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Automatic Hand Dryers vs. Paper Towels

By October 17, 2008

In observance of Global Handwashing Day, I am continuing my blog on hand washing...

I have to admit that sometimes I buy into urban legends, especially if they seem logical. I stopped using warm air hand dryers years ago after hearing "somewhere" that some "study" found that microbes get sucked in and blown right back out onto your hands. In public restrooms, I always opted for paper towel drying over automatic hand dryers.

Curiosity finally got the best of me, when I visited a museum last weekend and found that the bathrooms only had warm air dryers and no paper towels! After coming home, I looked up medical research papers on the use of hand dryers vs. paper towels and found that the vast majority of research has shown that there is no difference between using paper towels and warm air dryers in terms of removing bacteria! In fact, a study from the Mayo Clinic showed that there is no difference in removing bacteria from washed hands using paper towels, warm air dryers, air drying, or cloth towel dispensers.

Proponents of warm air dryers (i.e. manufacturers of warm air dryers) also claim that they are more economical, efficient, and environment-friendly (saves trees).

Am I going to switch teams and start using warm air dryers? I'm not sure yet--Habits are hard to break. But I'm going to stop denouncing warm air dryers!

October 28, 2008 at 12:20 am
(1) Robguy says:

Gee, I just hated them because they took so much longer. With rising energy costs, I’d be interested in a “green” comparison between paper, cloth, electric.

October 28, 2008 at 1:36 pm
(2) Ingrid Koo says:

I don’t know of any formal eco-studies of hand-drying methods, but I’ll see what I can find. Air-drying? Wiping them on your pants? ;)

October 28, 2008 at 4:31 pm
(3) Tony says:

This article misses the most important point in this health issue. The plain fact, which no one that examines this issues contests, is that when a bathroom is equipped only with electric hand dryers, with no paper towels as an alternative, fewer people will wash their hands! Issues about one method being slightly more effective than the other at cleaning your hands, or slightly more environmentally friendly than the other, are unimportant by comparison.

October 28, 2008 at 5:04 pm
(4) Ingrid Koo says:

I agree that paper towels should definitely be an option in public restrooms, since most people use them for purposes other than just drying their hands (i.e. wiping up spills and other messes).

However, I would surmise that most people don’t notice their hand drying options until their hands are already dripping wet. I always assume there’s a paper towel dispenser somewhere, and I just have to find it.

I don’t think the lack of options is going to make a significant difference on whether or not someone chooses to wash their hands, especially if he or she knows why it’s important to do it.

October 30, 2008 at 10:04 pm
(5) Tammy says:

Alot of people use the paper towels to open the doors on their way back out to keep their hands clean. In fact, cruise lines get marked down for this on their hygiene reviews if they don’t have paper towels near the exit doors. Can’t really open the door with an air dryer, so there’s a plus for the paper towel argument.

December 2, 2008 at 11:07 am
(6) matt haslam says:

see website above – goodbye landfill paper – hello the most hygienic dryer invented!

March 12, 2009 at 11:12 pm
(7) Jack says:

Well, you should do more thorough research! Dyson makes a hand dryer which specifically addresses your concern by including a HEPA filter on the output of their dryer. While I do not have scientific proof that this dryer is more effective in controlling the bacteria output of the dryer, it is at least recognized as a problem by this firm. Check it out for yourself, but you had better get some sensitive instruments for your laboratory before spreading unscientific rumors. I do not believe anything on the web—I must derive proof positive. You should also.

March 13, 2009 at 10:40 am
(8) infectiousdiseases says:

With all due respect, did you read the full article? Here is the Mayo Clinic study I cited: Effects of 4 hand-drying methods for removing bacteria from washed hands: a randomized trial. If you’re still not convinced, do a PubMed search for all the relevant literature, before making assumptions.

April 1, 2009 at 12:40 pm
(9) Chris Berl says:


Thanks for your note. We sell hand dryers at Restroom Direct restroomdirect.com and we have always been frustrated by the disinformation that is spread like the germs you are talking about when you compare hand dryers to paper towels. You are right, you will not find any serious studies showing that paper towels are more hygienic than hand dryers. (And I have been wondering lately about the cleanliness of the paper towels themselves. The new ones feel so sticky for some reason.)

To your question about the environmental impact of paper towels vs hand dryers: One of the easiest things that you can do to help the environment is to replace paper towels with hand dryers. The paper towel manufacturing process is a very energy intensive and pollutant causing process. It takes more than twice the amount of energy to make the 2 1/2 paper towels that you would have used to dry your hands than it does to power a hand dryer. And the new high-speed hand dryers are much more efficient. The World Dryer Airforce hand dryer for example, is a high speed dryer and only 1100 watts vs 2300 watts for the older slower dryers. And I think people are using hand dryers more now that they are much faster than the old ones.

Energy is only one measurement. There is also the fact that paper towels have to come from trees, have to be transported, stocked and cleaned up after and finally end up in land fills after just one short use.

I am sure you will see lots more postings on this blog as everyone who sells either paper towels or hand dryers tries to get their licks in. Good luck!

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