Are Hand Dryers Hygienic?
Updated Nov 2022 – 4 min read
The question of whether hand dryers are hygienic?’ has been put under the spotlight since the outbreak of the pandemic. The answer is a resounding YES! Hand dryers are approved for use in public areas by the WHO, CDC and all International governments.
Japanese and German Governments give hand dryers approval
When the pandemic started both the Japanese and German governments instructed a vigorous review of the data on hand dryers and paper towels to be on the side of caution, both have subsequently declared them completely safe for use. Skepticism over their use has largely been due to lobbying and ‘sponsored science’ by the paper towel industry. We explore what the independent experts have said, including Scientists, Academic Institutions, Health bodies and also apply a bit of common sense. The key findings were:
- If you wash your hands thoroughly an effective hand dryer is more hygienic because it is non-touch. Paper towels and dispensers can create cross contamination points.
- If you don’t wash your hands properly then paper towels may be better as they will remove additional microbes through friction.
- Much depends on how well the hands are dried as wet hands pose most risk for microbe transfer. Paper towels are often not used to dry thoroughly enough between fingers, some dryers are not quick enough.
- Good ventilation, mechanical air sterilisation and good hand washing are the most important factors, not the method of hand drying providing drying is thorough.
Leading health institutes and academic institutions back the use of hand dryers
Yale School of Medicine state:
“Since threats like COVID-19 can lead to the circulation of misinformation, it’s important to trust information only from reputable health organizations and government sources such as the CDC and the WHO“
“Dry your hands completely. You can dry them under a warm air dryer, or use a paper towel. Avoid a recently used towel as moisture is a good breeding ground for bacteria, which makes drying your hands an important step.”
In early March 2020, The World Health Organisation put out this message on the subject of hand washing:
“To protect yourself against the new virus, 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 CDC are quoted in this video:
“We have no evidence that hand dryers are spreading the coronavirus”
Independent microbiologist, Dr. David L Webber, has confirmed that the use of hand dryers in the washroom does not contribute to the spread of airborne viruses
This is a great video from Royal Melbourne Hospital on how to protect yourself from COVID-19, saying dry after washing with either a paper towel or a hand dryer.
Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Department of Community, Environment and Policy; Director of the Environment, Exposure Science and Risk Assessment Center (ESRAC) at the University of Arizona’s Zuckerman College of Public Health has been quoted to say:
“Consumers may only read [sensationalized] headlines which can influence public opinion toward biased or erroneous conclusions, [but] the fact is, the breadth of data available does not favor one hand drying method as being more hygienic or safer.”
The quote is based on Reynolds et al (2020) scoping review – Comparison of electric hand dryers and paper towels for hand hygiene: a critical review of the literature
What about the scary hand dryer videos on social media?
Recent videos shown on Tiktok and Facebook showing bacteria and moulds forming after petri dishes are placed under hand dryers and incubated can look quite scary. The reality is that a hand dryer will pass a lot more of the bacteria present in the air into the petri dish than simply waving it in the air, as the volume and force of air is much greater. Many hand dryers with HEPA filters will be actually make that air much cleaner as it passes through the dryer, it is just that far more air is passing. The hand dryer is not creating the bacteria, bacteria is already present in the washroom and the user is breathing it in, it’s just part of life, we don’t live in sanitised bubbles.
Neither does the increased volume of air mean that that bacteria will transfer to the hands, hands are not like petri dishs which are designed to capture samples from air, the skin forms a barrier that means aerosolised bacteria will simply carry on its way, remaining in the air.
The question of ‘how hygienic are hand dryers?’ is a largely commercial one.
Hand dryers have become much more widespread. Spreading disinformation is very much in the interests of the paper industry to help create fear and bolster sales of their own product. If you have time, the long read in the Guardian newspaper ‘Hand dryers vs paper towels: the surprisingly dirty fight for the right to dry your hands’ discusses this in more detail and how a PR outcome comes before establishing the science protocols.
The reality is as long as hands are washed and dried effectively both hand dryers and paper are safe. Hand dryers win massively when it comes to environmental impact, operational efficiency and cost. Creating fear around hand dryers deflects from the issue of how we make public bathrooms safer places, below are the areas designers and building managers should be focused on:
Ways to improve air and surface hygiene in a public washroom
- Good ventilation – ensure that the number of air changes meets regulations
- Add air and surface sterilisation – either into the ventilation system or as a standalone device
- Closing toilet lids are advantageous to stop aerosolisation from flushes.
- Touchless flushes
- Enclosed Toilet roll dispensers where bacteria and viruses can’t settle on the paper
- Use a non-touch hand dryer with HEPA filter or touch free paper towel dispenser
- Use an evapor8 wall guard to absorb and quickly dry excess moisture. Inhibiting bacteria growth.
- If using paper towels make sure you have a touch-free, pedal operated or self-closing bin to prevent open damp towels
- If using paper use a touch-free dispensing system to prevent cross contamination
- Sensor operated taps and soap dispensers
- Handle free doors that can be pushed with elbow or back. Using anti-microbial surfaces on any push plates.
- Signage encouraging good hand hygiene as a good citizen