It's a tough habit to break, but not impossible.

By Claire Gillespie
March 10, 2020
Alex Sandoval

If you can tune out the noise of the widespread panic around the new coronavirus, the advice from the World Health Organization (WHO) on how to protect yourself from COVID-19 is simple: stay home if you’re sick, don’t get too close to anyone who’s coughing or sneezing, wash your hands a lot, and stop touching your face so much. But honestly, that last bit of advice is often easier said than done. 

"Virtually everyone habitually touches their face," David Cutler, M.D., family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, tells Health. "And this is especially dangerous when there are infectious outbreaks like the current coronavirus [outbreak]." That's because touching your face (i.e., your mouth, nose, and eyes) allows the germs on your hands to reach moist, porous surface tissue where the germs can enter your body and cause infection, he says. "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."

While the coronavirus spreads primarily through close contact with infected people, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—that means via respiratory droplets produced when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes—the virus can also spread through contact with contaminated surfaces. That's where not touching your face so much comes in handy, since 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 tells Health.

If you’ve read this far without touching your face, great job. Here are some expert tips to help you go a little longer.

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1. Be mindful of just how much you touch your face throughout the day.

Face-touching is often subconscious behavior, which means people do it without even being aware of it. If you want a number, you probably touch your face around 23 times an hour, according to the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC). Even health experts have trouble not touching their faces. Case in point: Sara Cody, the public health director of Santa Clara County, California, who went viral last week when she licked her finger only moments after urging the public not to touch their faces to help prevent contracting COVID-19. 

Of course, the coronavirus outbreak—and the constant messaging to stop touching your face—isn't helping matters. "The problem with telling anyone to not do anything that is a habit is that generally it makes them do it more," Gail Saltz, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the upcoming Personology podcast, tells Health. "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."

2. Identify your own personal face-touching triggers.

People touch their faces for lots of different reasons, says Dr. Saltz—and the first step to reducing your face-touching is identifying what part of your face you touch the most and why. "[People] might pick their nose, pick at dry skin on their lips, smooth their eyebrows, touch their eyelashes," says Dr. Saltz. And that' primarily because "we are highly aware of our face because our senses (seeing, smelling, hearing) are basically housed on our face and head. 

Alot of face-touching habits can be the result of triggers—like 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. 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.

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3. Find other behaviors to do when you want to touch your face. 

Like any habit that is difficult to stop, Saltz suggests performing a “competing behavior.” This means when you have the urge to touch your face, you touch another part of your body instead, such as your arm. “It’s a method of redirecting away from the face-touching,” she says. Another way to redirect? Make it almost impossible for you touch your face: Sit on your hands (really). "I tell [people] to sit on their hands for a while to help break the habit,” she says. “It may take a while, but after a few weeks you really can break the habit of constantly touching your face.” 

If that doesn't work, enlist items or habits that enable you to touch your face but also reduce the risk of infection. "For instance, carry tissues at all times so you can wipe away tears or catch a sneeze or cough. Use your knuckles to touch an elevator button instead of your finger, and a paper towel to open a door instead of your hand," says Dr. Saltz. Of course, Jaliman recommends carrying hand sanitizer and using it frequently. She advises using one with added moisturizer so your hands don’t get totally dried out. 

And if all else fails, bring in reinforcements. Cutler suggests putting a frequent reminder into your phone telling you every few minutes, “Don't touch your face.”  The more you see the message, the more likely it is to sink in, making not face-touching your new habit. Or ask friends and family to point out each time they see you touch your face—and you offer to do the same for them—to make you a little more aware of just how often you do it. 

4. Keep in mind that not touching your face is only one way to protect yourself.

Is it important not to touch your face? Of course—but it's crucial not to forget all of the other preventive measures that can help your risk of contracting COVID-19, as well. According to the CDC, other smart flu prevention strategies that can keep you healthy include staying home when you’re not feeling well and avoiding others who are sick, washing your hands often (or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol) as well as before eating and going to the bathroom, and cleaning commonly touched surfaces and objects

Also important: Understanding that nothing—even taking all of the CDC-recommended precautions—completely guarantees protection, says Dr. Cutler. But "utilizing as many as possible is your best assurance of avoiding coronavirus and other viral infections," he says.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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