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How Screwed Am I If I Can’t Stop Touching My Face?

Your hands are germ vehicles, and your mouth is a germ magnet — compulsively touching your face is basically asking for the flu (or, y’know, coronavirus)

My compulsive skin-picking habit is a problem year-round, but it’s particularly an issue when the word “pandemic” is trending. Usually, touching my face just gives me zits or scabs I can’t stop scratching off, but this time of year, I might as well be spoon-feeding myself viruses each time I unconsciously bring my hand to my lips. 

Medical experts are constantly saying that handwashing is the most important habit in the prevention of the spread of contractible illnesses like the flu or coronavirus. But it’s not like having some clean-ass hands just magically tells germs to stay away from you: The reason doctors stress handwashing so much is that our hands are essentially a vehicle for germs to enter our bodies elsewhere. 

“Like the flu, the coronavirus generally gets spread in droplets of spit or from a runny nose,” explains David Cutler, a family medical physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “If somebody sneezes or coughs, it’s going to put the virus on items around them. The virus can stay alive for 30 minutes on surfaces. So if it’s on a spoon, a hand or the skin of your cheek, it’s going to be there for a while, and if it then gets transmitted into your nose or your mouth, it can multiply and cause infection. So conceivably, if you touch someone’s hand, then touch your lipstick container, put on the lipstick and then lick your lips, that virus could get inside of you.” 

Your face is really the enemy here. The flu virus isn’t going to do shit to you if it’s on your elbow. But if you lick your elbow within that 30-minute window? Your mouth is gonna welcome those flu germs right on over to your immune system. Your eyes and nose will do the same if they come into contact with germs — they’re the true gateway to the inside of your body. Fortunately, your more fun gateways (your genital orifices) cannot carry the flu virus to your immune system.

But you probably aren’t constantly touching your genitals in public, at work or while running errands. If you are, that’s a far more deeply rooted psychological issue I’ll have to address another day. Right now, we have more pertinent issues, namely, how can I make myself stop touching my face so much in order to avoid getting myself sick?

As Ava Shamban, a Beverly Hills dermatologist, told Allure, any kind of repetitive behavior can actually be a mild form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. That again might be indicative of a broader psychological issue, but it’s most directly connected with stress and anxiety. While skin-picking and OCD have the potential to be devastating problems requiring extensive treatment, the compulsion to touch your face or pick your zits isn’t necessarily a sign that you need to seek help. A psychological professional might be a more straightforward path to skin-touching freedom, but there are ways to get there on your own. 

The first step to stopping a subconscious repetitive behavior is by making it conscious. If you’re reading this article, you’re already there! You’re aware of the problem, which means you’re probably aware that you need to stop doing it, and are probably at least not touching your face as you read this. 

But just because I know there’s a problem doesn’t mean I’m immediately going to be able to fix it. The real issue, of course, is that many of us touch our faces without realizing it at all, even when we know we don’t want to. 

Since we can’t really rely on our willpower alone, a better method is to offer ourselves a distraction. Fidget spinners and stress balls exist for a reason! There’s nothing wrong with keeping some little toys at your desk to occupy your hands, or even to keep one in your pocket when you’re out and about. Just make sure you regularly clean these down with rubbing alcohol so they don’t become cesspools of germs, themselves. 

Face masks are popular right now, mostly because they’re low-key kind of sexy. When it comes to preventing the spread of airborne disease, they’re kind of useless, but they can be useful if they keep you from touching your nose and mouth. Not only do masks physically cover them, but the jarring experience of touching a mask when you expected skin should be enough to make you conscious of what you’re doing and stop. It’s important, though, to frequently replace these masks. Ditto with surgical gloves — they could just as easily transport germs to your mouth, but you’re a lot more likely to notice what you’re doing with them on. 

For a more drastic measure, a good manicure can help. Depending on your style, you might not want a long set of acrylic claws, though I’ve personally found these the best in stopping my own picking. Because they’re thicker than my natural nails, it’s more of a challenge to pick in any satisfying way. And since I can’t pick, I’m less likely to touch my face overall. In general, I find that having something new or different with my hands makes me more aware of what I’m doing with them.

Or, as Cutler recommends, just make sure you wash your hands a lot! 

But it should be said that you don’t need to be extra afraid of the coronavirus because you’re a face-toucher. COVID-19, like the flu, is most dangerous for men over 80 with prior medical issues. For the rest of us, were we to contract the virus, it would likely feel similar to a cold. Touching your face is a means of contracting the flu, common cold, stomach virus or whatever other ailments are regularly going around, but that was equally as true before the coronavirus was even a thing. 

It’s a good habit to break, but a hard one. It’s best not to stress about it, though — that’ll probably just make you want to touch your face even more.