“Skin Hunger” Is a Real Thing—Here’s What to Do About It

By Belo Medical Group on September 2, 2020

We now live in a world where unassuming skin-to-skin contact could cost you or your loved ones your health…or your life. Our days used to be peppered with music festivals, train rides, or trips abroad, where we brushed shoulders with complete strangers, not thinking anything of our encounters. Now, distance is imperative to keep a global death toll from rising. On the one hand, prudence is important in stopping the spread of COVID-19. But on the other, it’s forged a more removed, distanced, and ultimately lonely society—one that seeks the familiar comfort of human touch. A hug, a kiss on the cheek, or even a squeeze on the shoulder from a kind stranger who helped you find your way in a new city.

This inexplicable longing for human contact is called skin hunger, and it’s gaining popularity as much of the world remains under quarantine. “Similar to how one might experience hunger for food, when deprived of human contact our bodies will innately feel a sense of hunger for skin-to-skin touch,” reported Allure last April. The Washington Post invited experts to discuss skin hunger a few months ago, citing that it affects those who are living alone the hardest. Dr. Vicki Belo discussed it briefly during a Facebook Live session with The Philippine Star’s Career Guide: “With all this no-touching, there is a phenomenon now called skin hunger. Wanting to be touched, it’s almost a need…human beings need touch.”

Why do human beings need touch? 

In an article for University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, Dacher Keltner explains it best: “There are studies showing that touch signals safety and trust. Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response, and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka ‘the love hormone.’” 

We’re humans, after all, not robots. And as social beings, our need to feel closeness with others is evolutionary. In prehistoric times, humans needed to stick together to fend off predators. Now, humans need to remain apart to fend off a deadly disease. It’s no wonder, then, that in the May 18 release of Harry Styles“Watermelon Sugar” music video, he prefaced it with the words ‘This video is dedicated to touching.’ (Give that a watch, by the way. It’s sure to cheer you up.)

How do you cope with the lack of touch?

If you’re living alone and you literally haven’t touched another human being in months, now is the time to get to know yourself. You can set up a self-care night to figure out what types of touch you enjoy. Do you love massages? Do you like scrubbing away in the shower? Gently running your fingernails across your skin? It can even be something as simple as combing your hair. Put on some calming music, light a scented candle, and give yourself your favorite version of touch. It doesn’t have to be sexual at all! You can derive pleasure and relaxation from areas as innocuous as the crook of your neck. Sure, it won’t beat a night at the spa where someone else’s hands work their magic on your tired muscles, but hey—we work with what we’ve got. 

Little tip from us: you can try this DIY body scrub, complete with oils, natural sea salts, and thick, indulgent creams for that ultimate spa experience. No one may be able to see you in person right now, but feeling beautiful isn’t for the benefit of others. “I think people misunderstand. I think people think nagpapaganda ang tao for other people. It’s true naman that we want to be beautiful for other people, but we also want to be pampered and feel good,” Dr. Belo explains.

Another thing to try is connecting with friends more regularly than you did in the old normal. The stresses of COVID-19 may have made you more withdrawn (read: financial or job security concerns), so there’s no shame in relying on your support system. The Internet has facilitated so many ways to feel even more connected online. Whether it’s group listening sessions on Spotify, throwing a synchronized-playback Netflix Party, or Zoom calls with the extended family, there are tons of ways to pop your isolation bubble without feeling overwhelmed. No, it’s not the same as a warm hug, but it’s pretty darn close. Another great idea? Exchange food- or skincare-themed care packages with your friends via courier service to show them how much you love them.

If you’re lucky enough to be quarantined with a partner or with family, then human touch is completely possible for you. But these long quarantine months may have you on edge, and some might even be sick of mandatory “family time.” To feel connected with family again, you don’t have to all hang out in the same room all day. You can set up movie nights or board game nights on Fridays, when everyone’s done with their stressful WFH or school week. Order some family-sized sushi bake and homemade cookies from your favorite small businesses (now’s the best time to support local!) and make an occasion out of it. Bleak as the times may be, we are lucky to be alive and healthy and to be with our loved ones. And if COVID-19 hasn’t made it clear, that’s something to celebrate.

In the end, the sacrifices we make to keep our distance and observe routine sanitation measures can save us all from being severely affected by this pandemic. Let’s hold on to hope just a little longer…and be sure to prioritize our needs along the way. When we come out on the other side—and we will—let’s hope to have become more empathetic, grateful, and compassionate human beings.

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