Hand Dryers: Are They Really Hygienic?

Hand with palm upturned

The importance of good hand hygiene has been increasingly recognised since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic but while considerable attention has been paid to the availability of sanitisers and hand washing facilities, less has been paid to the importance of proper hand drying.

Many pathogens reproduce much more quickly on wet or damp surfaces, and it’s estimated that poorly dried hands can spread up to a thousand times more germs than dry ones. That being so, an important question for businesses is how they ensure that washroom users are drying their hands effectively.

In public and employee washrooms, there are essentially two approaches: using paper towels to absorb moisture from the hands, or using air to physically blow the water droplets off the hands or evaporate it with warm air. Unfortunately, when it comes to choosing between these two options, there is no clear-cut winner, and most research on the question has tended to be commissioned by commercial organisations with the inevitable outcomes.

The reality is that there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, and our purpose here is to examine them. Which option is the best choice will depend on numerous factors, such as setting, budget, footfall and priorities in terms of carbon footprint. But let’s begin by dispelling one common misconception straight away: neither option is inherently more or less hygienic than the other.

Why is Effective Hand Drying So Important?

Moisture on the hands provides a hospitable environment for many different kinds of microorganism; including the bacteria and viruses responsible for common ailments including colds and flu, gastrointestinal infections and potentially life-threatening diseases such as Covid-19.

The media and public health bodies are now routinely reporting Covid-19 infection statistics but we shouldn’t forget the many other ramifications of transmissible diseases. In 2018, the Office for National Statistics reported that UK employers lost an estimated 141.4 million working days “because of sickness or injury.” Over 27% of these losses were attributed to minor ailments such as coughs and colds, a further 6.1% to gastrointestinal problems, and nearly 3% to respiratory conditions. In all, that amounts to more than 50 million working days lost to commonly transmissible infections.

Washing hands effectively is clearly an important step towards reducing the risks of transmission but it’s only part of the battle. Hand drying also has an important role, but it’s a task that is more easily neglected when washroom users are feeling rushed or impatient and drying facilities are not immediately to hand. Making appropriate facilities readily and consistently available is therefore a vital concern.

The Great Bathroom Debate – Hand Dryers or Paper Towels?

In seeking to meet this challenge, washroom designers will generally install electric hand dryers or paper towel dispensers. When properly used, both will dry the hands effectively so the question of whether one is more hygienic than the other is essentially meaningless. The important point is that the moisture is removed; how it occurs makes no practical difference to the pathogen.

Thus, the question of which solution to specify needs to be re-framed. It is less about hygiene per se, and more about pragmatic, operational issues, which vary according to how the washroom is used.

Hand Dryers or Paper Towels? Important Considerations

One important consideration is how readily hand drying facilities are available during periods of peak demand. Consider for example an employee washroom at the end of a shift, or a bathroom in a popular theatre, which might become extremely busy during the interval. If people are forced to wait before they can dry their hands, there might be a strong temptation to walk away or to rush the task of drying when standing at the front of the queue. Neither produces a good result.

In such situations, one solution would be to provide enough hand dryers to meet peak demand and prevent queues developing. However, spatial constraints or budget might make this unrealistic, especially if – at other times- the washroom attracts relatively little footfall. Thus, a simpler and perhaps more flexible solution might be to install paper towel dispensers. Users can quickly remove a tissue, move away from the dispenser, dry their hands and then dispose of the paper on their way out.

Hand Dryers or Paper Towels? Comparative Costs

The initial costs of installing paper towel dispensers are generally much lower and require less disruption in terms of installation and wiring in a fused spur. However, dispensers require regular refilling, which imposes costs in terms of paper supplies and staff time. They also impose further costs in terms of waste disposal – a combination of trade waste costs and additional staff time.

For these reasons, paper towels tend to incur higher costs over their whole life-cycle. Electric hand dryers don’t need replenishing, they won’t run out during periods of peak demand, and they incur zero waste disposal costs during use. Other than for periodic inspections, they place far fewer demands on staff time. They also remove the need for a large bin for paper towel disposal, a feature that can sometimes take up valuable space in small environments.

Other Factors: Noise and Setting

Electric hand dryers can be noisy but whether that’s a problem will depend on the setting. For example, it’s likely to be much less of an issue in a motorway service station than in a hospital or care home, where people might be trying to rest. Likewise, noise will be more of concern in a quiet restaurant or spa retreat, where ambience is an important part of the customer experience. Where noise is a factor, paper towel dispensers will usually be a more logical choice.

Which has a Larger Environmental Impact – Hand Dryers or Paper Towels?

The comparative impacts of hand dryers and paper towels are the subject of much debate and disagreement. Research has been published by companies from both sides of the divide and, unsurprisingly, each has found good evidence to support its own arguments.

The fact is that producing accurate environmental impact analyses for the whole life-cycle of each option is extremely difficult and subject to a whole host of variables.

Electric hand dryers consume valuable resources. These are used during the extraction of minerals that go into their construction; considerable energy is also used during their fabrication, and they inevitably consume electricity during their everyday use.

However, once installed, they do not require regular deliveries of paper supplies, and nor do they require additional journeys to take away waste paper. Overall, hand dryers require fewer road miles and their associated carbon emissions.

Paper towel dispensers do not contain so many components – motors and wiring and so on – but their housings and mechanisms still consume resources and energy during construction. The paper towels themselves can be obtained from renewable sources, and may contain some recycled content, but these too consume resources and energy during their production and packaging.

There’s a common belief that, after use, the paper itself can be recycled but the reality is that it generally goes to waste.

Calculating the specific environmental costs of each option is therefore extraordinarily difficult. Impacts will vary according to a washroom’s location, foot traffic and the processes put in place to keep the facility maintained.

More guidance on the differences between hand dryers and paper towels can be found in this blog.

Hand Dryers and Paper Towels: Why Availability Matters

Ultimately, both solutions work and there is no clear front-runner when it comes to costs or sustainability. There may be circumstances that make it more logical to install one in favour of the other, but these need to be considered in a case-by-case basis.

Far more important, from the perspective of hygiene and safety, is the question of whether hand washing and hand drying facilities are readily available. It’s important that they are accessible, easy to find, well maintained and free from unreasonable queues. People are often time-pressured and if they’re faced with anything but the shortest of waiting times, there’s always a risk that they will walk away and leave the task undone.

Making adequate provision for peak periods is therefore important, and that’s a principle that applies equally to washing and drying facilities.

The first crucial step in good hand hygiene is obviously to wash effectively in the first place. In theory, that should mean that washroom users are drying hands that are already clean. In the real world, of course, not everyone is as thorough as they should be, so effective drying becomes even more important – because it helps to stop any remaining microorganisms from reproducing quickly. It’s a second line of defence and its importance to safeguarding health should not be understated.

Explore Dudley Industries’ Range of Washroom Hand Dryers and Dispensers

Dudley Industries produces a range of washroom hand dryers, paper towel dispensers and waste bins. More information about their different designs, capacities and applications can be found in our Washroom Products section. Alternatively for advice about designs and specifications, please contact our customer support team on +44 (0) 1253 738311.