The Real Reason You Can't Stop Touching Your Face

You're washing your hands. You're singing "happy birthday" twice. But no matter how hard you — or we — try, we can't seem to take heed and act on the other part of the CDC's wellness-in-the-time-of-coronavirus advice, which is to stop touching our faces. In fact, the more we remind ourselves not to touch our faces, the itchier our eyes, forehead, noses, and cheeks seem to get.

And thanks to our need to reach out and touch our faces, #CoronavirusChallenge is now trending on Twitter (via The Guardian), which was sparked by a briefing where a health official licked her own finger after warning everyone to "work on not touching your face, because one main way viruses spread is when your touch your own mouth, nose, or eyes."

Why we can't stop touching our faces

Touching our face is second nature to us. In a small study published in the American Journal of Infection Control, Australian public health researchers observed that in a group of 26 students, they touched their faces about 23 times an hour. Of these touches, 44 percent of the time the subjects touched a mucous membrane — and of the mucous membranes touched, 36 percent involved the mouth, 31 percent involved the nose, 27 percent involved the eyes, and 6 percent was a combination of all three.

Psychologist Kevin Chapman tells Business Insider that face touching could be related to our tendency to be sensitive about our faces and our facial expressions. Most of us also don't consider face touching to be much of a threat. "Psychologically, most individuals don't interpret various forms of threat and contamination in relation to their faces and therefore fail to associate sickness and illness with face touching," said Chapman. "Most individuals don't associate CDC advice with their daily functioning [like face touching] due to an illusion of control."

How do we stop touching our faces?

The last thing you want to do if you want to stop touching your face is to tell yourself to stop — and then get stressed out over it because you can't seem to kick the habit (note to self: stress is bad for the immune system). But infection prevention experts like Connie Steed say there are ways to keep your hands from zeroing in on your face, like keeping them busy with a stress ball (via USA Today). If you are sitting down and you find your hands drifting towards your face, you could tuck them under your legs. You might want to buddy up with someone who is with you, so they can point out when you're touching your face. Also be aware if you are touching your face out of habit — like if you're a nail-biter.

The rewards for keeping your hands off your face are great, because as Steed puts it, your face has many places for germs to enter your body, and you could have contaminated your hands without being aware of it. "You can clean your hands all day, but as soon as you start touching things again... the germs on your hands increase," Steed tells USA Today.