I’ve grown quite attached to my face over the years.
My face and I do all the normal things that a person does with a face: Eating, drinking, breathing, looking at stuff. Nothing crazy. Sometimes we whistle.
It’s not an especially impressive face, it’s true. But it is mine.
And now, amid the scary spread of the coronavirus, my beloved face is off-limits. The simple act of touching your face puts you at much greater risk for contracting the novel coronavirus, doctors say. Putting your filthy fingers near your somewhat less filthy mucus membranes (mouth, eyes, nose) gives the virus — any virus, really — an easy path into your body.
“Hands touch many surfaces and can pick up viruses. Once contaminated, hands can transfer the virus to your eyes, nose or mouth,” a World Health Organization Q&A explains. “From there, the virus can enter your body and can make you sick.”
A recent New York Times headline offered a straightforward prescription:
OK, fine. Per doctor’s orders, I had already redoubled my efforts on the hand-washing front, lathering up in the men’s room every couple hours like I was scrubbing in for surgery. Surely I could give up wiping my mouth, rubbing my eyes, and scratching my nose, too. How hard could it be? I’m not a 4-year-old licking the buttons in the elevator; I’m a grown man in control of my various scratching and rubbing functions.
And if forced to choose between a small chance of dying horribly and walking around all day with something dangling from my right nostril, I’ll take the booger every time.
So on Monday, I resolved to quit cold turkey. If I needed to scratch something, I’d commandeer a plastic fork. If I needed some sort of mucus-based service I’d grab a tissue, which probably I should have been doing anyway. If I discovered something wedged between an incisor and a canine, well, I’d cross that bridge when I came to it. And while I do tend to spend a lot of work and personal time with my head in my hands wondering where my youth went, I decided to be less demonstrative about my ennui.
I started at about 3 p.m. and while sitting at my desk, almost immediately caught myself reaching up to brush aside a stray eyebrow hair that had fallen into my field of vision. Then my ear started to itch. Do ears count? I wasn’t sure. Probably not the outside of an ear, but I don’t think it’s smart to dig around in there. I grabbed my plastic fork and did a little light exfoliation near my ear hole.
It turns out not touching your face requires a level of mindfulness that is typically associated with monks and tech CEOs.
Eighteen minutes into my grand experiment in making my own face off-limits, I was absentmindedly clawing at my cheek as if it was the inside of a coffin in which I’d been accidentally buried alive.
Completely unrelated: I’ve had a low-grade man-cold since roughly November.
How hard is it to stop touching your face? A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Infection Control found that participants put finger to face 23 times an hour, with nearly half of those touches contacting the aforementioned mucus membranes.
Anything you do 23 times an hour is going to be pretty tough to quit. You might as well ask me to give up breathing, or checking my phone.
The Internet is replete with ways to make this work, each dumber than the last. Wear gloves. Wear mittens. Sit on your hands. Each of these genius strategies was typed by someone whose fingers were gently caressing a filthy keyboard and then going straight into their mouths.
At this point I gave up, washed my hands again, and then began pawing at my face like a zombie. I threw the soiled ear fork in the trash.
If I end up in quarantine, at least I won’t have food in my teeth.