Ever since we were children we’ve all been reminded, probably on more than one occasion, to keep our hands away from our eyes. Solid advice–until you find yourself out somewhere with itchy eyes and not a single tissue in sight. What’s the worst thing that could happen if you rub your eyelid for a second, you might think? They’re just hands, after all?
Yes, but those hands are also a breeding ground for countless germs that could lead to illnesses you never bargained for when all you wanted to do was fix a false eyelash out in public. Experts agree: rubbing your eyes is one of the worst thing you can do for your health–and it won’t do you any favors in the beauty department, either.
“Your hands are a petri dish full of bacteria,” says Dr. Sherry Ross, MD, OB/GYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “When you rub your eyes, it may feel good for that moment, but you are transferring unwanted bacteria and exerting pressure into a sensitive and vulnerable area.”
Rubbing your eyes with dirty hands not only increases your risk of inflammation of the eye, known as conjunctivitis (or pink eye), which Ross says is caused by the contagious adenovirus, but aggressive rubbing can actually damage and tear your cornea further injuring the eye.
In addition to upping your chances of contracting localized infections like conjunctivitis, Dr. Kristine Arthur, internist at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, says rubbing your eyes with your hands puts you at risk for a more widespread injection like a cold or even the flu.
“Unfortunately our hands and fingernails are a breeding ground for germs,” Arthur says. “The skin on our hands makes a good barrier to prevent germs from entering our bodies, but the eyes do not have such a tough barrier. When you rub your eyes, particularly without washing your hands, you can directly spread bacteria or viruses to your eyes.”
Anyone who wears contact lenses should exercise particular caution when it comes to how they handle their eyes. “Rubbing the eyes can be particularly bad for contact lens wearers as it may lead to more severe infections like keratitis which left untreated can cause vision loss,” Arthur says. “If you do get an infection you need to remember to throw away disposable contact lenses and eye makeup such as mascara and start new once the infection is gone.”
Since we’ll all be getting a little closer to each other this holiday season, Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse at Rapaport Dermatology of Beverly Hills, reminds us to wash our hands frequently in order to avoid falling victim to the “overlap of holiday handshaking and cold and flu season,” where she says it’s easy to transfer viruses like Rhinovirus (the common cold), influenza, and pink eye.
And your health isn’t the only reason why you should keep your hands away from your eyes–getting into the bad habit of touching and rubbing your eyes will completely thwart any other anti-aging efforts you’re making to keep your peepers young and fresh looking.
“Constant rubbing of the skin around your eyes can cause chronic irritation and thickening of the eyelid skin, not in a good way,” Shainhouse says. “It can leave the skin looking pink or purple or even brown and hyper pigmented, especially if you have a naturally darker skin tone. Rubbing can leave your eyes looking swollen, sunken, and can accentuate the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles in that area.”
Bottom line: hands off your eyes and carry a small packet of tissues (and maybe even a little hand disinfectant) everywhere you go this season.
For more beauty tips, check out the one thing you should never do when popping a pimple and 5 common beauty complaints that actually signal something may be wrong with your health.