Can You Really Not Touch Your Face?

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Of all the warnings that health officials are giving to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there’s one that becomes kinda difficult the more you think about it: touching your face.

Maybe you’ve found that as soon as someone tells you to keep your fingers off your face, all you want to do is start touching it. Or maybe you’ve realized how often you subconsciously get up in there, and how tough it is to remember to keep your dirty hands to yourself.

But you might also be wondering, is that really so important?

Can I Really Get a Virus From Touching My Face?

Well, kind of. That’s one of the steps.

Let’s back up and look at the path of a virus. To start with, there’s no one clear path. Different viruses can mutate and adapt quickly, making them even trickier to slow or stop. Not all can live or thrive on the same types of surfaces. Different ones like attacking different parts of human and animal bodies.

But in general, viruses are always looking for pathways to attach themselves to cells. Let’s say an infected person coughs or sneezes. With that, they’ve let out droplets of saliva or snot. Often, those droplets will contain viruses. They may have sprayed out onto whatever was nearby – a countertop, a subway pole, a staircase railing or a can of soda at the deli, for instance. The problem? Those surfaces don’t have cells, and viruses need cells.

Many viruses and pathogens can still live on those non-living surfaces, though, some for a week or more. But they’re always looking for a new cell. So when you happen to walk by a few hours later and touch the same subway pole or grab that can of soda at the deli, the virus will try to jump from the can to your fingers.

You can’t recognize that when it happens, of course. There’s no zap like the kind you get from an electric shock, and no "Hello! Pleased to meet you!" coming from the virus. So a few minutes later, when you try to get an eyelash out of your eye or bite off a hangnail, the virus has the perfect path inside your body, where it can find the types of cells it wants to attach to. In the case of COVID-19, it’s looking for cells in your throat and your lungs.

So How Do I Just Stop Touching?

It might be harder than you think. After all, one study found that humans touch their face about 23 times an hour, and that often means contact with the nose, mouth or eyes. Some people do it as a mechanism to self-soothe or calm their nerves, and of course, sometimes you just have to scratch an itch or get an eyelash out of your eye.

But during a pandemic, it’s critical to avoid touching your face as much as possible, along with taking all the other precautions that are in place in your area. If you find it’s hard to stop touching, there’s a few things you can do to break the habit.

You could try wearing a mask, even for a few hours or days. Masks are in dangerously low supply right now, so leave the official masks to the professionals. But you can always lightly wrap a scarf or bandana around your face. The presence of one can make you more aware of how often you try to touch your face, and help you get in the mindset of remembering to keep your hands away.

You can also try other methods of keeping those hands busy. Items like fidget spinners, stress balls and small toys like Rubik's cubes or Mobius balls can keep your hands so occupied that they won’t have time to get your face.

And remember: You can still touch your face. You have to wash it, after all. Just make sure that you have clean hands before you do, washing them for the recommended 20 seconds or more to kill any harmful germs looking for a way into your body. It may not seem like much, but it’s a big way that you alone can help end the pandemic.

About the Author

Rachelle Dragani is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn with extensive experience covering the latest innovation and development in the world of science. Her pieces on topics including DNA sequencing, tissue engineering and stem cell advances have been featured in publications including BioTechniques: the International Journal of Life Science Methods, Popular Mechanics, Futurism and Gizmodo.