A handshake, a kiss on the cheek, a hug: gestures of greeting and affection we’ve come to expect
from those we know . . . and even strangers. In the era of the novel coronavirus and other communicable diseases that never went away, are these gestures a good idea? And what about touching your own face?
The Science Behind Human Touch
Touch is a part of human bonding, particularly among infants. “The most effective and critical stimulus in the formation of mammalian pair and maternal-infant bonds is soft tactile stimulation,” wrote Yu Fu and colleagues in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.1
The need for skin to skin contact with a parent after birth has long been recognized as essential to the subsequent physical and emotional health of the newborn. “Nurturing touch is a powerful way to provide human connections that help foster infant attachment behaviors. This type of touch typically involves skin-to-skin (STS) contact between a newborn and a primary caregiver,” writes Lisa Cleveland and colleagues in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing. “The evidence supports that STS contact in the immediate period after birth for full-term, healthy newborns is not only safe but also effective to improve short- and long-term outcomes for newborns and their families.”2
Human to human touch stimulates the release of oxytocin, a hormone believed to be responsible for the bonding of a parent to a child, a lover to their beloved and even a dog to its guardian.3 This “love hormone,” produced by the brain’s hypothalamus, may benefit those with anxiety, depression and autism.4,5
A mother’s touch also delivers the bacteria that reside on the surface of her skin to the infant, which develops the child’s own microbiome. This protective skin barrier helps ward off infectious agents and can be disrupted by overzealous cleansing.
Why does the CDC advise us not to touch our faces and practice social distancing?
Human proximity and human touch also provide an opportunity for pathogenic bacteria and viruses from one person to invade another host to further propagate their species. Hands—the primary source of human touch— are a source of disease transmission. Touching the face transfers microbes on the hands to the openings of the human face—eyes, nose and mouth, which provide access to mucous membranes and the respiratory tract, where many communicable infections take hold.
Why do people touch their faces?
People touch their faces out of habit. Often it is due to feeling distracted or anxious.6 Nervousness, social anxiety, worry or discomfort might respond favorably to oxytocin released by touching.
How often, on average, do people touch their faces?
According to scientists at the Paul Flechsig Institute of Brain Research at the University of Leipzig in Germany, “Every human being spontaneously touches its eyes, cheeks, chin and mouth manifold every day. These spontaneous facial self-touches are elicited with little or no awareness.”6
In one study, face-touching was observed an average of 23 times per hour among each of 26 medical students who did not know they were being videotaped. Forty-four percent of those touches involved contact with a mucous membrane, including 36% to the mouth, 31% to the nose, 27% to the eyes and 6% to a combination of these areas. The researchers involved in the study urge increased self-awareness of touching one’s face and note that hand hygiene is an essential method to stop the colonization and transmission cycle associated with self-inoculation with microbes that cause respiratory infections.7
In another investigation, clinicians and staff members at seven offices of the Cincinnati Area Research and Improvement Group (CARInG) practice-based research network touched their eyes, nose or mouth an average of 19 times during a two-hour period. Additionally, only 9% of hand washings observed met the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria for hand washing effectiveness.8
Of course, some hand to face contact is inevitable. This further emphasizes the importance of thoroughly washing one’s hands for 20 seconds or more before a meal and at other times, particularly after encountering others who may be suffering from respiratory or other infections. In this way, when we do touch our faces, there is a lower risk of transmitting infectious microorganisms.
Related Article: Coronavirus Prevention: Hand Washing vs. Hand Sanitizer
How to Stop Touching Your Face
People may have spent a lifetime frequently touching their faces without it ever having been brought to their attention. Awareness is the first step in control. Understanding the role that touching the face plays in disease transmission can motivate people to avoid this often-subconscious habit.
Creating new habits or breaking old ones requires a fair amount of self-discipline. It may take weeks to stop touching/scratching the face, rubbing the eyes, nail-biting, resting the chin on one’s hand or hands, etc. Ignore the urge when it presents itself. Reminder notes in conspicuous places are useful for some individuals. Wearing gloves can also help you kick the habit.
Noli Me Tángere – Touch Me Not
“Social distancing,” a term almost unheard of until recently, can refer to anything from the avoidance of large, crowd-drawing events, to maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet between ourselves and others. Some people even choose to (or are asked to) self-quarantine or stay home except for essential activities.
Social distancing makes sense during cold and flu season. The viruses that cause these illnesses can be transmitted prior to the appearance of symptoms in an infected individual, making it nearly impossible to avoid exposure. Social distancing also protects others from what we, ourselves, may be unknowingly carrying.
What are some other ways to prevent disease transmission?
• Get screened/tested. If testing reveals the presence of illness, treatment can be rapidly initiated.
• Don’t share personal items (towels, eating utensils etc.), particularly with people who are exhibiting symptoms of illness.
• Sanitize high-touch surfaces such as keyboards with a solution of bleach and water or other accepted sanitizing products.
• If you are experiencing symptoms, don’t leave your home unless necessary. When visiting a medical provider, ask in advance whether you need to wear a mask or take other precautionary measures.9
Being able to mount a healthy immune response is key. Michael Smith M.D. explains which nutrients support the immune system:
Touching is an essential and pleasurable part of human existence that no one wants to be without. Just make sure not to be indiscriminate with touching, including touching one’s own face, especially during cold and flu season.
About the author: Dayna Dye has been a member of the staff of Life Extension® since shortly after its inception. She has served as the department head of Life Extension® Wellness Specialists, is the author of thousands of articles published during the past two decades in Life Extension® Update, Life Extension Magazine® and on www.LifeExtension.com, and has been interviewed on radio and TV and in newsprint. She is currently a member of Life Extension’s Education Department.
- Fu Y et al. Sci Rep. 2018 Jun 13;8(1):9004.
- Cleveland L et al. J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs. 2017 Nov – Dec;46(6):857-869.
- Thielke LE et al. Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2017 Feb;92(1):378-388.
- Yamasue H et al. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2018;35:449-465.
- Yoon S et al. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2020;1191:103-120.
- Mueller SM et al. PLoS One. 2019 Mar 12;14(3):e0213677.
- Kwok YL et al. Am J Infect Control. 2015 Feb;43(2):112-4.
- Elder NC et al. J Am Board Fam Med. 2014 May-Jun;27(3):339-46.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): How to Protect Yourself. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/prevention.html