, when we are reading at a computer, the level of focus and concentration needed usually provoke us to touch our faces. So instead, make an effort to cross your hands and keep them on your lap when carrying out these activities. That way, when you suddenly get the urge to pick your hands up and touch your face, you will be much more aware of it and able to stop yourself.


Reducing anxiety and stress

As mentioned, we touch our faces to soothe emotions and feelings such as stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, many people will probably be feeling more anxious at the moment with the uncertainty and changes around us due to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, that being said, this is a good time to practice ways to help you stay calm which will ultimately reduce the number of times you touch your face and help you mentally cope better with this coronavirus outbreak. You can find some really good advice on how to reduce your anxiety and stress in our article: How to avoid succumbing to coronavirus (Covid-19) related anxiety.



Similarly, if you do need to venture outside or you still need to go to work, and you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have access to soapy water or hand gel, try to remain calm until you do. The calmer you are, the less likely it is you will touch your face without realising.


The bottom line

By telling yourself to not touch your face, you are essentially asking yourself to do something very unnatural. The point is that if you focus on stopping yourself, you may be increasing stress and your chances of touching your face and eventually you will do it anyway when you stop trying not to.


But by combining all these tips - such as making it hard to touch your face, positioning your hands differently when you talk and reducing your overall anxiety and stress - you can reduce the number of times you touch your face. This will ultimately reduce your chance of infecting yourself the next time you need to pop to the supermarket, or make a brief escape from isolation!


If you are currently in self-isolation or practising social distancing and need to speak to a medical specialist, you can speak to a doctor using our remote e-Consultation service. Find out more here.


By Topdoctors

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