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Is Rubbing Your Eyes Bad for You?

Angie Garcia

Written By:

Angie Garcia

Updated: 20 July 2024 •  
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In our fast-paced, screen-centric world, the urge to rub our eyes is something that happens often for many of us. However, what starts as a simple, seemingly harmless reflex could have potentially detrimental effects on our eye health.
 
On that note, let’s explore the root causes that drive us to reach for our eyes and the potential risks associated with this common act.
 

Why do we rub our eyes in the first place?

man with tired eyes holding a pair eyeglasses with hands

Rubbing our eyes may feel instinctive, but there’s more to this action than meets the eye.

 
Various factors trigger the desire to rub, ranging from physical irritations to emotional responses. Understanding these reasons can help us make more informed decisions regarding our eye health. Here are some common factors that give us the urge to rub our eyes:
 

Dry eyes

 
When our eyes aren’t sufficiently lubricated, they can become dry, itchy, and uncomfortable. Our natural impulse is to rub them, in hopes of stimulating tear production and restoring moisture. However, the temporary relief will only lead to greater dryness and irritation later.
 

Tired eyes

 
Our eyes can feel heavy and weary after a long day or inadequate sleep. Rubbing tired eyes is an instinctive response, as the pressure can stimulate the release of endorphins, providing momentary relief from discomfort and stress.
 
man dealing with itchy eyes induced by allergies

Allergies trigger a release of histamines that cause eye itchiness, and rubbing them can be a reflexive response for relief.

 

Allergies

 
Allergic reactions to pollen, dust, or pet dander can cause our eyes to become red, itchy, and swollen. To alleviate these symptoms, you may find yourself often rubbing your eyes, unintentionally introducing more allergens and worsening the inflammation.
 

Foreign objects

 
When debris or small particles enter our eyes, our first reaction is to rub them to remove the irritant. However, rubbing can cause foreign objects to scratch the cornea or become more deeply embedded, potentially leading to more severe complications.
 

Emotional distress

 
Psychological factors like stress and anxiety can also trigger the urge to rub our eyes. This action serves as a coping mechanism, offering temporary relief from emotional discomfort by releasing endorphins and a sense of self-soothing.
 
prolonged use of digital devices cause discomfort and fatigue that induce eye rubbing

Using digital devices without any breaks can cause discomfort and fatigue, which may prompt us to rub our eyes.

 

Eye strain

 
Prolonged exposure to screens, reading, or other visually demanding tasks can put a lot of strain on our eyes. This may prompt you to rub your eyes in an attempt to get short-term relief, as the pressure applied helps relax eye muscles and alleviate tension.
 

Is rubbing your eyes bad?

While it may seem harmless, rubbing your eyes can lead to various issues that negatively impact your eye health and appearance. Here are some key reasons why rubbing your eyes is bad for you:
 
man rubbing eyes while lying down

Rubbing your eyes can transfer bacteria and other germs from your hands onto your eyes.

 

Eye infections

 
Our hands are a breeding ground for bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. When you rub your eyes, these harmful microorganisms can quickly transfer to the eye area, increasing the risk of infections such as conjunctivitis (pink eye) or styes.
 

Corneal abrasions

 
The delicate surface of the cornea can quickly become scratched or damaged when rubbed with force or when a foreign object is present. These abrasions cause pain and discomfort and can lead to more severe complications like corneal ulcers or scarring, potentially impairing your vision.
 

Eye pressure

 
Rubbing your eyes can temporarily increase intraocular pressure, which may lead to long-term issues for individuals predisposed to eye conditions like glaucoma. If left untreated, the elevated pressure can harm the optic nerve, leading to a decline in vision.
 
person with wrinkles around eyes caused by excessive eye rubbing

Rubbing your eyes can lead to the stretching and breakdown of the fragile skin around it.

 

Wrinkles

 
The skin around our eyes is thin and sensitive, making it more prone to developing fine lines and wrinkles. The repeated pressure and friction caused by rubbing your eyes can accelerate the aging process, leading to the formation of crow’s feet and other visible signs of aging.
 

Dark circles

 
Rubbing your eyes can cause blood vessels beneath the thin skin to break, leading to dark circles and discoloration. Additionally, rubbing can exacerbate puffiness and inflammation, making dark eye circles appear more prominent as a result.
 
Given these potential risks, it’s safe to say that rubbing your eyes can do more harm than good. By addressing the root causes of what’s making your eyes uncomfortable and seeking alternative methods for relief, you can protect your eyes and keep them healthy for longer.
 

