Medical advice states that we need to stop touching our faces – but how can you stop doing something that happens so subconsciously? We asked the experts.
What are you doing with your hands right now? Is your palm cupped against your chin? Are you rubbing your eyes? Have you been absentmindedly pulling at your lips? We all touch our faces a lot – and most of the time, it’s without even realising. While it’s never been much of a problem, it’s now one of the simple actions at the centre of the current coronavirus pandemic.
In March, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its “Pass the message to kick out coronavirus” campaign, highlighting five key steps people need to follow to avoid spreading the virus. Alongside physical distancing, staying at home, hand washing and coughing etiquette, WHO included “not touching your face”. Even months later, it continues to be one of the steps we’re asked to stick to. But the thing is, it’s not really that simple. Especially when you don’t realise you’re doing it. In fact, you’ve probably done it at least once since you opened this article. But why is touching our face so bad for our skin and overall health?
“Unless your hands are squeaky clean, every touch, scratch, wipe or pick at your skin will be transferring not only dirt and grime that naturally accumulates on the hands from every item or surface you have touched, but also bacteria and as current times show us, even viruses,” explains Debbie Thomas, advance skin and laser expert and founder of D. Thomas Clinic.
Of course, we know that dirt and bacteria can sit on the surface of our skin harmlessly but SPF, moisturiser or make-up usually blocks this, says Thomas. By constantly touching skin, you’re actually pushing that grime past these barriers and into pores.
Pamela Marshall, clinical aesthetician and founder of Mortar & Milk, explains, “Our pores (and internal pilo-sebaceous unit) really dislike too much of any one thing. So, if there is an abundance of bacteria, excess oil or dead skin cells that is sitting on the skin, the inside PSU will put up a defence mechanism. It swells to a close creating an inflammatory response, such as an acne spot.”
This can then become a vicious circle, notes consultant psychodermatologist and skin wellness expert Dr Alia Ahmed, “as some people will be compelled to touch their face more when they have spots and could be compounding the problem further.”
The thing is, touching our faces is something we learn through repeated everyday behaviours, via actions like face washing or applying make-up, says Dr Ahmed. “These behaviours are associated with positive outcomes and thus become reinforced by instilling positive feelings, like feeling clean or fresh.”
“Additionally, contact with the skin, like stroking or touching pressure points, can be stress-relieving or soothing. Oxytocin is one of the hormones released in response to light touch and may be mediating a positive response by the body to these stimuli as it has potent anti-stress effects.” Most commonly, it’s also a subconscious response to certain stimuli, like scratching an itch or brushing hair in your face, she adds.
So how can you avoid touching your face?
It can be a difficult habit to break, especially as it’s such a subconscious act, says Dr Ahmed. Here, she shares some suggestions to stop touching your face:
1. Adopt a ‘substitute’ behaviour that is performed instead of touching your face
“This could include touching a different part of your body instead of your face, or doing something else with your hands, like clasping them. In our current situation, a positive adopted behaviour can also be hand washing for 20 seconds, then if you find yourself touching your face, at least your hands will be clean.”
2. Control your hands
“Keep them in your pockets, or gently clenched into fists. If you want to touch your face there is now an additional behaviour involved, like taking them out of your pockets or unclenching. This gives you time to become aware of the desire to touch your face and will hopefully stop it from happening.”
3. Use physical barriers, if possible
“Wearing glasses, or in the current climate, wearing a mask or other face covering. But note, this only creates a barrier between your hands and face. There is not enough robust evidence to say this reduces transmission of infection from hands to face.”
4. Maintaining clean hands
“If you find you must touch your face, please make sure your hands are clean, and use another barrier like a tissue to protect your skin further. For example, if you need to scratch an area; wash your hands, wrap a clean tissue over your fingers and then scratch. Again, having these extra steps in between can sometimes help overcome the desire to touch your face by the time you have prepared your hands to do it.”
5. Create awareness
“If you are comfortable with it, ask the people you live with to make you aware of when you are about to or are actually touching your face. This will make you more aware of it.”