Hand dryers or paper towels? One is clearly the cleaner choice

Recent studies show hand dryers spread germs around the restroom. Experts say drying your hands with paper towels or using hand sanitizer is a healthier choice.

Posted: May 17, 2018 10:36 PM
Updated: May 17, 2018 10:50 PM

Public health organizations – and our moms - have drilled into us for years the importance of washing our hands to prevent the spread of disease, especially after using the restroom. But it turns out, how you dry your hands after washing might mean the difference between clean hands, or hands you might as well have washed in the toilet.

Public restrooms are inherently nasty places. Most people avoid them if they can. But, when nature calls, you got to go! To mitigate your exposure to whatever is lurking in there, you, I'm sure, wash your hands afterward. That's a good thing! Did I mention restrooms are a festering frat-party of microscopic ner-do-wells – bacteria, viruses, and germs - whose names start with scary-sounding prefixes like strep, hep and staph. Not to mention E.coli, cold and flu bugs.

Now, imagine all of those being blown right back onto your freshly washed hands!

A recent study by researchers at the University of Connecticut  and published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, reveals those powerful warm-air hand drying machines suck up whatever is in the air and then blow it back out in a concentrated current that lands on – your clean hands! The study concludes, "Many kinds of bacteria, including potential pathogens and spores, can be deposited on hands exposed to bathroom hand dryers..."

We showed the study to microbiologist Carter Wright. She studies disease-causing germs at Gene Capture at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. "We wash our hands to get rid of this bacteria, and yet we're just blowing it right back on them," she said. "I don't think the study is meant to make us paranoid but is meant to educate people to be aware."

Still, it's hard not to cringe at the results. The study found up to 60 colonies of bacteria were blown out of hand dryers in a 30 second cycle. The study mentioned staphylococcus aureus. That's the "SA" part of the acronym MRSA, a staph bacterium that is resistant to antibiotics. "Staph aureus is one that was found in the study. And staph aureus can be a very serious infection," warns Wright.

According to Wright, no matter how careful you are in the bathroom these germs are impossible to avoid. "Every time a toilet is flushed, that bacteria are being dispersed into the air," she said.

The argument is, when you flush the toilet, some of that toilet water is aerosolized, meaning whatever you do in the stall spreads to the rest of the bathroom. That's right, microscopic fecal matter is floating all around you. To be clear, hand dryers do not add bacteria to the restroom. They simply re-circulate what's already there. And studies show they make things worse by blowing the bugs around the room. The University of Leeds in England found "bacteria levels in the air around hand dryers were 27 times higher than around paper towel dispensers."

And there-in lies the answer.

"I always say, if you're able to use paper towels, that's the way to go," said Wright. In fact, the microbiologist goes to great lengths to avoid a hand dryer. "If I didn't have paper towels, honestly, I'd probably just use my pants."

Wright said hand sanitizer, which some restrooms thoughtfully supply, is also a good way to avoid using a hand dryer. "If you don't have paper towels, it's a good backup. That way you're not having to put your hands under those dryers that are putting those bacteria back onto them," she said.

The hand dryer industry sites studies of its own that show bacteria are everywhere, even on paper towels. They also say hand dryers are more cost effective, especially for high-volume restrooms. They last five to seven years, with very little maintenance. There's no waste management. No replacing costly paper towels. No angry customers when the facility runs out of paper towels. Not to mention a cleaner environment.

It makes sound business sense. But if it's your business to stay healthy, according to the experts, paper towels have the edge. A 2012 Mayo Clinic review of a dozen studies on the subject concluded "From a hygiene viewpoint, paper towels are superior to electric air dryers."

The U-Conn study found that dryers with HEPA filters significantly reduced the number of bacteria coming out, but not all dryers have them. And keep in mind, public restrooms are probably not the dirtiest thing you encountered today. Scientists say your cell phone and the restaurant menu you picked up are loaded with a lot more germs.

Unless you have a compromised immune system or an open wound, your body can likely deal with a few bathroom bacteria. Wright says the most important thing is to wash your hands, no matter how you dry them. But consider how they dry their hands in a facility like hers.

"You will not find anything but paper towels."

Huntsville
Broken Clouds
71° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 71°
Florence
Overcast
72° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 72°
Fayetteville
Scattered Clouds
69° wxIcon
Hi: 79° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 69°
Decatur
Broken Clouds
69° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 69°
Scottsboro
Few Clouds
68° wxIcon
Hi: 77° Lo: 61°
Feels Like: 68°
WAAY Radar
WAAY WAAY-TV Cam
WAAY Temperatures

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 134231

Reported Deaths: 2357
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson19572348
Mobile13320292
Montgomery8811183
Tuscaloosa8586117
Madison782078
Shelby592349
Lee588759
Baldwin545650
Marshall393343
Calhoun349942
Etowah343945
Morgan327328
Houston280221
Elmore265947
DeKalb240620
St. Clair230835
Walker230683
Talladega214628
Limestone208820
Cullman189020
Dallas178326
Franklin176729
Autauga175725
Russell17573
Lauderdale169833
Colbert164126
Blount160815
Escambia160324
Chilton156431
Jackson156011
Covington138527
Dale135844
Coffee13206
Pike119410
Chambers116142
Tallapoosa115685
Clarke108916
Marion95729
Butler91639
Barbour8737
Winston73812
Marengo71620
Pickens65614
Lowndes65327
Bibb65210
Randolph64213
Hale63428
Lawrence61623
Geneva6074
Cherokee60313
Bullock59914
Monroe5848
Clay5797
Washington55613
Perry5416
Crenshaw53632
Conecuh53511
Wilcox53111
Henry4935
Macon48119
Fayette4508
Sumter43519
Lamar3662
Cleburne3646
Choctaw34912
Greene30315
Coosa1683
Out of AL00
Unassigned00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 189454

Reported Deaths: 2352
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Shelby30613455
Davidson26381303
Hamilton937494
Knox929875
Rutherford924089
Williamson519836
Sumner479497
Wilson345344
Putnam327740
Montgomery304544
Unassigned29474
Bradley291417
Out of TN284426
Madison283264
Sevier259615
Blount250424
Maury232923
Washington227635
Robertson220335
Sullivan214833
Hamblen189926
Tipton180519
Trousdale16537
Gibson163622
Hardeman155826
Wayne14955
Dyer135014
Bedford132817
Dickson125015
Coffee121013
Cumberland119218
Fayette118319
Weakley117619
Henderson116924
Anderson116513
Carter115828
Obion115610
Loudon11546
Greene114244
McMinn111325
Jefferson111014
Warren10477
Macon104620
Monroe103018
Lawrence102312
Hardin102216
Lauderdale97916
Haywood96819
Franklin9639
Lake9182
Roane8854
McNairy87618
Carroll87420
Bledsoe8544
White8309
Rhea82112
Cheatham80510
Hawkins79618
Marshall7495
Cocke7439
Overton7355
Smith71311
Johnson6962
Chester62310
Henry6189
Lincoln6111
Giles59117
Hickman5738
DeKalb56114
Crockett53619
Marion5258
Decatur5127
Fentress4933
Claiborne4415
Campbell4394
Polk38810
Grainger3723
Union3531
Benton3369
Jackson3245
Morgan3153
Unicoi2851
Cannon2830
Grundy2835
Humphreys2463
Sequatchie2312
Meigs2263
Clay2245
Houston2143
Scott2132
Stewart1982
Lewis1961
Moore1691
Van Buren1640
Perry1500
Pickett1142
Hancock1063

Community Events