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The Great Debate: Paper Towels vs. Air Dryers

Restroom

Walking into a public restroom with sparkling floors, streak-free mirrors and fresh aromas is what every guest hopes for. However, even the cleanest restrooms can be a germ danger zone due to an often-overlooked restroom process: hand drying.

Most restrooms offer one of three hand-drying options: paper towels, air dryers or jet dryers. When air or jet dryers are the only option, facility costs may be lower, but customers are often left with wet or damp hands after leaving the restroom. Restrooms with paper towels can run into the issue of overuse, but give customers the opportunity to dry their hands completely in a timely fashion.

So which one is best? Facility managers should understand how different hand drying methods can impact cleanliness and health beyond the restroom. In the end, it’s all about providing the most hygienic drying option in order to please customers, prevent infection and protect an organization’s brand.

Why is Hand Drying Crucial to Hand Hygiene?
In the U.S., 80 percent of infections are transmitted by hand contact[1]. Many people are unaware that thorough hand drying is a vital component of hand hygiene since harmful bacteria can remain on hands even after washing. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), hand drying is also important because:

  • Washing procedures can be poor. Unfortunately, not everyone washes their hands properly. In fact, a recent study by Michigan State University[2] found that 95 percent of people don’t wash their hands correctly or long enough, leaving potentially harmful bacteria behind.
  • Some viruses can survive on surfaces for days. Dangerous viruses can live on objects like sink faucets and soap dispensers for days if they are not properly cleaned and disinfected. Customers touching these items can easily transfer germs to their hands.
  • Germs are more easily passed from wet skin. Since most people don’t wash their hands correctly, it’s likely that many germs remain on their skin. And germs left on wet “washed” hands can spread more quickly from person-to-person and person-to-object, creating opportunity for infection. Since germs have less of a chance surviving on and transferring to or from dry hands, it’s important to make an effective hand drying method available.
  • Infection prevention in healthcare, foodservice and education settings in particular is paramount. Washing and drying hands helps limit dangerous, and sometimes deadly, infections in hospitals, as well as foodborne illnesses in restaurants and cold and flu outbreaks at schools.

Full of Hot Air
A recent study conducted by the University of Westminster, London, set out to bring clarity to the hand drying debate by testing three hand-drying methods (two paper towels, a hot air dryer and a jet air dryer). After participants dipped their gloved hands into a liquid that contained a virus and tested the three options, results were compared to determine if one method spread fewer germs.

Hot air dryers remove water by evaporation and direct air movement mainly downwards. In contrast, jet air dryers remove water through forces in opposite directions and dispersion into the air, and can generate speeds over 370 mph. According to the Westminster study, jet dryers, due to their speed and construction, spread an average of 60 times more of the tested virus than the warm air dryer, and 1,300 times more than paper towels. While the virus in the study was not dangerous, in reality, germs on hands often contain fecal matter, which can result in unpleasant and potentially dangerous illnesses such as norovirus or E. coli if contaminated hands come in contact with the nose or mouth.

The study also found that 70 percent of the virus was found at a variety of heights with jet air dryers, and that the germs can remain in the air around the dryer for up to 15 minutes. The area most vulnerable to the exposed germs was located at an average height of the face of a small child.

Additionally, a study done by the University of Branford[3] found that rubbing hands together– a common way to speed up hand drying with an air dryer – causes bacteria that lives within the skin to rise, transforming clean hands into dirty ones. Hand dryers may come across as a cost-efficient solution, but they can cause more harm than good.

The Benefits of Paper
The Westminster study concluded that paper towels produce the lowest spread of germs from hands into a surrounding environment. Disposable paper towels also effectively remove any remaining bacteria on hands following the handwashing process. Paper towels can also be used for multiple purposes, such as turning off faucets or opening doors.

And paper towels are popular among restroom guests. Given the choice, 75 percent of people prefer paper towels to hot air dryers[4]. By providing paper towels in public restrooms, facility managers give customers their desired hand drying method, and get a cleaner, healthier environment in return.

While it may sound like a myth, paper towels can be a sustainable and cost-friendly hand drying option. Automatic paper towel dispensers that sense hands and dispense an appropriate length provide guests with enough paper to dry hands completely each and every time. These dispensers also help curb waste and save money.

Certain disposable paper towel and tissue brands use innovative strategies to ensure products are made with environmentally friendly practices, such as preserving forestry, limiting CO2 emissions and using proper recycling measures. While air dryers contribute to energy waste, the wrong paper towels can contribute to landfill waste – so it’s important to research and find paper products that feature dissolvable and biodegradable properties.

No Longer a Debate
The choice of whether to provide paper towels or air dryers within restrooms is no longer an equal sided debate; research shows that paper towels take the hygiene crown. Giving customers a hygienic hand drying option doesn’t just benefit them. It promotes a positive brand image and helps maintain health and safety. Whether it’s a restroom or handwashing station in a hospital, restaurant, retail store, school or another high-traffic facility, paper towels are a critical component of proper hand hygiene.

Fabio Vitali is vice president AFH marketing & sales for Sofidel. The Sofidel Group, a privately held company owned by the Stefani and Lazzareschi families, is a world leader in the manufacture of paper for hygienic and domestic use. For more information, visit www.Sofidel.com and www.papernet.com/americas.

[1] Sofidel abstract

[2] http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/06/study-95-of-people-dont-wash-their-hands-correctly/276720/

[3] http://www.waterandhealth.org/hand-drying-rub/

[4] http://info.debgroup.com/blog/75-of-people-prefer-paper-towels-to-hot-air-dryers