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Bathroom Hand Dryer or One Paper Towel?

public toilet

Story at-a-glance -

  • Handwashing is a simple, effective means of reducing your exposure to disease-causing germs and the potential you’ll spread infection to those around you
  • Research demonstrates hand air dryers may spread bacteria and bacterial spores on your hands as you dry, and also spread bacteria as much as 3 meters (9.5 feet) away
  • While paper towels result in cleaner hands, they also have a significant impact on the environment; reducing use by just one roll of paper towel each year per U.S. household saves 544,000 trees and reduces toxic chemicals released into waterways
  • It is possible to dry your hands with one square of paper towel when you first reduce free water on your hands by shaking 12 times and then folding the paper in half to increase absorbency

By Dr. Mercola

Handwashing is one of the simplest ways to reduce your exposure to potentially disease-causing germs, and along with it reduce your chances of getting sick and/or spread infection. Regular and appropriate handwashing will drastically decrease the number of germs that have access to your body, especially at key times such as before eating, touching your mouth eyes or nose, and after using the restroom or visiting public areas.

Teaching people about handwashing can improve health in the community and reduce the number of people who get sick with diarrhea by 31 percent and respiratory illnesses, like colds, by up to 21 percent.1 Through illness prevention, the amount of antibiotics prescribed would also decline, which would help reduce antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics are often prescribed unnecessarily for respiratory infections and diarrhea-related illnesses.2

To enjoy these results, handwashing must be done effectively and correctly, which may sound obvious. However, studies have shown most people are not really killing germs when they wash their hands. Washing your hands in public presents another challenge as the choice between using a hot air dryer, an air blower or paper towel to dry your hands each presents a unique challenge to your health or the environment.

Research published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology suggests bathroom hot air hand dryers may actually deposit bacteria and bacterial spores on your hands,3 and these bacteria may also be sprayed up to 3 meters (9.8 feet) away.

Air Dryers in Public Restrooms Are Not as Sanitary as You May Think

Washing your hands is the best way to stop germs from spreading, but if you're depositing additional germs when drying your hands, you may not be as protected as you believe. The most recent study demonstrating the spread of bacteria from hot air hand dryers supports previous research that has made similar findings.4 Here, researchers from the University of Connecticut Health cultured 36 bathrooms in an academic Health Center by exposing culture plates to the air blown from the hot air dryer for 30 seconds.5

In other words, the researchers did not open the hand dryers and culture the interior, but instead used the hot air normally blown over a user's hands to culture the dishes. After exposure, each culture plate grew between 18 and 60 colonies of bacteria, including bacteria responsible for diseases in humans. The researchers compared those culture plates to another set exposed to bathroom air for two minutes without the addition of hand dryers running. The second plates grew an average of one or less colonies per plate.

Next, the researchers installed high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters on the dryers to determine whether it would reduce the amount of bacteria blown out onto the user's hands. This did reduce bacteria by four times as much, but did not completely remove all disease-causing bacteria such as staphylococcus haemolyticus, pseudomonas alcaligenes, bacillus cereus and Brevundimonas diminuta/vesicularis.

Another study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection purposefully contaminated subject hands with lactobacilli to simulate poorly washed and contaminated hands and then subjected those hands to a jet air dryer, warm air dryer or paper towel.6 Using a jet dryer, researchers found 4.5 times more bacteria were blown into the air compared to using a warm air dryer; 27 times more bacteria were blown into the bathroom using a jet dryer than using a paper towel.

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What Goes in Must Blow Out

In another study, researchers measured the distance these viruses were dispersed and found they could travel up to 3 meters away.7 These results demonstrate that even if the dryer is clean, if your handwashing technique is not effective, you'll still be spreading bacteria. The researchers of the recent study wrote:8

"These results indicate that many kinds of bacteria, including potential pathogens and spores, can be deposited on hands exposed to bathroom hand dryers and that spores could be dispersed throughout buildings and deposited on hands by hand dryers."

The researchers theorized that as the hand dryers blow out air, they also take air in. Inside the appliance, bacteria has the potential to grow on moist surfaces, fed by high humidity. The appliance intake brings in more bacteria, colonies grow and then are dispersed when the appliances are used. The researchers concluded9 "hand dryers are a possible mechanism for spreading infectious bacteria including spores of potential pathogens if present."

