Are Hand Dryers or Paper Towels the Better Restroom Solution?

By Jon Dommisse, director of strategy and corporate development for Bradley Corp.  

When it comes to specifying products for restroom retrofits or new construction, one selection that can be especially puzzling is the best approach for drying hands.

Depending on who you listen to, some believe hand dryers spew germs all around public restrooms. Others believe paper towels are a waste of trees and cause unnecessary and costly restroom maintenance.

From TV shows like Dr. Oz and The Doctors to social media posts and news articles, the facts and myths of hand drying can get easily confused, misinterpreted – and, yes, blown out of proportion.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, some facilities are opting to substitute hand dryers with paper towels. However, research conducted by Bradley Corp. in June 2020 shows that 75% of architects surveyed believe their clients will continue to specify hand dryers in their commercial restrooms.

So which is the better hand drying solution? The short answer is both.

Both technologies effectively complete a healthy hand washing experience. Both help solve key hygiene issues in restrooms, both provide a key final step in the hand washing process, and the efficacy of both are supported by public health authorities, including CDC and WHO.

Well-washed hands are clean hands

First and foremost, attaining clean hands simply comes down to proper hand washing – no matter if a paper towel or hand dryer is used.

The most effective hand hygiene regimen always starts with thorough washing using soap and water for a full 20 seconds, as recommended by the CDC. Using soap is key because it helps to dislodge dirt and germs from hands. The water rinses soap and germs down the drain. 

If someone engages in proper hand washing techniques for 20 seconds before drying hands, contaminants are already removed from skin, and therefore, leftover germs on hands are negligible. Therefore, both hand dryers and paper towels are useful tools for drying hands, particularly if sufficient time is taken to thoroughly dry them.

Hand dryers do not spread germs

Evaluating the hygienic qualities of paper towels vs. hand dryers has been an ongoing debate in the washroom industry. Some people and organizations have cited studies claiming that hand dryers spread germs. The fact is that global health authorities agree there is no evidence hand dryers spread microbes, such as the coronavirus. Health organizations such as Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization agree there is no factual evidence for such claims. Again, the most important factor is washing and drying hands completely.

"There is no evidence that hand dryers pose a concern for spreading viruses, like the one that causes COVID-19, in restrooms. When it comes to limiting the spread of germs in restrooms, the more important issues are proper hand washing, regular cleaning and sanitization, and modern HVAC systems to improve air circulation.”

  • Medical microbiologist Michael P. McCann, Ph.D., professor of biology, Saint Joseph's University, Pennsylvania

It is important to be aware of who sponsors each study, as the organization likely has a vested interest in the findings of the research and the results may be biased.

Studies about hand dryers emitting germs involve artificial test conditions, which can be skewed. In these tests, bacteria are placed on a glove and set underneath a hand dryer’s moving airstream. To be sure, any type of air causes particle movement, which makes it hard to know exactly what is causing germs to circulate. Particles can move from an HVAC or ventilation system, a neglected dirty restroom environment or even our own breath.

Noise issues with some hand dryers

The noise of some hand dryer motors can be loud, posing a drawback for some restrooms. 

Adjustable speed hand dryers are designed with multiple speeds to give facility managers the option of turning up for fast drying in settings such as sports centers, schools or theme parks, or turning down for quiet operation in places like hospitality, museums and libraries.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that workers keep their noise exposure below 85 decibels for an 8-hour shift. But at 100 decibels, NIOSH recommends less than 15 minutes exposure per day.

Drying speed and convenience

To be sure, personal preferences come into play for hand drying. Preferences are often driven by drying speed and ease of drying. Many people want to dry their hands quickly and completely – and come away feeling like their hands are fully dry. Some believe they can better accomplish drying their hands with the tactile motion of using a paper towel. Others may prefer the convenience of using warm air hand dryers, which typically dry hands in 15-20 seconds. 

Cost considerations

While paper towel dispensers may be less expensive upfront and easier to install, they have ongoing costs and maintenance. For example, paper towels require continuously repurchasing paper towels, regular restocking, frequent trash bin emptying, and cleaning up dropped paper towels from floors and countertops, etc.

Hand dryers are particularly cost-efficient compared with paper towel dispensers. According to a study by the University of Buffalo, energy-efficient hand dryers can cost $28 or less per year to run. In comparison, the average annual cost of purchasing paper towels is $900 – and that number doesn’t include labor for stocking, refilling and emptying waste bins.

In the case of a building open year-round, in which 300 people work and use the restroom twice per day, the hand dryer savings can really add up. All-in-one hand drying models, for example, cost about $0.80 per 1000 users compared to $2,000 per 1,000 users for paper towels. (Paper towels cost about a penny a piece and most people use two towels to dry.) In this example, the total savings would be $2,880 per year. Certainly, costs and savings will vary depending on the amount of restroom traffic.

Using paper towels as an extra layer between hands and surfaces

Even before COVID-19, people were very concerned about coming into contact with germs in restrooms. Bradley’s Healthy Hand Washing Survey showed that 65% of Americans use paper toweling to avoid contact with restroom doors and faucets. While the public tries to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, it may be a good consideration to offer paper towels to restroom users, even if hand dryers are installed. Keeping paper towels -- and waste containers -- near doorways can be helpful so people can throw them away upon exiting.

There are a number of additional pros and cons of hand dryers and paper towels besides the ones listed above. In all, it’s evident that both technologies are effective, useful and have merit. There are a number of factors to consider when it comes to drying your hands: traffic/usage patterns, cost, environmental impact, cleanliness, maintenance and noise. Assessing each facility’s needs and priorities will help determine the best solution for the restroom.

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Hand Drying
Are Hand Dryers or Paper Towels the Better Restroom Solution?
Hand dryers do not spread coronavirus, according to health experts like CDC.
  \"First and foremost, attaining clean hands simply comes down to proper hand washing – no matter if a paper towel or hand dryer is used.\"

\"Both technologies effectively complete a healthy hand washing experience. Both help solve key hygiene issues in restrooms, both provide a key final step in the hand washing process, and the efficacy of both are supported by public health authorities, including CDC and WHO.\"  
Hand drying
Are Hand Dryers or Paper Towels the Better Restroom Solution?
Both paper towel dispensers and hand dryers are good options for drying hands.

Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2021, Bradley has created the most advanced, coordinated commercial washrooms and comprehensive emergency safety solutions that make public environments hygienic and safe. Dedicated to innovating healthy handwashing technologies, Bradley is the industry's leading source for the most sanitary multi-function touchless handwashing and drying fixtures. Washroom accessories, partitions, solid plastic lockers, as well as emergency safety fixtures and electric tankless heaters for industrial applications round out its product offerings. Headquartered in Menomonee Falls, Wis., USA, Bradley serves commercial, institutional and industrial building markets worldwide. www.bradleycorp.com.

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