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Hand Dryers vs Paper Towels: Which is More Hygienic

If you’ve got the choice, which do you use: A hand dryer or a paper towel? Or, like a surprising number of people, do you wipe your hands on your clothes as you’re heading out of the door? The paper towel vs hand dryer debate has been raging on for years, and it’s something that flares up each time a new study comes out in favour of one over the other.

Although it seems like a fundamentally mundane and boring topic, it’s one that is worth thinking about, and it can be very important in certain environments such as healthcare settings.


In this blog post, we’re going to look at the paper towel vs hand dryer debate from both sides and see not only which option is more hygienic, but which option is better for the environment and more cost-effective, among other things.


Why is hand drying important?

There have been countless studies that have looked at how much bacteria remain on our hands after drying. These studies have all shown that if hands are washed thoroughly and dried afterwards, it’s an extremely effective way of controlling bacteria and preventing the spread of pathogens and disease like COVID-19.


Bacteria love damp, wet surfaces. And they’re able to easily transfer from one damp surface to another where they’ll be able to reproduce and compromise it. Therefore, if the skin is wet, bacterial transfer takes place much more easily than if the skin is dry.


Now imagine you’ve just used a public restroom. They’re not the cleanest of places. If you wash your hands and don’t dry them before touching other surfaces like the door handle, you may as well have not washed your hands at all; any bacteria on that handle will have transferred at a much higher rate than they would have if your hands were dry.


For this reason, thorough hand drying is crucial to stopping the spread of bacteria and all the infections and disease that they can cause.


Hand dryers vs paper towels: Which is more hygienic?

When it comes to saying which of the two is more hygienic—the hand dryer or the paper towel—there’s no definitive answer. There are three things to consider on the question of hygiene, however:


1. Contact with dispensers and hand dryers

The fewer surfaces you touch between washing and drying your hands, the better. When you use a paper towel, you may need to make contact with a dispenser, i.e., by pulling a lever to dispense a sheet of towel which you then rip from the roll.


When you use a hand dryer, you may need to push a button to turn it on. Both of these contacts have the potential to spread bacteria back to your clean hands, especially if somebody has touched the dispenser or button without washing their hands properly.


There are a few exceptions where contact isn’t necessary, however. Contact-free paper towel dispensers exist, enabling the user to wave their hand over a sensor to dispense a sheet of towel. Similarly, hand dryers like the Dyson Airblade negate the need for contact with a button. All the user needs to do is place their hands inside the machine and wait for it to turn on. These touch-free operation dispensers and dryers are inherently more hygienic than touch-operated alternatives.


2. How clean hands are before you dry them

No matter what drying method you use or how efficient the drying process is, hands must be clean before they are dried. Neither the paper towel nor the hand dryer is part of the cleaning process; it’s all about the soap, water, and a good lather.


If you don’t clean your hands properly, your choice of hand drying tool isn’t going to matter; they will be dirty regardless.


3. Contaminants blown through the air

One criticism that hand dryers have always received is that they are said to blow contaminants onto your hands. There have been numerous studies into this with varying results. While some hand dryers, particularly older ones, were found to ‘blow’ bacteria and particles from wet hands onto other surfaces, modern hand dryers contain safeguards against this happening.


For example, some hand dryers contain a UV light as an extra layer of sanitation. Other hand dryers, such as Dyson Airblade models, contain HEPA filters. These sealed filters capture 99.97% of particles, as small as 0.3 microns, including bacteria and viruses, so users dry their hands with HEPA-purified air, not dirty air. 


Hand dryers vs paper towels: Which is better for the environment?

First, let’s take a look at paper towels. Paper towels can either be made from recycled or non-recycled paper. Of course, those made from recycled paper are much better for the environment than those made from virgin materials.


However, even paper towels made from recycled materials cannot then be re-recycled. This is partly because they’re treated with chemicals to make them strong enough to absorb water without falling apart. Furthermore, paper can only be recycled so many times before the cellulose fibres that make up the towel become too short to be re-woven into new products. This means that the majority of paper towels used end up discarded on landfill sites.


As for hand dryers, it depends on the model being used.


Before a hand dryer can even be used, however, it must be manufactured, and the manufacturing process produces greenhouse emissions. Once the hand dryer is installed, around 98 per cent of emissions are produced from the energy it uses.


Depending on the model of hand dryer used, in this case, a push-button model that uses hot air, a single-use can produce emissions of 20 to 80 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent. However, jet air dryers—such as the Dyson Airblade—which create a ‘squeegee effect’ to pull water from the hands rather than using hot air to evaporate it. This is much more efficient and uses far less energy.


According to a Dyson-funded 2013 study, the jet hand dryer “wins, hands down, even if it uses electricity from a coal power plant,” in terms of energy efficiency when compared with paper towels.


Hand dryers vs paper towels: Which is more cost-effective?

The consideration is perhaps less important than that of hygiene and environmental impact, but it’s still worth thinking about.


Clearly, the initial cost of an electric hand dryer like a Dyson Airblade is going to be significantly more than a few packs of hand towels. Paper towels run out and need to be replaced, however, whereas you only pay for a hand dryer once. While packs of paper towels may be significantly cheaper than a hand dryer, the cost of replacing them soon adds up.