Effective Handwashing Is Simple and Easy

Handwashing is important before or after different activities. This short video demonstrates how to wash your hands, and the list below may help you to determine if it might be time to head to the sink for some soap and water. Wash your hands:

When your hands are visibly soiled

After coming in from outside

Often during cold and flu season

Before sitting down to eat

After coughing or sneezing

Before and after visiting or caring for sick people

After playing with children or handling children's toys

After handling garbage, using the phone or shaking hands

After touching your pet, animal waste, pet food or treats

After going to the bathroom or changing a diaper

Before and after handling food, being especially careful with raw eggs, meat, seafood and poultry

After coming home from the grocery store, school, the mall or church where you may have touched objects

The impact of poor hand hygiene is significant as it increases the incidence of colds, illnesses, and the subsequent medical costs and productivity losses.10 In a study using military recruits, researchers found teaching simple handwashing in a large Navy Training Center resulted in a 45 percent reduction an outpatient visits for respiratory illnesses

However, despite the success in reducing productivity losses and health care costs, maintenance of the teaching program was considered time challenging.11 Correctly washing your hands may potentially reduce bacteria transferred from person to person. To be truly effective for disease control, consider the following guidelines:

  • Use warm, running water and a mild soap. You do NOT need antibacterial soap, and this has been scientifically verified. Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has stated,12 "There is currently no evidence that [antibacterial soaps] are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water."
  • Start with wet hands, add soap and work up a good lather, all the way up to your wrists, scrubbing for at least 15 or 20 seconds (most people only wash for about six seconds). A good way to time this is to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice.
  • Make sure you cover all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, wrists, between your fingers and around and below your fingernails.
  • Rinse thoroughly under running water.
  • Thoroughly dry your hands, ideally using a paper towel. In public places, also use a paper towel to open the door as a protection from germs living on the handles.

One Paper Towel Does the Job Done Correctly

Since more than one study has demonstrated the questionable effectiveness of air dryers, it may seem reasonable to turn to paper towels to dry your hands. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), paper is one of the largest shares of municipal waste in America. While many are made from recyclable paper pulp, they do not degrade easily in landfills. In this short Ted Talk, Joe Smith demonstrates how we can reduce our paper use and still walk out of a public restroom with clean hands.

Each year, 13 billion pounds of paper towels are used in America.13 That's over 45 pounds per person, per year. If every person could reduce their use by just one towel per day, this may reduce waste by 571 million pounds per year. In other words, little changes you make at home and in the community will have a big impact on our environment.

When surveyed, 62 percent14 of users prefer to use paper towels to dry their hands, rather than hot air dryers. Although paper towels may reduce the number of all types of bacteria found on hands, inefficient use leads to wasted resources. In one study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,15 researchers compared seven of the most common drying methods found in public restrooms and concluded paper towels and warm air hand dryers had the highest environmental impact of the systems evaluated.

However, by using the system Smith outlines in his TED Talk above, it's apparent we can reduce the amount of paper towels used on a daily basis, both in public and at home. The critical factor to this method is twofold. The first is to shake your hands 10 to 12 times in order to eliminate as much free water as possible. In the second step, Smith discusses how folding the towel in half increases absorbency by increasing interstitial spaces where water can be absorbed.

Saving Paper Saves the Environment

In the U.S. alone, paper towels are a $6 billion market, using 17 trees and 20,000 gallons of water to make 1 ton of paper towels.16 It would take 51,000 trees per day to replace the number of paper towels tossed every day. If every household reduced their use by one roll each year, 544,000 trees could be saved, and if three less rolls were used per year, 120,000 tons of waste could be saved. This would also eliminate $4.1 million in landfill dumping fees.

Paper was invented in China around 105 A.D. and kept secret for many years. In the manufacture of the product today nearly 3,000 chemicals may be used. In practice close to 200 individual chemicals are typically used depending upon the specific product. Commonly used chemicals include caustic soda, chlorine dioxide, sodium dithionite and sodium silicate.17

This process is intensive in both the search for virgin fiber leading to massive deforestation and the addition of toxic chemicals releasing carcinogenic dioxins and furans into the environment.18 The manufacture of paper towels is similar to other commercial paper. The bark is removed from the tree, which is then chipped into small pieces. Chemical additives are then added to dissolve the fiber bonds in the wood, creating wood pulp.19 This mixture is then manipulated, cleaned and bleached with chlorine.

While using paper towels may result in cleaner hands, by reducing the amount of paper towel used each day in public and in your home, you can contribute to a reduction in exposure to toxic chemicals to yourself and your family. So, the next time you reach for a towel to dry your hands, consider using just a single paper towel square, and forgo the jet dryers.