Health and Wellness

Why you can't stop touching your face, according to science and psychology

@zuzerphotoart | Twenty20

Most of us touch our faces way too much. Studies have shown that people touch their faces 23 times an hour — and that's a big problem amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The eyes, nose and mouth are essentially portals for infectious diseases to enter. COVID-19 is believed to spread through respiratory droplets from someone coughing or sneezing. But if you come into contact with COVID-19, then touch your unwashed hands to any of these areas on your face, you run the risk of infecting yourself.

So wash your hands of course, but staying healthy sounds like a great rationale to stop touching your face. Yet the messages from the Centers for Disease Control and other public health authorities to stop don't making quitting any easier.

"When people say don't touch your face, what happens? We touch our face," L. Kevin Chapman, clinical psychologist and founder and director of the Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, tells CNBC Make It.

So why is quitting so hard?

The science

There are a number of reasons why we're so attached to this "uniquely human habit," Chapman says.

First, some face touching is almost automatic. For example, neuroscientifically, scratching an itch on your face (or anywhere else) is an automatic reflex, meaning you do it without thinking. When you have an itch, it registers as a complex pain-like sensation. Scratching or touching an itch feels good because it temporarily interrupts the discomfort. When we're in pain, our instinct is to withdraw, but when we itch, our reflex is to scratch, according to the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology.

Touching your face can also be a habit.

Like with other ingrained habits, from biting your fingernails to cracking your knuckles, when you've repeated a behavior enough times, a part of the brain called the basal ganglia takes over. Once that happens, the behavior is almost instinctive and "the brain starts working less and less," Charles Duhigg, author of "The Power of Habit" told NPR

The psychology

Interestingly, there are also psychological reasons you touch your face. Besides typical itching and grooming habits, studies suggest that touching your face is a self-soothing tactic.

"In some sense, it's a way to regulate emotions, and it's a way to kind of tap into how we're feeling at any given moment," Chapman says.

We also do it to "convey certain facets of our identity to people," he says.

Touching your face can be a nonverbal way to communicate your feelings or emotions. For example, you might touch your face when you feel awkward or uncomfortable, or when you're trying to flirt with someone, he says.

"Ultimately, it's a habit-forming behavior because it represents so many different things for us," Chapman says.

Tips that can really help you stop

Here are some strategies that may help keep your hands off your face, according to Chapman.

1. Shift your thinking

You're more likely to change your habits when you allow your thoughts to be flexible rather than punitive, Chapman says.

So, instead of thinking, "don't touch your face," you should tell yourself, "I'm going to be more aware of touching my face today." You can even set reminders with that message on your phone to go off every few hours.

"If you do that consistently, you're programming your brain to make that thought salient, and therefore you're more conscientious of not doing it," he says.

When you slip up, use it as a reason to wash your hands and start fresh.

2. Distract yourself

The most obvious way to curb your face-touching would be what Chapman calls "distraction techniques," such as holding onto a trinket when you get the urge to touch your face. For example, you might want to keep a "fidget spinner," small toy or stress ball by your desk to play with when you're stressed or just need something to do with your hands.

Other studies on "body-focused" repetitive behaviors (such as hair pulling disorder and skin-picking) suggest that simply clenching your fists or sitting on your hands for a minute can help you resist the urge.  

3. Use accessories strategically

Some people who have long hair might feel extra tempted to touch their face to move stray hairs. Chapman suggests securing your hair in a bun to prevent yourself from playing with it.

It also might be useful to wear your glasses to dissuade yourself from touching your eyes.

Similarly, wearing any kind of gloves can keep you from touching your face, he says. But they don't absolve you from having to wash your hands for COVID-19 prevention.

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