In almost all cases, hand dryers will pay for themselves in as little of a year as it’s only got to be paid for once. While there are operating costs, these are very low, with the annual cost of operating a Dyson Airblade hand dryer being £80 on average.


In one comparison of paper towels to hand dryers, it was found that paper towels in a heavy use environment would cost $1,460 per year, whereas an efficient jet hand dryer would cost just $48 per year. While up-front costs may be high, these are soon offset by the elimination of paper towel costs.


Benefits of electric hand dryers

Electric hand dryers like the Dyson Airblade come with several benefits.


1. They save space

Modern and well-maintained electric hand dryers will never look out of place. They’re compact, neat, and tidy, using up the minimal amount of space required to do their job. In contrast, a paper towel dispenser and its accompanying bin are bulky and take up excess room.


2. They’re better for the environment

Hand dryers are far better for the environment than paper towels. This is because paper towels invariably end up discarded in landfill sites as they can’t be recycled. When you factor in full-life carbon costs, electric hand dryers are a lot better for the environment and have much less of a lasting impact.


3. They’re efficient

Most modern low-energy hand dryers like Dyson Airblades help to keep electricity bills down. This helps the environment as they can be up to 80 per cent more efficient than older models which use heating elements and hot air to evaporate water from the hand. Some dryers even feature a germ-killing UV lamp and filters to ensure that clean air is circulated.


4. They’re much faster

Older, hot air hand dryers were known for taking forever and a day to dry hands. This is because they work by evaporating water, which takes time. These days, modern hand dryers feature better airflow and jets which literally scrape the water from your hands rather than evaporating it. The end result is a much faster drying process.


5. They reduce wet contamination

An overly wet hand may dampen the next towel in the dispenser, potentially contaminating it. This can also mean that the next towel won’t come out properly and may fall apart or fall from the dispenser to the floor. This can’t happen with a hand dryer.


6. They produce zero waste

With hand dryers, there’s nothing to discard and pay for the disposal of. There are no bins, waste bags, or soiled paper that ends up sitting in a dump for years. Furthermore, there are no paper towels to be flushed down toilets or left on the floor.


Benefits of paper towels

Still, paper towels come with their own benefits.


1. They’re quick to use

No matter how fast a hand dryer is, paper towels will never be beaten on speed. There’s just no denying how quickly hands can be dried by using a good paper towel. It takes a matter of seconds.


2. They retain contaminants

Paper towels retain the water and any contaminants in the towel. This is important as people visiting bathrooms and washing their hands may not have done a good enough job of it. As we’ve discussed, wet hands transfer more bacteria than dry hands. In addition, electric paper towel dispensers are becoming more popular, reducing contamination even further.


3. They have a cheaper initial cost

Paper towel dispensers and the paper towels that go into them are much cheaper to acquire initially. Over time, however, the costs start to add up. While paper towels may be suited to start-ups without that much capital, it’s worth swapping to hand dryers as soon as possible.


Verdict: Which is better?

As we have seen, both hand dryers and paper towels have their own benefits and drawbacks. The question of which is better isn’t exactly conclusive and can only be answered by considering your own needs and requirements.


There are some areas, i.e., clinics and kitchens, where a jet hand dryer would be better than paper towels, but in some settings, it won’t really matter.


When push comes to shove, there’s no true outright ‘winner’.


Hygiene: Here, you’ll have to make a judgement call on how important hygiene is to you and how well you trust people to wash their hands thoroughly.


Appearance: If good looks and aesthetics are important, then a sleek electric hand dryer like a Dyson Airblade will always win.


Environment: If you’re conscious about your environmental impact, then an electric hand dryer will always win—there’s no waste.


Cost: If you’re worried about initial costs and don’t have high amounts of capital to spare, paper towels will be a more suitable option. If you’re wanting to make a long-term saving, hand dryers will give you that.


Coronavirus: Does it matter what I dry my hands with?

In the current climate we find ourselves in, hygiene, and specifically hand hygiene, has never been more important.


Washing your hands

You should wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, i.e., the amount of time that it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice. The UK National Health Service (NHS) has listed the following process as the best way to wash your hands:


1.     Wet your hands.

2.     Squeeze or rub enough soap into your hands.

3.     Rub your hands together.

4.     Use one hand to rub the back of the other hand and clean in between the fingers.

5.     Rub your hands together and clean in between the fingers.

6.     Rub the back of your fingers against your palms.

7.     Rub your thumb using your other hand. Do the same with the other thumb.

8.     Rub the tips of your fingers on the palm of your other hand.

9.     Rinse your hands with water.


Drying your hands

As for drying your hands, this is what the World Health Organisation (WHO) has to say: "To protect yourself against the new coronavirus, you should frequently clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water. Once your hands are cleaned, you should dry them thoroughly by using paper towels or a warm air dryer."


In short, it isn’t that important whether you dry your hands with a hand dryer or with paper towels. What’s important is that you wash them properly. That being said, a jet-style electric hand dryer is a more economical and cleaner method than using paper towels where you’ve got to touch a dispenser.

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