Washing our hands has become a new obsession for the nation since the arrival of COVID-19, seeing us vigorously scrubbing every inch of them with anti-bacterial wash and soap, all while humming ‘happy birthday’. But even after a good, thorough rinse and shake-off over the basin, we’re still not out of the woods when it comes to reducing the risk of passing on nasty pathogens. Damp skin is a hospitable breeding ground for microorganisms, and so a good dry is a must! – and thanks to electric hand dryers, which were rolled-out with much fanfare about environmental friendliness and their ability to prevent the spread of contagious diseases, life is peachy. Right?
Well, what if I was to tell you that electronic hand dryers have actually been doing the opposite of what was promised, and leaving your hands more contaminated – not less?!
Electric hand dryers have come a long way since the Airdry Electric Towel of 1924, with the leading electric dryer, Dyson’s Airblade promising to ‘scrape water from your hands like a windshield wiper’, thanks to its HEPA air filter that captures tiny particles as small as .3 microns in diameter. Impressive stuff. However, even a top-quality intake filter of this calibre won’t stop the spread of infection, as once these water droplets are aerosolised they will soon find their way into the building’s ventilation system, whizzing about the place and being inhaled by everyone in their path. This is a prime example of new technology not necessarily being better technology, as the gentler hand dryers of old only had the ability to blow bacteria over an approximately 3ft radius, rather than being dispersed through entire buildings.
While electric hand dryers with filters were found to reduce the pathogenic bacteria that can colonise our hands, compared to hot-air model without filters, the risk is not eliminated entirely, and the higher speed jets of air used by super-powerful hand dryers, such as the ones produced by Dyson, produce a significantly higher aerosolisation of viruses on our skin. In fact, it’s been found that hot-air electric hand dryers cause the same, if not more, amount of viral spread than drying with simple paper towels. So not the super-hygienic solution that we were promised.
It’s safe to say that from a hygiene point-of-view, paper towels are superior to electric hand-dryers and should definitely be the preferred option in areas where preventing the spread of pathogens is of paramount importance – such as in hospitals. While new-fangled electric hand-dryers, such as Dyson’s models do lead to less bacterial transfer than traditional hot-air dryers, how do they fare when it comes to spreading a virus like COVID-19? When research emerged in favour of paper towels when it came to keeping our hands squeaky clean and preventing the spread of disease, the electric hand-dryer companies conducted their own study in favour of – surprise, surprise – their own products. However, during these studies subjects moved their hands slowly under the dryer for at least a full minute; an unrealistic amount of time or action for the majority of the hand-washing public – especially when you consider that manufacturers such as Dyson claim that their electric hand dryers can dry your hands as little as 12 seconds. It’s also important to note that during these studies carried out by electric hand-dryer companies, they only looked at the bacteria that was left on the subjects’ hands after drying, ignoring particles that could have been blown onto their clothes and onto surrounding surfaces.
It’s not surprising that the war between paper towel companies and electric hand-dryer behemoths continues, with billions at stake and the fact that no one wants to admit that their products could make people sick – particularly in the wake of a global pandemic. But, despite the scientific research leaning heavily into paper towel territory, there are some undeniable advantages to using electric hand dryers in public spaces that means they probably won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Electric hand dryers are certainly winning the argument when it comes to the issue of creating waste, and they are much cheaper over time, costing around a fifth of what paper towels cost over a one year period.
But can we compare the importance of saving money to the importance of the impact on public health? Not when we’re talking death rates, with pediatric hospital admissions ALONE due to COVID infection still reaching over 18,000 in 2022 – over 8,000 more than in 2021 and a whopping 15,000 more than in 2020 – and the virus still being a leading cause of death in children and young people in the 0-19 year age range in the US.
These frightening statistics prove that, despite relaxed rules and less media headlines, COVID-19 hasn’t gone anywhere and isn’t likely to, making thorough hand-washing something that still needs to be taken very seriously, and is still one of the best ways to remove germs and prevent spreading bacteria to other people. But it does seem that all of that lathering-up and scrubbing is all compromised as soon as you press that button on the electric hand dryer. While drying them is highly preferable to simply leaving your hands to air-dry, electric hand dryers are basically bacterial bombs, blasting spores from the air straight onto your hands – yep, hand dryers really are that ‘germy’. Even if we forget COVID for a second, nasties such as staphylococcus aureus, which can cause a huge range of awful conditions including MRSA, is found three times more often on the surfaces of electric hand dryers than on paper towel dispensers according to professors of microbiology at the university of Leeds, the Mayo Clinic and researchers at Westminster University.
And it’s not just the dryer itself that can be contaminated with all sorts of undesirables. Depending on the type and design of the electric hand dryer in question, along with where is is sited in the room, it could cover not just your hands and clothes in bacteria, but also the sinks, floors and other surfaces, as the most powerful dryers can spread viruses almost five feet across a room – and that’s on top of the pathogens being spread throughout the building through the ventilation system.
Drying your hands with paper towels is now part of the NHS’s current info on how to be more hygienic and contain the spread of coronavirus, and the use of these is routine in almost all health care settings. Rather than spreading germs, paper towels absorb the water and microbes that are left on hands after washing, and when properly disposed of pose much less potential for cross-contamination. The most common types of paper towel dispensers are now ‘touch free’, meaning that only touch a new, clean paper towel every time – and you can’t get much more hygienic than that, and the options now are much more environmentally friendly, with more and more companies offering eco hand towels made from recycled paper and cardboard.
It’s undeniable that drying your hands is a must, but before you stick them straight under that electric hot-air hand dryer, consider whether it’s really the most hygienic way to keep germs and viruses at bay.