The Science Behind Why We Can’t Stop Touching Our Faces

woman covering her face

You know it: you shouldn’t touch your face. Public health officials have reminded us repeatedly that rubbing our eyes and nose and putting our fingers near our mouth offer easy access to COVID-19. However, keeping our hands off our faces is easier said than done. It’s a habit that we have subconsciously hone over the years. To break it, perhaps, we need to focus first on why we do it.

Scientists have several theories on why we all end up with this unhygienic habit. Here are some of them.

We subconsciously sniff our hands.

Researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel revealed that we subconsciously sniff our hands to pick up chemical signals or pheromones that help us trust the people we’ve met.

In an experiment, the researchers secretly filmed participants meeting people and shaking hands. The footage showed that most of the participants put their fingers near their noses minutes or hours after shaking hands. The scientists suggest that the volunteers weren’t scratching an itch but instead testing the scents or pheromones of the people they had met. “We learn a lot about people when we smell them, even if we don’t know that we did it,” said Eva Mishor, one of the lead Weizmann Institute researchers.

But why do we still touch our faces now that we only see other people through our laptop screens? Weizmann Institute scientists explained that subconscious sniffing also happens when we’re alone. We do it to test our pheromones; we check our mental state and interpret our emotions subconsciously.

We need to regulate our emotions.

hands on the chin thinking

Stress causes a face-touching urge, according to a study in Germany. Researchers asked ten young adults to complete a memory test while being blasted by unpleasant sounds from a loudspeaker. They just initially wanted to analyze the brain activity of the participants. But because they also filmed the experiment, they found a link between the stressful sounds and volunteers touching their faces. The study speculated that spontaneous face-touching is a calming mechanism that helps us regulate our emotions.

When you think about it, people often put their hands over their mouths when scared or surprised. Others touch their cheek or bangs (even if it’s a hair extension) when nervous or anxious. Some people place a hand under or on their chin when listening intently or trying to concentrate.

It starts in the womb.

Other studies say that the instinct to touch our faces starts in the womb. Through 4D scans, psychologists at Lancaster and Durham in the UK found that fetuses learn to anticipate touch by putting their hands on their mouths. In the earlier stage of gestation, fetuses touch the upper part of their heads more frequently. But as they matured, they began to feel the lower part of their faces, including their mouths.

This development is the natural process of preparing the child for life outside the womb, including their readiness to take a breast, regulate stimulation, and touch and engage with their social environment.

Telling yourself not to touch your face will only make you do it more. But now that you have more ideas on why you do it, you can be mindful of specific strategies to keep your hands off your face. Take it one day at a time. Being hard on yourself won’t help because touching your face is a natural tendency, after all.

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