Coronavirus: Should I dry my hands with paper towels or hand dryers?

Updated 15/05/2020

Before we start talking about hand drying methods, it’s important to reiterate that the single most important part of hand hygiene is how you wash your hands and making sure you are washing them thoroughly. In the current climate we find ourselves in, hygiene, and specifically hand hygiene, has never been more imperative.

Washing your hands

You should wash your hands for around 20 seconds, the amount of time it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice through. The NHS have listed the following process as the correct way to wash your hands:

  1. Wet your hands.
  2. Squeeze or rub enough soap into your hands.
  3. Rub your hands together.
  4. Use one hand to rub the back of the other hand and clean in between the fingers. Do the same with the other hand.
  5. Rub your hands together and clean in between the fingers.
  6. Rub the back of your fingers against your palms.
  7. Rub your thumb using your other hand. Do the same with the other thumb.
  8. Rub the tips of your fingers on the palm of your other hand. Do the same with other hand.
  9. Rinse your hands with water.

What about drying my hands?

What do the reputable world authorities and government departments in public health and disease prevention state about hand drying?

The World Health Organisation:

"To protect yourself against the new coronavirus, you should frequently clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water. Once your hands are cleaned, you should dry them thoroughly by using paper towels or a warm air dryer."

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

"...the best way to dry hands remains unclear because few studies about hand drying exist, and the results of these studies conflict. Additionally, most of these studies compare overall concentrations of microbes, not just disease-causing germs, on hands following different hand-drying methods. It has not been shown that removing microbes from hands is linked to better health. Nonetheless, studies suggest that using a clean towel or air drying hands are best"

Also see the below video from the CDC

As of the 11th May 2020, the UK government has put out guidelines for a number of types of facilities to be “Covid-19 Secure” so that people can start to return to work in safe environments. Section 5 “Cleaning the workplace” specifically the “Hygiene: handwashing, sanitation facilities and toilets” part, states that “To help everyone keep good hygiene through the working day…Steps that will usually be needed:… Providing hand drying facilities – either paper towels or electrical driers.”

At the time of this update the guidance is for Construction and other outdoor work, Factories, plants and warehouses, Labs and research facilities, Other people's homes, Restaurants offering takeaway or delivery, Shops and branches and Vehicles.

When it comes to hand drying methods, the most important thing to remember is that they are simply dry. No matter what method you use. Wet hands can transfer germs more easily than dry ones, (it's reported up to 1000 times more easily), so we need to make sure our hands are properly dry after washing them.

We have a blog post with a guide on how to dry your hands properly here.

In the meantime, we can look at the pros and cons of each drying method – paper towels and hand dryers.

But there have been a number of articles recently that have stated that paper towels are what we absolutely need to use in the face of coronavirus. And to avoid hand dryers. Claims against hand dryers are mostly based on the idea that the hand dryer blows bacteria and germs around the bathroom, and then subsequently back onto us.

The science?

We’ve previously discussed at length the science around hygiene and drying methods, so please go have a read for a more in depth analysis.

But the reality is that these studies that have been undertaken over the last 30 years or so haven’t shown any significant difference in hygiene between the use of paper towels and hand dryers.

Independent microbiologist, Dr. David L Webber, has confirmed that the use of hand dryers in the washroom does not contribute to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The CDC are quoted in the below video:

"We have no evidence that hand dryers are spreading the coronavirus" - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

And if you look a bit closer, you will find that some of these studies have been sponsored or funded by the paper towel industry itself with the sole aim of driving the public away from hand dryers. These studies tend to be limited in scope, and some have even used questionable methodology that seems geared towards a predetermined conclusion.

None of the published studies really show the levels of bacteria in other rooms and areas that the public also regularly come into contact with, and how this compares to bathrooms/washrooms. Or how much bacteria are harboured on our phones and laptops. And they also don’t really state the levels of bacteria and germs that would start to pose a real health risk.

So, what are the pros and cons of each drying method?

Paper towels

Pros:

  • They are used in hospitals and clinical settings, due to being mobile and silent, so they are a hygienic form of hand drying.
  • They can be used to wipe down toilet seats, to turn on/off taps, and to open door handles.

Cons:

Hand dryers

Pros:

  • They are largely sensor operated now so are mostly no-touch zones.
  • A hand dryer doesn’t run the risk of running out, like paper towels do. So no increased likelihood of people leaving with wet hands or drying on their clothing.
  • Modern hand dryers now include things such as HEPA filters and antibacterial resin in their materials, which helps to combat the bacteria and germs in the vicinity.
  • They can be more effective at drying hard to reach places like under finger nails and between fingers.

Cons:

  • An ineffective dryer runs the risk of being too slow and people not drying their hands properly as they are too impatient. Make sure you have an appropriate and effective hand dryer for the age group using the product.
  • They can disperse water, its a good idea to shake your hands properly over the sink before use. There are techniques that can reduce this and some units are very good at capturing the water and eliminating any spray pattern. 

SUMMARY

  • Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly.
  • It’s vital that your hands are dry after washing them as wet hands transfer germs more easily.
  • The science behind some of the studies conducted comparing the hygiene levels of paper towels and hand dryers need to be properly questioned and analysed.
  • But either drying method should be used to make sure hands are completely dry to reduce the risk of transmission of the coronavirus. THE KEY IS GOOD HAND WASHING AND THOROUGH DRYING.
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