But, what else can I do?

Instead of rubbing your eyes, here are some safer and more efficient ways to alleviate discomfort.
 
woman applying eye drop to avoid rubbing eyes

Eye drops can alleviate discomfort by giving your eyes much needed moisture.

 

1. Eye drops

 
If you experience dryness, itchiness, or eye irritation, using over-the-counter artificial tears or lubricating eye drops can offer immediate relief. These drops help replenish the eye’s moisture and create a protective barrier to alleviate discomfort.
 

2. Cold compress

 
Applying a cold compress to your eyes can minimize inflammation, soothe irritation, and alleviate eye strain. To make one, simply wrap an ice pack or a bag of frozen peas in a clean cloth and gently place it over your closed eyes for a few minutes.
 

3. Blinking

 
Blinking frequently can help redistribute the tear film across the eye’s surface, relieving dryness and discomfort. Try to be mindful of blinking when you’re using digital devices or engaging in visually demanding tasks so that you don’t keep your eyes open for longer than you should.
 

4. Eye massages

 
Gently massaging the area around your eyes can help alleviate tension and reduce the urge to rub. Using your fingertips, apply light pressure in circular motions on your closed eyelids, the brow bone, and the temples. This technique not only helps relax the muscles around your eyes but also improves blood circulation and provides a calming effect.
 

5. Remove contact lenses

 
If you wear contact lenses, removing them when your eyes feel irritated can help prevent further discomfort. Contacts can sometimes exacerbate dryness and irritation, so giving your eyes a break and switching to prescription glasses can be beneficial.
 

How to prevent the urge to rub eyes

Preventing yourself from rubbing your eyes starts with knowing how to protect your eyes and reduce your chances of discomfort. Here are some practical tips:
 

1. Be mindful of the habit

 
Breaking the habit of eye rubbing starts with consciously avoiding the action. When you feel the urge, remind yourself of the potential damage it can cause and opt for one of the safer alternatives mentioned earlier.
 

2. Keep eyes hydrated

 
Even when your eyes don’t feel dry or irritated, make it a habit to use lubricating eye drops or artificial tears to maintain adequate moisture in your eyes.
 
woman getting enough sleep to avoid eye rubbing

Getting enough sleep can help reduce eye dryness and irritation.

 

3. Get enough sleep

 
Ensure you’re getting sufficient rest each night, as a lack of sleep can contribute to eye strain and fatigue. Aim for 7-8 hours of quality sleep to keep your eyes feeling refreshed and revitalized.
 

4. Treat your allergies

 
If you suffer from allergies, it’s best to explore treatment options with your healthcare provider. Managing your allergies effectively can reduce eye-related symptoms and reduce your urge to rub your eyes.
 

5. Use proper lighting

 
Making sure your work area is well-lit and free from glare can reduce strain on your eyes. Whenever possible, use natural light to illuminate your space. You should also adjust the brightness and contrast settings on your devices so that the screen doesn’t hurt your eyes.
 

6. Take breaks from screens

 
Taking regular breaks from staring at a screen is crucial for maintaining good eye health. It can help reduce eye strain, dryness, and fatigue, which are common issues for people who spend a lot of time on their computers or smartphones. Make it a habit to take short breaks every 20 minutes or so to stretch, walk around, and give your eyes a much-needed rest.
 

7. Remember the 20-20-20 rule

 
It’s advisable to take a break of 20 seconds after every 20 minutes of screen work and shift your gaze. To further protect your eyes from screen-related discomfort, consider using blue light glasses that filter out harmful blue light from digital screens.
 

Protect your eyes for a clearer future

It’s important that we resist the urge to rub our eyes, especially when we consider all the potential risks involved like eye infections, corneal abrasions, or even blindness.
 
Remember, there are always healthier ways to ease discomfort, like eye drops, cold compresses, or gentle massages.
 
To reduce the urge of rubbing your eyes in the first place, practice self-awareness, look into proper eye care, and make the necessary lifestyle changes, like getting a good night’s sleep, treating allergies, and taking breaks from staring at screens.
 
As challenging as shifting your mindset may be, it’s worth it to make sure your eyes stay in great shape for the long haul.

Angie Garcia

Written by:

Angie Garcia

Angie is a Manila-based writer who specializes in wellness and lifestyle topics. She likes trying out new workouts and drinking coffee when not writing.