What is ‘skin hunger’ and how can we overcome it in a pandemic?

WORDS BY Aleeya Hachem

Touch is essential, but many of us have been deprived of it in recent times.

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on a global scale. Aside from the enormous health and economic consequences, we have each been subject to the unpredictability of long-term and sporadic lockdowns and harsh social distancing rules to stop airborne transmission of the virus. This is something that’s weighed heavily on our collective mental health.

We now live in a world defined by limited physical contact. A lack of handshakes and hugs and abiding by 1.5-metre social distancing rules have become our new social norm in an attempt to ‘stop the spread’. While the medical symptoms and psychological effects of the pandemic have been routinely addressed since the virus first appeared in 2019, the psychosocial impact of increased periods of isolation is only just starting to surface.

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The term ‘skin hunger’ is not new by any means. Describing the craving for physical touch and intimacy, skin hunger has never been more prevalent than in our current COVID-19 climate. The impact of touch on cognitive and social development throughout our life stages and across species has long been studied, highlighting its importance as a way of expressing care, affection and intimacy and building attachment.

When we feel physical touch our brains release oxytocin, the hormone responsible for increasing the feel-good sensations of trust, emotional bonding and social connection, while simultaneously acting to decrease fear and anxiety responses in the brain. Because of this, oxytocin is affectionately known as the ‘love hormone’, and it’s incredibly important for positive mental health.

Moreover, through the power of oxytocin and a decrease in cortisol, physical touch helps regulate our digestion and sleep, and even boosts our immune systems, thereby increasing our ability to fight infection. While the importance of skin hunger may pale in comparison to the ongoing management of a pandemic, it can have profound emotional and psychological consequences for individuals. Touch is a fundamental part of the human experience, and the deprivation of skin-to-skin contact can have a detrimental impact on our health and wellbeing.

Research shows that the longer the sustained duration of skin hunger, the more extreme the psychological distress may be, potentially leading to heightened stress, compounding trauma, depressive and anxious symptoms, feelings of grief and perceived loneliness. Additionally, it can also contribute to feeling more withdrawn, making it harder to reconnect and, in worst-case scenarios, it can lead to a fight-flight-freeze stress response.

Admittedly, it’s not just those who are single that are struggling with skin hunger. Those of us who are in a relationship can also find it difficult to maintain meaningful physical connection due to the constant state of uncertainty and lack of control that comes with the unpredictability of case numbers and lockdowns. This constant state of stress contributes to us feeling more withdrawn, leading to a reluctance to reach out to our partners.

Further, those who have existing attachment issues, maladaptive coping styles and psychiatric conditions might be more vulnerable to the effects of skin hunger. So, how do we balance the biological need for human connection and physical touch, as well as keep each other safe? Although we may not be able to satisfy our skin hunger right now, here are some ways that we can overcome feelings of isolation in our new pandemic world.


Research has shown that one in 10 vulva owners purchased new sex toys during lockdowns, so let’s use this time to amplify feelings of experimentation and pleasure. Indulge in self-pleasure and make it a priority in your week.

The benefits of orgasm are endless, including increased oxytocin levels, a reduction in cortisol and improved mood and sleep. While we may not have someone else to satisfy our needs, this doesn’t mean we can’t take control of our own pleasure.

Self-touch as self-care

More time indoors provides an opportunity to prioritise time spent on self-care rituals that can satisfy our need for skin-on-skin contact. Why not indulge in long, hot showers or baths? Or engage in self-massage? Think about where and how you like to be touched, considering pressure, speed and different textures.

Imagine how good it feels to be under a warm blanket on a cold night – how can you replicate this experience in other ways? Mindfulness (which is conscious attention to the present moment) during self-touch amplifies these feelings and helps to satiate your skin hunger.

Weighted blankets

Not necessarily new to the market, but certainly gaining popularity, weighted blankets provide the body with a sense of safety and have been shown to settle feelings of anxiety and loneliness. They can be used during sleep or on the couch while watching your favourite TV series and come in specific weights targeted at your own body weight to achieve maximum effect. Cosy nights ahead.

Increase alternative types of connection

Explore novel and alternative types of emotional, interpersonal, and spiritual connections. How can you incorporate at least one element into your day-to-day? Consider starting a book club, having a Zoom cooking class or interacting with pets or animals as a way of triggering that oxytocin release. Increased restrictions combined with such advancements in technology have the potential to open us up to deeper conversations and stronger emotional connections in new and exciting ways. What resonates with you most?

While the long-term detrimental impacts of skin hunger can be profound, it’s undeniable that humans are incredibly adaptive and resilient. In a time where great resilience is required on a day-to-day basis, thinking laterally about achieving that natural release of oxytocin and finding ways to satiate skin hunger are key. Perhaps we can use this time to reflect on the new ways that we can connect with others on broader and deeper levels? All we can do is our best right now, and that is enough.

This article was originally written by sexologist Aleeya Hachem for Lucy Lube, a brand that’s redefining sexual wellness through education, empowerment and engagement. Its TGA-approved, water-based nonsticky lubricant is available to purchase here. You can follow Lucy Lube here.

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