Which is healthiest: hand dryers or paper towels?

While many debate air dryers are more eco-friendly, research has shown that paper towels are actually more sanitary to use. (Photo Illustration by Lauren Nagle | The Collegian)

Washing your hands is a simple step to preventing germs that most people learn at a young age. Despite its simplicity, proper hand washing can actually save lives.

Mary Mallon, a cook who will forever be remembered as Typhoid Mary, became famous for simply not washing her hands.

“A famously grimy person, Typhoid Mary spread typhoid fever throughout 1930s New York, infecting at least 51 people and killing three,” Christopher Herren, a K-State biology instructor who specializes in bacteriology, said. “The cause? She carried typhoid bacteria inside of her body and did not wash her hands before she handled food as a professional cook. Yuck!”

If you do not want to become the next Typhoid Mary, simply wash your hands. That’s not where the process ends, though. According to a June 2012 Mayo Clinic Proceedings clinical journal, “because the transmission of bacteria is more likely to occur from wet skin than from dry skin, the proper drying of hands after washing should be an essential component of hand hygiene procedures.”

Due to their benefits to the environment, hot-air hand dryers are replacing paper towel dispensers and are being found in more places on and off campus. While dryers may be better for the environment, three K-State science instructors and the Mayo Clinic Proceedings argue that paper towels are more efficient for removing germs and are therefore better for your health.

“It seems that paper towels are better for removing bacteria from hands and preventing bacteria from being dispersed through the air in water droplets,” Michael Kanost, distinguished professor in biochemistry and molecular biophysics, said.

Herren added that paper towels are better for drying hands than hot-air hand dryers.

“Paper towels dry, really dry, our hands a lot faster than hot-air dryers,” Herren said. “Plus, the friction of the paper towel on our skin helps remove any leftover microbes from our hands.”

Herren said hot-air dryers take up to four times longer to dry hands, and they do not produce any friction. Additionally, hand dryers may cause cross-contamination.

“There are concerns that that the hot air being blown all over our now-sanitized hands is contaminated with the same microbes we just washed off with soapy water,” Herren said. “Hot-air dryers don’t vent in fresh air from outside of the bathroom to blow on our hands. They recycle the same air that just floated over that toilet.”

The Mayo Clinic Proceedings supports Herren’s position. In its article, the journal reviewed 41 years of publications that compare hand dryers and paper towels. The article states: “This review found little agreement regarding the relative effectiveness of electric air dryers. However, most studies have found that paper towels can dry hands efficiently, remove bacteria effectively, and cause less contamination of the washroom environment.”

Govindsamy Vediyappan, research assistant professor in biology, specializes in pathogenic microbiology. He said electric hand dryers can disperse bacteria and other microorganisms, like mold spores. Paper towels don’t, but have a cost to the environment. Vediyappan said that this could be managed, however.

“The paper towels come with cost: more trees to cut and leaving more carbon footprint; however, with recycling options, we can reduce these impacts,” Vediyappan said.

Herren said hands should be washed, but solely washing your hands after using the restroom isn’t enough.

“At a minimum, wash your hands before handling food, after handling any raw meat, before a visit to the bathroom and after a visit to the bathroom,” Herren said. “Before I go to the bathroom? Yes, cross-contamination goes both ways. Ever wonder where bladder infections come from? Dirty hands.”

According to Herren, there are three steps to washing your hands: washing, drying and exiting the bathroom. You should wash using soap and warm water.

“Soap is the most important part to this whole hand cleaning process,” Herren said. “Only rinsing your hands without soap does more harm than good. Wet, germy hands spread bacteria and viruses more than dry hands.”

Antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers have the potential to dry and crack your skin, which could lead to more infections, so plain soap is the best to use, Herren said. The next step, drying, only takes one paper towel.

“But if you can’t get your mitts on one paper towel, then use the second-rate hot-air dryer,” Herren said. “It’s better than not drying, vis-à-vis the wet hands spreading germs. The trick that most budding Typhoid Marys don’t do, and the main reason hot-air dryers come in second place, is time. You’ve got to spend, like, 45 grueling seconds under that hot jet stream to get your metacarpi dry enough to be, well, dry, and not wet or damp.”

The last task to hand washing is leaving the restroom without getting germs on your hands. If you can, use your foot to open the door since your shoes are already dirty. If the door opens inward, use the paper towel you used to dry your hands to open the door, but make sure to discard it immediately.

Not only washing your hands, but washing properly is paramount, which is why students should be aware of how they are not only washing, but drying their hands.

“From a hygiene standpoint, paper towels are superior to air dryers; therefore, paper towels should be recommended for use in locations in which hygiene is paramount,” the Mayo Clinic Proceedings said.

Morgan Bell
Hello! I'm Morgan Bell, a senior at K-State majoring in journalism. I'm currently a copy editor and writer for The Collegian.