Surgical masks are probably not going to keep you safe from COVID-19. Instead, health experts say the best way to avoid the virus is to wash your hands thoroughly and often. (Pop quiz: when was the last time you did?)
But even washing your hands as madly as Lady Macbeth could be futile if you touch your face a lot.
The virus can be transmitted through the air by inhaling droplets from an infected person who coughs or sneezes near you. But the virus can also live for at least nine hours, and possibly days, on a hard surface — so you can also contact coronavirus by touching almost anything in a public space and then touching your mouth, eyes or nose.
And that’s pretty hard to avoid. New studies are emerging that indicate we touch our face far more frequently than we wash our hands.
One study published by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene recorded 10 subjects as they did office-style work for three hours in a room by themselves. On average, they touched their faces 15.7 times per hour. A similar study of 26 students in South Wales showed they averaged 23 touches per hour, with almost half of those involving contact between the hand and mucous from the nose, eyes and mouth.
A slightly larger study of 250 individuals in public places in the United States and Brazil came with a lower average of 3.6 times per hour, perhaps because people are less likely to touch their faces in public. But the same study showed they touched common objects or surfaces 3.3 times per hour — the type of public surfaces that could be touched by coronavirus sufferers as well.
In the eerily prescient movie “Contagion,” a doctor played by Kate Winslet laments, “The average person touches their face 2,000 to 3,000 times a day, 3-5 times a minute.” There’s no footnote as to where the screenwriter got that particular statistic, but it certainly resonates with many people who admit they touch their faces pretty much all of the time.
Needless to say, most of us don’t wash our hands three times an hour (let alone 23 times an hour). So what does this mean for our health and safety against a possible epidemic?
Health experts are urging people in risk zones to try to avoid touching their faces as much as possible, which not an easy ask. Most people touch their faces without even thinking about it, maybe to rub dry eyes or scratch an itch. Or they might simply rest their heads in their hands contemplating the difficulty of preventing the spread of something like coronavirus.
Health experts are trying hard to strike a balance between smart vigilance and panicky neurosis. It’s still not known how frequently COVID-19 spreads to people who may have touched a live virus on a commonly used surface.
Most experts agree that washing your hands thoroughly, with soap for at least 20 seconds, as often as possible is the single best step you can take toward prevention. But, now is a good time to be aware of how often you touch your face with your hands and try to come up with other strategies to keep them otherwise occupied, because your hands are only clean until the next surface you touch.