How to Break the Habit of Touching Your Face — and Keep Coronavirus at Bay

It can be hard to break a habit when you don't even realize you're doing it. A psychiatrist offers small, actionable tips to help keep you and your family healthy.

theshots.co / Shutterstock
theshots.co / Shutterstock

I am a great habit breaker. For years as a child psychiatrist, I have treated trichotillomania, a condition where people pull out the hair on the eyebrows or scalp. I have a great understanding on how to break bad habits. I also commonly treat children and adults who skin pick and bite their nails and nails beds to excoriations and bleeding.  45 percent of teens and 20-30 percent of adults are nail biters — so it is a huge problem for infection control.  

Now with COVID-19, it is very important to stop touching your face and introducing those sphere-shaped viruses from invading our nose and mouth. Well, I already have some well-trained tricks up my sleeve. Luckily, my research is secured from top researchers, such as from Douglas Wood’s habit reversal therapy, and I want to give you the tricks of the trade for you and your children.   

Determine if your habits are conscious or unconscious.

Conscious touching is done for purpose — like popping a pimple or putting in your contact lenses. If it is conscious, then it’s easier to manage the hygiene issues. Don’t put in your contact lenses, brush your teeth, or engage in any skin care routine before washing your hand for 20 seconds with soap.  

But unconscious touching is much more insidious because you don’t realize you’re doing it. Common reasons are stress, boredom, or just plain habit.  

  • Determine if your touching is unconscious or conscious. One great way is to keep a journal. Note every time you notice your touching your face and the antecedents (triggers) that happen beforehand.  
  • Electronic bracelets, such as habit-aware electronic digital bracelets, are programmed to buzz every time you bring your hands to your face. Maybe too expensive for the average person, but for that nail-biter, it might be a life-saving investment. If you are a perpetual nail biter, the stinky nail polish is amazing to get the unconscious biting to become conscious when you taste that nasty stuff. Ella + Mila No-More-Biting nail polish uses a vegan, non-toxic formula, which will make your nails taste terrible and dissuade you from putting them in your mouth. Or, it will at least make you conscious of it.  

Once you’re aware of the face-touching, the question is what to do next.

You need to give it a competing response. In other words, trade a bad habit for a less risky one. 

For nail-biting, I recommend getting a Rudraksha beads. With the kids, I call them Chakra beads: They are seeds of a giant evergreen tree, with crooks and crannies like no other. They are Tibetan worry beads and they feel great to roll around in your hands to soothe stress. You can wear the beads as a bracelet and take them off when you are in a situation which triggers face-touching.  

These situations might be watching T.V., working on your computer, or in school when sitting through a class. Roll them around your fingers so they feel so stimulating and prevent you from touching your face. You can also use fidget cubes or other fidget toys. However, as an adult (or way cool teen), are you really going to carry around a toy? Probably not! The great news is — there is another option: Chakra beads look cool, so no one will notice.  

Another idea for the triggers for face touching is putting your hands in between your thighs if you cross your legs. This will “tie them down” and prevent you from touching your face.  

There are other simple tips that will help prevent the spread of germs as well. 

Wear a scarf. Perhaps a nice soft cotton one every day. Use it to cough or sneeze into if you can’t readily grab a tissue, or wrap it around your hand before you scratch that itch on your face. At the end of the day, put it in the wash and wear a new one. You and your kids can be scarf fashionable, channeling David Bowie, where love and fashion meets hygiene.  

And speaking of fashion: 

  • Not a great time to wear contact lenses! Take out those glasses from the back of the shelf, as contact lenses promote touching your face. The virus can go (rarely) through the eyes, as it communicates with the sinus and eventually the lungs, where it settles. If you have to wear contacts, or you have allergies, wash your hands and apply frequent eye drops.  
  • Love those fake eyelashes or extensions, but forget it. We are all under quarantine, so who cares if you have those long, lengthy lashes? They can make you itchy and stimulate more of the unconscious touching.  
  • Do you really need to apply your lip gloss or lipstick five times a day? It might be a habit, but it’s probably best you remember that the natural look can be great, too. In fact, Grandma: Maybe it is time to give up that pink lipstick with the curved edge!  
  • Do not remove the food from your teeth with your fingers. Seriously. Use your tongue. It is really not that hard with practice and a hand mirror.  
  • It is a great time to wear your hair back. Get rid of those bangs! Clip them back. And although we all love that soft, sexy, tousled Jennifer Aniston hair, it’s itchy when those little hairs touch your face. Instead, go for the Robert Palmer guitar girl look, which is also chic.  
  • Manicure your nails fastidiously. A lot of people bite their nails when their cuticles are hanging, or that nail edge is jagged, so make sure they look fabulous. When your nails look great, it is a visual reminder to keep your hands clean.    

So, if you love your face… don’t touch it. And regardless of what you think about fashion, good hygiene never goes out of style!

1: Trichotillomania: Therapist Guide: An ACT-enhanced Behavior Therapy Approach, Douglas W. Woods and Michael P. Twohig, Oxford University Press, Mar 2008.

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