It starts before we are even born. In utero, tiny fingers reach for tiny cheeks. In one study, it didn’t matter if second-trimester fetuses were boys or girls. It didn’t matter if they favored their right hands. Their mom’s anxiety provoked left-handed face touching.
Anxiety is a powerful motivator. In stressful times, people touch their faces more often. They brush their hair out of their eyes. They rub their noses. They tap their chins. Living through an unprecedented crisis means enduring an unprecedented level of stress, which means people right now are touching their faces more than ever. This is a problem.
Long before the novel coronavirus 2019 pandemic (COVID-19), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that “Serious respiratory illnesses like influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), whooping cough, and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) are spread not only by coughing or sneezing but by unclean hands; touching your face after touching contaminated objects; (and) touching objects after contaminating your hands.”
The CDC isn’t alone. Almost a decade ago, Steven Soderbergh’s early prescient film Contagion offered Kate Winslet as Dr. Erin Mears pointing out that “The average person touches their face three to five times every waking minute. In between, we’re touching door knobs, water fountains, and each other.”
Turns out our face-touching numbers are way more than five per minute. Even those who should know better can’t seem to help themselves. A group of 26 medical students at the University of New South Wales was videoed. Their face touching was tabulated. They averaged 23 face touches an hour. Almost half of those were to a mucous membrane––including the mouth, nose, eyes or all three. This is how viruses spread.
So, why do we do it? That’s a question for the ages. Dogs use their paws to scratch at their nose. Primates cover their faces to show submission. Even rabbits do this. Humans are different. We touch our faces without meaning to, and our face touches often have no meaning.
A professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., explains that there are many reasons for all this face touching. It can be related to embarrassment. Then there’s the self-soothing stroking of the back of our head. There’s the rub of the eyes when we are sleepy. There’s even that iconic, flirtatious flick of the hair––which can of course be done hands-free.
Face touching may even alter the brain’s electrical activity. According to a 2014 study in Germany, when you are working on a project or feeling overwhelmed, touching your face seems to regulate that electrical activity. It acts as a circuit breaker when you need a break.
The challenge is how often we touch our face without even thinking about it. If you smack your leg with your hand, that’s a conscious action. If your finger twitches as you dream, that’s an unconscious action. Somewhere between actions we control and those we don’t are non-conscious actions. These are actions we do without thinking while our minds are focused elsewhere. So we can cross a street, win a chess match, or argue in a courtroom all the while touching our face.
Face-touching isn’t like breathing–it’s not something that happens whether or not you think about it. You can only hold your breath for so long. But with a bit of work, you can hold your own hands––away from your face.
Mindfulness is a popular buzzword. Although its origins go back centuries to Buddhist meditation, being mindful extends beyond meditation. It means living in the now. It means being aware of what is going on around you. Mindfulness is even more important during this pandemic because it means being aware of your body.
Mindful eating is about savoring each bite rather than scarfing take-out while binging Stranger Things. Focusing on food means you realize when you are full. Mindfulness has helped people lose weight. Studies show it has aided everything from depression to hypertension. By being aware of your body it can help you stop touching your face. Force yourself to focus. Keep that dirty phone in your purse or pocket. Lose the earbuds, too (not literally). As you stroll down the deserted street or wait for carry-out service, think about where your hands are. Maybe they are by your side or even better in your pockets (but not sharing real estate with that phone). Focusing on your fingers and not your face can help break the habit. Bonus? Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress.
Other suggestions include using a tissue to rub that itch or even have friends and family members yell “face” every time your hands approach the danger zone. Right now some intrepid inventor is in a basement working on a system of bells or electric shocks. Yet despite the social stigma against picking our noses or popping our pimples, we keep on touching. But we have to stop. Because this time really is different. This time, it really is a matter of life or death.
- Laterality of foetal self-touch in relation to maternal stress
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Coughing & Sneezing
- Face touching: a frequent habit that has implications for hand hygiene
- Born to Blush: Greater Good Magazine
- EEG changes caused by spontaneous facial self-touch may represent emotion regulating processes and working memory maintenance
- Specific Transcriptome Changes Associated with Blood Pressure Reduction in Hypertensive Patients After Relaxation Response Training
John Bankston is a published author of over 150 nonfiction books for children and young adults including biographies of Jonas Salk, Gerhard Domak, and Frederick Banting.