- Researchers say people who wear face coverings like masks tend to touch their faces less.
- Other researchers found the same thing was true for healthcare professionals who wear masks.
- Experts say the new coronavirus can spread after people touch openings on their face, such as their nose and mouth.
Some opponents of wearing masks say the face coverings increase the risk of getting COVID-19 by causing people to touch their faces more.
And that could mean even more protection from infection for people who wear masks.
Researchers at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, reviewed video surveillance footage to track the mask-wearing and face-touching behaviors of 4,699 individuals before the COVID-19 pandemic as well as 2,887 individuals during the pandemic.
The study researchers concluded that government mandates increased mask-wearing behavior, which in turn “was associated with reduced face-touching behavior, especially touching of the eyes, nose, and mouth, which may prevent contact transmission of COVID-19 among the general population in public areas.”
Fabric masks were associated with reduced face-touching behaviors to a similar degree as surgical masks.
Face-touching was defined as touching the face with hands, cellphones, and other items as well as eating.
Face areas were divided into the forehead and the areas around the eyes, nose, cheek, and mouth. Research has shown the new coronavirus enters the body through mucous membranes such as those found in the mouth, nose, and eyes.
Before COVID-19, the study found about 1 in 10 study participants touched their faces in South Korea (11 percent), Western Europe (11 percent), and the United States (12 percent).
People in China (4 percent) and Japan (4 percent) were far less likely to touch their faces.
During the pandemic, face-touching in China decreased to 1 percent, in South Korea to 2 percent, and in Western Europe to 6 percent.
Videos of activity in public areas, such as public transportation, streets, and parks, were compiled from China, Japan, South Korea, Western Europe, and the United States.
Mask and touching behaviors were only observed in outdoor areas. Behaviors in enclosed and indoor spaces wasn’t considered.
Low mask-wearing rates at the time the study was conducted in the United States along with a small sample size left the Chinese researchers unable to draw firm conclusions about changes in mask-wearing and face-touching behavior among Americans.
However, a separate study conducted by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco found that wearing a mask also significantly reduced face-touching behavior among U.S. healthcare professionals.
The small observational study found that workers who wore a mask touched their faces an average of six times over 1 hour, compared to 20 times per hour when not wearing a mask.
Face-touching behavior declined among the 187 doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers in the study despite the fact that 49 participants believed that wearing a mask would increase face-touching.
That’s compared to 48 participants who believed they would touch their faces less with a mask on and 34 participants who anticipated that their behavior would remain about the same.
Héctor E. Alcalá, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of family, population, and preventive medicine at Stony Brook University, told Healthline that people who are receptive to public health messaging about mask-wearing are likely also more attentive to admonishments against face-touching to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
“If you’re accepting of preventative behaviors as a whole, then there’s going to be acceptance of multiple behaviors, not just one,” he said.
“I think that [wearing a mask] makes people more aware that we have these reflexive behaviors,” such as touching our face, said Dr. Katie Passaretti, the medical director of infection prevention at the North Carolina-based Atrium Health and a member of the Society of Healthcare Epidemiology of America.
“When we have a barrier on, it serves as a reminder,” she told Healthline.
Passaretti says face-touching could be expected to decrease as people get more used to wearing masks as well as settle on masks that fit well and are comfortable.
If wearing a mask reduces face-touching, she adds, it could add strength to public health messaging about the self-protective benefits of masks.
“It might be a little bit helpful if you don’t buy into the idea of wearing masks [only] to protect others,” she said.