Video: Mary Schmich: Hey, all you face-touchers out there, in an age of coronavirus — just stop!

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Stop touching your face.

I mean it! Stop. Touching. Your. Face.

Did you just touch your face?

You probably did. I’d bet 82% of readers have touched their face since beginning this column. I know this because it’s almost impossible for the average person to go half a minute without wiping their eyes or their nose or their mouth, without scratching their cheek or their brow or their chin, without indulging in the compulsive hand-to-face behaviors that remind us we’re not that far removed from the chimpanzees.

OK, I exaggerate. According to one study, the average person touches their face 23 times an hour, which is only every 2.6 minutes.

If you’ve been paying attention to the coronavirus news — who can avoid it? — then you know that there are a couple of things you, as a concerned citizen, can do to diminish the risk of catching this global killer.

The first is to wash your hands, thoroughly and often. Sing “Happy Birthday” two times through before you stop. Don’t forget your fingernails. Don’t dry on that dirty towel.

The other top preventive measure? The one that’s less familiar and so much harder? Stop touching your face.

(Uh-oh. Just as I finished the previous sentence, my inner chimpanzee forced me to gently scratch my forehead.)

The edict on face-touching shouldn’t be hard to obey. And yet it is. It’s like hearing, “Don’t think of an elephant.” Or, if you’re me, it’s like hearing, “Don’t eat all the M&Ms in the bag.” Tell me not to do it, and reflexively I will.

I’m a face-toucher in any season — I cup my chin when I’m thinking, I wipe my eyes, I rub my nose — but it’s only now, in the rat-a-tat-tat of coronavirus warnings that I’ve become self-conscious about it. At least I’m in good company, which I know because on Friday I saw a CNN video clip of former Vice President Joe Biden talking about the virus. Twice, within a minute or so, he brushed the area above his lip with a forefinger, first the right forefinger, then the left. His rhetoric was good, but his body language called for instant quarantine.

Not touching your face isn’t a novel health warning. It’s a standard admonition when we talk of ways to prevent colds and the flu. But it’s rarely issued as loudly as it has been in the days since it became clear that the coronavirus has jumped American borders.

(Uh-oh. My inner chimp made me wipe my right eye after writing that sentence.)

When you start thinking about not touching your face, you begin to think of all the things you touch before your hands make it to your face. Filthy door handles, gross elevator buttons, gooey turnstiles, snot-encrusted bus poles.

Long before we’d heard of the coronavirus, I’d trained myself to negotiate those surfaces whenever possible with my elbows, knuckles or forearms instead of my palms or fingertips. Even so, in a coronavirus age, that doesn’t seem safe enough. Some invisible scourge could easily make it onto your hands.

So how to stop face-touching? The internet offers various primers, some of them created for teenagers with acne, but the principles apply to coronavirus prevention too. Unfortunately, these tips aren’t as easy to follow as they sound.

Keep your hands busy.

OK, I’m doing that right now — I’m typing. And yet somehow my chin just wound up cupped in my hand while my index finger rubbed the side of my face. And who knows what toxin lives on this keyboard.

Substitute touching your face with another behavior.

Like what? Eating more M&Ms?

Wear gloves.


Sit on your hands while you’re sitting.

Not a useful tip for people who earn their living writing.

Identify your triggers to help you anticipate temptation. If you touch your face when you’re stressed or anxious, meditate.

My inner chimp just made me wipe my eyes after reading about stress. But om.

Post notes reminding yourself not to touch your face — on your computer, at your desk, in the car.

Hmm. That may be worth a try because, really, we need to stop touching our faces. My inner chimp will try if yours will. Good luck.



Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.


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