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One of the CDC-recommended precautions against coronavirus, or COVID-19, is to avoid touching your face: more specifically, your eyes, nose, and mouth, through which respiratory diseases can be spread. As a related precaution, the CDC recommends that people with facial hair remove it, or wear it in one of the safer styles. (The other main recommendation: wash your hands.)
All of this is well and good, but here’s the problem: every time I see a reminder not to touch my face, my face starts itching.
The power of suggestion, particularly as it pertains to health concerns, is a force to be reckoned with. According to research conducted by psychologist Elaine Hatfield, a contagion researcher at the University of Hawaii, our fears can interact with valid health recommendations to make us worry we’re sick when we’re not. An alarming report about skin cancer, for instance, might make you worry a mole you’ve always had is cancerous. Perhaps, relatedly, it can also draw our attention to things we’re told not to do.
When the people modeling those fears are famous or influential, the impact is even greater — making it extra frustrating that celebrities are Instagramming themselves in face masks, which aren’t currently recommended for healthy people, and are largely ineffective for prevention anyway.
Not touching your face is an official and valuable recommendation, though, and this obviously isn’t to say that we should ignore it. But reading too many prevention recommendations, especially from unofficial sources, might exacerbate fear and stress, which isn’t likely to help anyone. So keep washing your hands, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, yes, but don’t obsess so strenuously that you can’t think of anything else. The average person touches their face 23 times per hour (!); getting that number down a bit (and washing your hands before and after, when you can) is a good start.