Why You Should Never Rub Your Eyes

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Long days on the computer, pollen-filled air or just a repetitive habit? Whatever the reason, many of us are rubbing our eyes too much, and experts say it’s not a good idea.

“The skin under your eyes is the thinnest on your body,” said plastic surgery nurse Tara Adashev. “You should think of it as essentially like what would happen if you were aggressively rubbing rose petals.”

Dermatologist Dr. Nava Greenfield agreed: “No rubbing is good rubbing, so if you’re doing it more than even twice a day, that’s too much.”

Why are my eyes so itchy?

Several medical conditions can lead to rubbing, experts said. “Dry eyes can be a culprit,” said dermatologist Dr. Karyn Grossman. “While rubbing will stimulate tear production, it’s better to add some lubricating eye drops throughout the day and skip the frequent rubbing, or schedule a visit to your ophthalmologist to get a good eye exam and possibly a prescription treatment.”

A person’s allergies can sometimes be the culprit, too. “Allergies can also cause itchy eyes, which causes people to rub, which then causes more itching,” Grossman said.

If the itchiness is driving you crazy, Greenfield suggested a medical consultation. “Sometimes a topical steroid is needed to reduce the sensation of itch, which prevents the need or impulse to scratch,” Greenfield said. “Other times, antihistamines can be used to control the itch.”

What eye rubbing can do to your skin

Dermatologists suggest keeping your hands away from your eyes because an eye-rubbing habit can seriously affect your appearance and your health. The habit could have consequences such as:

“Eye rubbing can be the culprit behind why you have tired-looking eyes,” said dermatologist Dr. Snehal Amin. “Bloodshot eyes can be the result of rubbing until capillaries are broken.”

Chronic rubbing can also lead to dark circles under the eyes, known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. And the darker your skin tone, the worse it can be.

“Especially for those with darker skin, rubbing the eyes has the effect of accelerating the production of skin pigment in the area,” said dermatologist Dr. Angelo Thrower.

“When you rub your eyes repeatedly, you put your skin at risk for lichenification, which is a medical term for thickening of the skin,” said dermatologist Dr. Brendan Camp. “It can make the lines in your skin more apparent, which accentuates the appearance of wrinkles. It can also make your skin look dry and scaly.”

“Chronic rubbing not only damages the skin of the eyelid but also can cause micro scratches to the cornea,” Amin said. “Over time, this can result in thinning and loss of shape of the cornea, which can lead to blurry vision, a condition known as keratoconus. Eye rubbing is especially dangerous for people with underlying glaucoma, as it can cause spikes in intraocular pressure.”

“The eyes are a portal for infection,” Amin said. “Germs from the hands or air can enter the body through the mucosa of the eyes, a concern that’s been highlighted during the pandemic.”

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Hold it right there!

Listen to the experts

Take your dermatologist’s advice for applying skin and beauty products correctly. “The effects on the skin of patting, dabbing and rubbing are very different and impact the way the product will be absorbed by the skin layers,” Thrower said. “It also makes a big difference whether the skin is dry or wet when applying a product.”

Here’s some good news: A couple of your eye-related habits might not be as bad as you might have thought. Dr. Tanuj Nakra, the ophthalmic plastic surgeon, dermatologist and co-founder of Avya Skincare, said, “Light pulling on the eyes to apply makeup or insert contact lenses is not likely to cause negative effects. And while wearing swim goggles can cause temporary swelling and redness around the eyes, that’s not a permanent condition.”

How to break the habit

If you realize you’ve been rubbing your eyes more than usual, here are some expert habit-breaking tips:

  • First, being more mindful can make a difference. Dermatologist Dr. Hadley King said, “Awareness can be the first step, and understanding the possible ramifications may help increase your motivation to break the habit.”
  • “Habits like rubbing eyes, picking at the skin and lip licking can be helped by cognitive behavioral feedback techniques,” said dermatologist Dr. Claire Wolinsky. “Telling a person to stop is not as simple as that when it comes to fixed habits.”
  • “If you wear contact lenses and you’re rubbing your eyes a lot, you may want to consider wearing your glasses for a while since they may act as a barrier and a reminder to avoid the skin around your eyes,” Camp said.
  • Dermatologist Dr. Lynn McKinley Grant suggested avoiding washcloths when applying cleanser. “Simply use your hands and massage the cleanser into the skin long enough to actually cleanse. Rinse using your hands as well.”

Products that might help

The experts suggested these products to help you with itchiness:

  • Nakra suggested artificial tears or over-the-counter allergy eye drops, but with this proviso: “Don’t use Visine because it’s habit-forming,” he said. “Use Zaditor or Pataday instead.”
  • “A face roller, like those made of jade stones, may calm irritated, swollen skin,” Camp said. “It also may help your eyelid skin look healthier, brighter and less puffy, thanks to stimulating lymphatic drainage.”
  • “If you feel the need to rub due to itchy eyes, instead use a cool compress,” Grant said.
  • Dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner, associate professor of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, has a cheap, easily accessible product to recommend for itchy eyes: “My go-to recommendation is Vaseline petroleum jelly, which is the best-kept secret at the drugstore,” he said. “It forms a seal over the skin to protect it from the environment and help it repair itself.”

The good news is that there’s always time to put an end to this particular bad habit. “The effects of chronic eye rubbing are seen over a long period of time and may not be noticed immediately,” Greenfield said. “But breaking the habit is important for the long-term health and appearance of your skin.”

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