I just came back from vacation. Between airports, restaurants and public attractions, I washed my hands in a lot of public restrooms. I noticed that more places, especially newer ones, have installed high-tech hand dryers rather than paper towel dispensers. Some have both.
I usually use a paper towel because it’s faster and I can use it on the handle of the restroom as I’m leaving.
But I’ve never really considered if there’s a health difference between the two ways to dry your hands. Apparently, there is.
A recent study in the Journal of Applied Microbiology compared how many germs are spread using paper towels, the older “warm air” hand dryers (that take forever to dry your hands!), or the newer “jet air” dryers.
The participants in the study washed their (gloved) hands in a suspension of a virus-like substance. Then they dried their hands by one of the three methods. The results were eye-opening.
The lower-power warm air dryers spread contaminants further than paper towels, but the jet dryers were by far the worst culprits. They spread up to 190 times more of a noninfectious test virus used in the study than the other methods. The material was dispersed up to three meters away—nearly 10 feet.
So if someone does not take the time to wash their hands properly—using soap and water for at least 20 seconds—and then uses a jet-air dryer, germs will be blasted around the restroom. Possibly into the faces of children who are about eye-level with the dryers.
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Regardless, the germs will settle on any flat surface, where they can survive for quite a while.
Air dryers have generally been sold on their cost, convenience, and environmental benefits over paper towels. But in light of their findings, the study’s authors suggest that “the choice of hand-drying device should be considered carefully” in settings where infection is a particular concern, such as in hospitals and restaurants.
I think I’ll continue to use paper towels when possible, and hand sanitizer when not.
I’ll avoid the hand dryers completely. And stand clear when someone else is drying their hands!