Face off

We touch our faces often. Maybe 3 to 23 times an hour often! But if our hands haven’t just been washed and we’ve touched surfaces contaminated by viruses surviving in a blanket of dry (or wet) mucous, we risk infecting, or “self-inoculating”, ourselves. So just stop touching your face. Sure. Or at least disinfect or wash your hands more often. Let’s look at this some more.

We love our faces.
Photo by Kat Love on Unsplash

Today, the one virus we all care about is the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2); the cause of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). It looks to be spread like any other respiratory virus of humans; from droplets, contact or self-inoculation in such a way that virus gets into our upper respiratory tract and away it goes from there.

But I never touch my face!

Yep. You do. Don’t kid yourself.

One study found that among 249 average people in public spaces, common or shared surfaces were touched 3.3 times per hour and those same people touched their fac 3.6 times per hour.[1]

Another study observed 26 medical students and recorded them touching their faces at an average of 23 times per hour.[2] Just under half touched a mucous membrane (mouth, nose or eyes).[2] This is important because these layers of our body can be receptive to a host of different respiratory viruses and they’re the frontline of entry.

A study that recording 10 subjects for 3 hours recorded 15.7 contacts per hour. [3] This study found that those who often touch their lips tended to frequently touch other parts of their face as well.

And an older classic study actually showed, using a common respiratory virus called rhinovirus 39, that volunteers could become infected after touching their nasal or conjunctival (eye) mucous membranes with fingers contaminated with a dried drop of the virus.[5] It found one of every three subjects touched their nose or rubbed an eye every hour; nicer times? Anyway.

Bringing virus from surfaces to the receptive cells lining your mucous membranes happens more frequently than we wash our hands. Can we change this fundamental habit when we’re aware of it? Now is a great time to try.[5]

So there are decades of evidence that we touch our face without thinking about it.

Slowing the spread

Whatever it takes, we’re all trying to slow down the spread of COVID-19. One good way we can contribute something towards that goal is to actively participate in cutting transmission to ourselves.

If we wash our hands more and touch our faces less we reduce the chance we’ll infect ourselves. Throw in staying 2m away from obviously sick people and avoiding gatherings, and we’re on our way.

Virus laden surfaces – contaminated after an ill person previously coughed, spat or sneezed onto it – are usually hard, shiny or synthetic. These might be benchtops, doors, glass or handrails. Also, objects like crockery and cutlery can be contaminated then handled by different people. Surfaces like paper, cotton or unused tissue don’t seem to support virus survival anywhere near as well.

A dose of rhinovirus survived for less time on cotton, rayon, tissues or paper towel than on hard, shiny or synthetic material.[5]

Make it a game with a winner or a loser

Start thinking about ways to stop doing that as we are all facing the imminent arrival of a pandemic virus. Among your friends or family, start a game. As soon as one person touches their face, someone calls them out! Maybe the winner – the person with fewest touches – gets a prize. Or maybe the loser might get to do the dishes tonight (I would cable-tie my hands to a chair to win this one).


  1. Facing Ubiquitous Viruses: When Hand Washing Is Not Enough
  2. Face touching: A frequent habit that has implications for hand hygiene
  3. A Study Quantifying the Hand-to-Face Contact Rate and Its Potential Application to Predicting Respiratory Tract Infection
  4. Hand Hygiene and Face Touching in Family Medicine Offices: A Cincinnati Area Research and Improvement Group (CARInG) Network Study
  5. Transmission of rhinovirus colds by delf-inoculation

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15 thoughts on “Face off”

  1. You can’t seriously expect people to stop an unconscious human behaviour. This sort of thing belongs in one of those horrible, soulless pamphlets at the hospital: where you lay in the cold light and read about counselling and other indulgent pseudoscientific constructs about the nature of the world as your life ends.

    1. You can consciously stop touching at least for short periods, especially when other people are watching and calling you out when you slip up – I work in an operating theatre and the staff who are scrubbed don’t touch their faces for hours at a time. I’ll admit, it’s really tough not to scratch your itchy nose, but it can be done.

  2. Hey I’m sorry for asking but what do you think I should do? I live with my mother she doesn’t have any existing medical conditions but she is about to be 56 in two months. I’m in my twenties and I dont care what happens to me but I have to go to work at retail to help pay bills or food my mother has a at home job to keep her home and kept my brothers home from school. But I feel I’m a danger to my family when I go to work. These thoughts have been causing me stress and anxiety which has even affected me physically with sleeping problems and stomach pain. I had used up all my vacation and sick hours to stay home but I have to go back in three days and I’m terrified.

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