Stephen D. Benning, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and director of the Psychophysiology of Emotion and Personality Lab at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Whether or not you realize it, chances are you touch your face hundreds of times a day. It may be to adjust your glasses, sweep hair off your face, put on sunscreen or simply to scratch an itch. You also may have a long-standing habit, such as nail-biting (a double whammy), licking your finger to help you turn the page of a book, stroking your beard or simply resting your chin on one hand.
But you also know that touching your face is dangerous—your hand is a superhighway for germs to enter the body, especially through mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth).
Habit reversal is a tool you can use to reduce face-touching. It’s designed to help you become aware of what you’re doing…replace it with a safer behavior…and make other changes to more safely accomplish purposeful hand-to-face tasks.
First, develop self-awareness. Whenever you reach to touch your face, note what you were doing at the time, any urge that preceded it and how you were feeling. This will help you recognize your triggers.
Counter the urge to touch. You can stop face-touching with a “competing response.” Just engage in a motor activity that pushes your hand away from your face for at least one minute. For instance, if you’re seated, push your hands down and press them on the tops of your thighs—it’s an inconspicuous movement that others won’t notice. If you’re standing up, relax your shoulders and press your arms toward your sides.
You also can practice a concept called “distress tolerance.” You teach yourself to ignore the urge to scratch or touch. Deep breathing can help as you wait for the urge to pass, which often happens within 10 to 40 seconds.
Change how you do purposeful tasks to minimize the transfer of germs. Use a tissue to adjust your glasses, tweak an itchy nose and blot watery eyes—and throw it into the garbage immediately. Use utensils to eat, not your fingers. When you’re munching on a snack that comes in a wrapper, hold the wrapper as you eat it.
When you must use your hands for direct contact, such as applying makeup or skin-care products or putting in contact lenses, wash your hands first with soap and water for the standard 20 seconds—then again afterward. Reducing face-touching to a few times a day is certainly better than 10 or 20 times an hour.