Paper Towels vs. Hand Driers

Fully accepting his bias, Paul Revere looks at the evidence in the long-standing paper towel–hand drier debate and finds in favour of the humble paper towel.

There were four parts to the study: Part A looked at the drying efficiency of hand drying method; Part B involved counting the number of different types of bacteria on the hands before and after drying; Part C studied the potential contamination of other users and the washroom environment; and Part D took a bacterial sampling of Dyson Airblade dryers in public washrooms.

Paper towels and the Dyson Airblade were found to be equally efficient at drying hands, each achieving 90% dryness in approximately 10sec. However, the warm air dryer was considerably less efficient, taking 47sec to achieve the same level of dryness. […]

Paper towels were found to reduce the number of all types of bacteria on the fingerpads by up to 76% and on the palms by up to 77%. By comparison, the Dyson Airblade increased the numbers of most types of bacteria on the fingerpads by 42% and on the palms by 15%. However, after washing and drying hands under the warm air dryer, the total number of bacteria increased by 194% on the fingerpads and on the palms by 254%.

The Dyson Airblade performed less well than paper towels and the warm air dryer in Part C in which the hands of 10 subjects were artificially contaminated with yeast suspension. During use, open agar plates were placed at 0.25m intervals from the hand-drying device up to a maximum of 2m. Yeast colonies that grew on the plates were counted.

The Dyson Airblade dispersed potential contamination to other users and the washroom environment to a distance of at least two metres, whereas paper towels spread contamination 0.50m and the warm air dryer 0.25m.

Part D showed that the Dyson Airblade dryers in the public washroom sampled were contaminated with large numbers of bacteria, including potential pathogens such as E. coli, staphylococcus and pseudomonas aeruginosa, particularly the bottom of the hand drying chamber

According to Keith Redway, senior academic in the department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Westminster: “The results of all parts of this study suggest that the use of warm air dryers and jet air dryers should be carefully considered in locations where hygiene is of paramount importance, such as hospitals, clinics, kitchens and other food preparation areas, schools, nurseries and care homes.” (Clean Room Technology [UK])

I have odd hand washing habits in public bathrooms and have my own preferences:

  • Paper towels preferred if there are doors to open on exiting the bathroom. This is because many users of public bathrooms do not wash their hands, and I don’t want to re-contaminate my hands after washing and drying–I’ll use a paper towel to open the door.
  • The Dyson Airblade in all other circumstances.

Odd habits, admittedly, and habits that are unlikely to change given these findings… mainly because the research was funded by the European Tissue Symposium.

via Marginal Revolution



4 responses to “Paper Towels vs. Hand Driers”

  1. Paul

    Unfortunately the Airblade is not a British Dyson invention but a Japanese one. Mitsubishi have had them for at least ten years in Japan and although the pathogens may collect in the drip tray, that’s not where you put your fingers at any point during the drying process.

    The better question for me is “What do westerners have against awesome toilets?”. One to contemplate when you avail yourself of the loos in a Japanese department store (where you will get to try the Japanese predecessor of the Airblade no doubt!).

    What time’s your flight?

  2. This is a cracking article!

    Unfortunately Paul, it doesn’t matter whether you put your fingers in the ‘drip tray’ or not, the latest jet air type dryers increase the bacteria count on your hands by an average of 42% and warm air dryers can increase bacteria by an average of 254% on palms.

    Where as paper towels reduce bacteria after washing by 45%-77%.

    These figures were found in the summary of recent research into the relative hygiene attributes and consumer preferences of different hand drying methods – Tork/SCA.

  3. MY

    To bring up the Japanese again, why don’t we just forgo this debate all together and carry small hand towels or handkerchiefs everywhere? At least that’s why I do, along with the rest of Japan when I’m traveling there because some bathrooms, even at the fanciest places, have neither paper towels nor hand driers.

  4. ‘MY’ – Interesting idea but I would say that making sure that you’re washing and drying your hands properly is very important. I suppose you could even consider carrying a few paper towels with you every time you go out just incase these bathrooms don’t have any left.