It took a coronavirus outbreak to remind us that we touch our faces way too many times. And cutting down on that will help reduce the spread of the virus, health officials say.
In 2015, a Sydney university observed medical students on video and recorded how many times they touched their faces as part of a study to improve hand hygiene. Each of the 26 future doctors under observation touched their face an average 23 times per hour.
Nearly half of those times — 44% — involved contact with their eyes, nose or mouth.
Good luck trying to stop it
As we fight the deadly coronavirus outbreak, officials are urging people to avoid touching their faces.
All it takes is one microbe on your finger from the many surfaces we touch all day — doorknobs, elevators, keyboards — to slip into your body through your nostril, eyes or mouth, according to health experts.
"Viruses that affect the respiratory system enter the body through mucosal membranes which are found in the nose, oral cavity and lips. With poor hand hygiene, it's easy to acquire a viral infection this way," said Dr. Dawn Mueni Becker, an infectious disease specialist in Gainesville, Florida.
But we've been touching our faces all our lives, and it's hard to stop, even for the officials spearheading the fight against the coronavirus outbreak.
On Friday, a video widely shared on social media showed a California health official touching her face during a news conference advising people not to do that as the coronavirus outbreak spreads.
"Start working on not touching your face, because one main way viruses spread is when you touch your own mouth, nose or eyes," she said.
During that same news conference, she licked her finger to flip to the next page of her remarks.
Even one notorious self-proclaimed germaphobe can't help himself. "I haven't touched my face in weeks — in weeks. I miss it," President Donald Trump said jokingly last week. He was photographed touching his face Monday.
There's a reason you touch your face
Like most behaviors, constant face touching starts at a young age and becomes a habit over time. People touch their face for various reasons. One 2014 federal government study suggested that touching your face helps reduce stress and discomfort.
"Spontaneous facial self-touch gestures are performed manifold every day by every human being, primarily in stressful situations," according to the study. "These movements are not usually designed to communicate and are frequently accomplished with little or no awareness."
Touching your face is so common, there's a website that claims to use your webcam to notify you when you touch your face and track how many times you do it.
If you can't stop it, it's not the end of the world
But we're all humans, it's not easy to break a habit we've had all our lives. If you can't stop yourself, it's not the end of the world, Becker said. Just ensure you observe hand hygiene.
"Being conscious or aware of this habit is helpful when it comes to avoiding touching the face," Becker said. "Identifying triggers such as runny nose or urge to sneeze is important. In this case, having tissue close by is helpful — it's better to use that to touch your face than bare hands."
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and if that's not available, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
Soap and water are especially preferred if hands are visibly dirty, the CDC said, and especially after using the bathroom, blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
Just think of all the germ-ridden things people touch all day. Cellphones, car keys, doors, elevators, even wads of cash that you have no idea the places they've been. Now imagine transferring all the bacteria, viruses and allergens from those items into your body through the mucous membranes in your nose, mouth and eyes. Or even through a cut in your face or neck that you have no idea exists.
If that doesn't make you pause, we don't know what will.