How to stop touching your face to minimize the spread of the coronavirus (and other germs)

By Stephen D. Benning, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Brian Labus, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Kimberly A. Barchard, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Public health professionals consistently promote handwashing as a way to protect themselves from the coronavirus. However, this microorganism can survive on metal and plastic for days: the simple gesture of adjusting the glasses with your fingers can be enough for a person to become infected. For this reason, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization recommend that we avoid touching our faces.

We are experts in psychology and public health. Brian Labus is an expert in communicable diseases and knows what we must do to prevent infection. Stephen Benning is a clinical psychologist who specializes in helping people change their habits and manage stress in a healthy way. Kimberly Barchard is a research methodology expert who wanted to find out what studies say about the habit of touching our faces. Together, we use our clinical experience and scientific evidence to identify best practices to avoid this gesture and decrease the chances that people will get COVID-19.

People touch our faces frequently. We clean our eyes, scratch our noses, bite our nails, and brush our beards. We put our hands to our faces more often when we are anxious, embarrassed or stressed, but also when we don't feel anything special. Research shows that students, clerks, medical staff, and people who ride trains train an average of nine to 23 times an hour.

Why is it so difficult to stop? Touching our faces relieves us from momentary discomforts like itching and muscle tension. These discomforts usually go away in a minute, but feeling our face provides immediate relief, eventually turning it into a habitual automatic response that resists change.

We touch our faces more in times of tension or worry. Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash

Change habitual behaviors

Habit reversal training is a well-established behavior modification technique that helps eliminate a wide variety of seemingly automatic behaviors, such as nervous tics, nail biting, and stuttering.

This strategy teaches people to observe the discomfort that their habits generate and helps them to choose other behaviors to use until the discomfort passes, as well as to change their immediate environment to reduce such discomfort.

You may have already changed other habits, such as coughing by covering your mouth with the inside of your elbow and substituting handshakes for a bow or a simple greeting with your hand up. But unlike what happens with these actions, we often touch our faces frequently unconsciously. So the first step in reducing this gesture is to become aware.

Every time you touch your face, notice how you do it, the impulse or feeling that preceded you, and the situation you were in when it happened (what you were doing, where you were physically, or what you felt emotionally). If you don't usually notice when your face is touched, you can ask someone else to tell you.

Self-control is most effective when a physical record is kept. You can create a record where you briefly describe each situation where you put your hands to your face. For example, you could write down the following:

– I scratched my nose with my finger, I felt itchy, it was on my desk.

– He was playing with his glasses, he felt his hands tickling, frustrated.

– He had his chin resting on the palm of his hand, neck pain, while reading.

– I bit my nails, I dug my nails into my pants, I watched television.

Self-monitoring is even more effective if the results are shared publicly, so consider showing the results to your friends or on social media.

You can read more detailed information about habit reversal training in this article.

Develop new responses

Once you are aware of the behavior you want to change, you can replace it with another reaction opposite to the muscle movements needed to feel your face. When you feel the need to touch your face, you can clench your fists, sit on your hands, press your palms to your upper thighs, or stretch your arms down to the sides of your body. This alternative response should be discreet and adopt a body position that can be held for at least one minute. Resort to it as long as the need to touch your face persists.

Some sources recommend manipulating objects to get your hands busy with something. You can rub your fingertips, tinker with a ballpoint pen, or squeeze a stress ball. Activity should keep hands away from head. For difficult-to-change habits, object manipulation is not as effective as alternative responses, perhaps because we tend to fiddle with objects when we are bored, but we touch our faces and hair when we are anxious.

Learn more about breaking the itch-scratch cycle.

Manage triggers

Changing your environment can reduce your impulses to touch your face and, in turn, decrease the need for alternative responses. Use the logs to find out what situations or emotions are associated with gestures that involve the face. For example:

– If the glasses keep slipping off your nose, you can use ear clips or headbands to prevent them from slipping.

– If you bite your nails, you can use a file to keep them short, or wear gloves or bandages for your fingertips, so biting your nails is impossible.

– If the allergy makes your eyes or skin itch, or your nose runny, you can limit your exposure to allergens or take antihistamines.

– If you notice food debris between your teeth, you can brush it after each meal.

– To prevent hair from getting into your eyes or mouth, you can use rubber bands, bands, a scarf or a headband.

Face it, I may not be able to stop

Most people fail to completely eliminate unwanted habits, but can moderate them. In accordance with harm reduction principles, simply reducing contact with the face decreases the opportunities for viruses to enter the body.

Sometimes we need to touch our faces: to floss, put on contact lenses, wipe food off our lips, apply makeup or shave. Remember to wash your hands first. But if you need to adjust your glasses and this pre-cleaning is not possible, use a tissue and throw it away immediately after use. Avoid finger-biting foods and putting food in your mouth with dirty hands. Wash them first or use utensils or the packaging to handle it.

Other ways to reduce the spread of infectious diseases include practicing social distancing, thorough handwashing with soap and water or a hand sanitizer, and regular disinfection of high-contact surfaces. However, when your hands touch contaminated surfaces, the tips above can help you avoid touching your face before washing again.

Translation by the professor at the University of Cádiz José M. Mestre.

Stephen D. Benning, Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Brian Labus, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Kimberly A. Barchard, Professor of Quantitative Psychology, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.