Unless you wash your hands every time you use your phone, keyboard, or doorknob, the best way to avoid sickness is to touch your face less, according to a new paper published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.
Researchers observed 249 people in public areas and subways in two cities. They found that the average person touches communal surfaces about three times an hour, and touches her own mouth or nose even more frequently.
That’s a problem, because viruses and bacteria enter the body through mucus membranes in your nostrils, mouth, and eyes. When you scratch your nose or rub your eyes, you hand-deliver the germs you’ve picked up from touching common surfaces, and increase your risk of infection. And because any object you touch between hand-washings can contaminate your hands, experts say the solution isn’t just washing more, but also touching your face less.
“Washing our hands and avoiding hand-to-face contact are equally important in preventing any infectious disease,” says Stephen Dahmer, MD, a physician affiliated with the Continuum Center for Health and Healing. “But we’re not washing our hands often enough, and most people don’t do it correctly.” To wash your hands the right way, use antibacterial soap, rub your hands together vigorously for 20 seconds, and be sure to scrub up to the wrist, including the back of your hands, between the fingers, and beneath the nails. Then use an elbow to turn off the faucet, and a paper towel or air dryer instead of a reusable cloth.
To decrease your chance of infection no matter how well you wash, use these strategies to quit touching your face.
1. Take a video. Do you frequently prop up your chin with your hands, sweep your hair out of your face, or brush your cheek when you hold your phone to your ear? You might not even know it. “Face-touching is an unconscious behavior, so you need to become aware that you’re doing it,” says says Robin Kerner, PhD, a clinical psychologist at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. Set up your cell phone or webcam to record a portion of your day, then play it back to discover how you touch your face, and how often.
If your bangs are the culprit, use a barrette to keep them in check. If your phone is to blame, switch to speakerphone or use a headset. And if you have an itch that must be scratched, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer immediately beforehand, or cover your finger with tissue before touching.
2. Ask others to speak up. When you touch your face, you don’t just deposit other peoples’ germs—you pick up your own and spread them. To help your family, friends, and coworkers stay clear of any illnesses you’re carrying, ask them to tell you whenever they see you mindlessly touch your face. Then return the favor. Bonus: You’ll all be more conscious of your habits when nobody is watching.
3. Sit on your hands. If you typically chew on your cuticles while watching TV, or rub your temples during meetings, tuck your hands under your thighs or butt, instead.
“Simple behavioral changes will make you more aware when your hands become free and more aware of what you are doing with them,” says Kerner.