Is it safe to have hand dryers turned on, what is the latest advice?

Have you been given inaccurate guidance for your school or workplace regarding COVID-19?

This key information will help you provide essential hand hygiene to reduce the spread of COVID-19, whilst saving substantial amounts of money and increase your sustainability.

Are you being led down the wrong path regarding drying your hands with paper towels or hand dryers, at work or in schools, during the COVID-19 pandemic? Particularly as scientific evidence, UK Government and reputable health organisation advice is that both methods are a recommended safe way of hand drying.

Damp hands are 1,000 times more likely to pick up bacteria than dry hands and to leave the hands wet is a threat to hygiene, not the method used to dry. Covid-19 is of course a virus, different in structure to bacteria. Most bacteria are harmless but some are not, you certainly want to minimise the chance of picking them up on the hands. Most viruses do cause disease and the advice around preventing virus transmission is, including from sources such as the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding Covid-19, to make sure you are practicing complete hand hygiene, including all the steps of thorough washing AND drying.

Here’s the most up-to-date official advice in a nutshell;

Based on the available scientific evidence and advice from reputable, global health organisations and UK Government, the correct and key message for proper and effective hand hygiene is:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly for 20 – 30 seconds
  • Always make sure there is a method available to dry hands
  • Make sure hands are completely dry, including between the fingers and under the nails, before leaving the washroom, using EITHER paper towels or hand dryers
  • Do not use your clothes or multi-use towels as they are known to be high-risk cross contamination points.

  • There’s a significant amount of misinformation in the public domain regarding hand dryers and paper towels. Is your hygiene supplier recommending you use paper towels over hand dryers? The reason is more likely revenue, not hygiene, related. 

The correct health organisation and UK government advice

Yale School of Medicine:

“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 (WHO) put out this message on the subject of hand washing:

“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.”

Yale School of Medicine quote the scientific evidence page of hand washing and drying from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention):

“The CDC recommends the following preventive actions:

Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Dry them thoroughly with an air dryer or clean towel. If soap isn’t available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.”

The CDC also state:

“Should I dry my hands using a paper towel or an air dryer? There is currently not enough scientific evidence to determine if using a clean towel or an air hand dryer to dry your hands is more effective at reducing germs on your hands. Both are effective ways to dry your hands. Germs spread more easily when hands are wet, so make sure to dry your hands completely, whatever method you use.”

The UK Government in its Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) information (updated 6th – 10th January 2021), aimed at a vast range of business sectors from hairdressers, sports and massage therapists, restaurants and offices, to labs, research facilities and more, regarding how to make your workplace COVID-secure states:

“5.3 Hygiene: handwashing, sanitation facilities and toilets. To help everyone keep good hygiene through the working day, steps that will usually be needed include “providing hand drying facilities – paper towels, continuous roller towels or electrical dryers.” – Performing arts uses section 6.3 Hygiene – handwashing, sanitation facilities and staff or visitor toilets

The heritage centres and hotels section has slightly different wording:

“To enable good hand hygiene consider making hand sanitiser available on entry to toilets where safe and practical, and ensure suitable hand-washing facilities including running water and liquid soap and suitable options for drying (either paper towels or hand dryers) are available.”

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in their page titled “Cleaning, hygiene and handwashing to make your workplace COVID-secure” Section 4 “Bathrooms, toilets and washbasins” state in order to protect people you need to:

“Provide hand drying facilities – paper towels or hand dryers”. It also states to “empty bins frequently to safely dispose of waste. Where possible have open-topped bin or foot operated lids”.

Of course, the more paper towels used, the greater the waste that has to be safely disposed of and the more frequently this has to be done.

As for schoolsearly years & child care providers and further education, the UK Government’s guidance (as of 22nd February 2021), in the “system of controls” section, headed “Prevention” states:

“Everyone must wash their hands thoroughly for 20 seconds with soap and running water or use hand sanitiser after any contact with someone who is unwell. The area around the person with symptoms must be cleaned with normal household bleach after they have left to reduce the risk of passing the infection on to other people. See the COVID-19: cleaning of non-healthcare settings guidance.”

In the “COVID-19: cleaning of non-healthcare settings guidance” the “bathroom” section states:

“Clean frequently touched surfaces regularly. Ensure suitable hand washing facilities are available including running water, liquid soap and paper towels or hand driers. Where cloth towels are used, these should be for individual use and laundered in accordance with washing instructions.”

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

Where does all the misinformation come from?

Rumours are circulated off the back of PR-funded ‘science’ from the extremely lucrative, yet highly unsustainable paper towel industry. 

This unnecessarily leads to adoption of environmentally damaging, single-use products (paper towels), placing a huge economic burden on schools and work places, whilst damaging their sustainability targets.

Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D. at the University of Arizona’s Zuckerman College of Public Health has been quoted as saying: “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 favour one hand drying method as being more hygienic or safer.”

Reynolds, et al (2020) examined 293 pieces of data on the topic of hand hygiene ranging from published studies, news reports and online content. They then devised criteria to examine the studies and narrow their focus to credible, peer-reviewed or scientific studies. 23 studies met said criteria and were examined by considering such factors as sample size, methodology, data quality and whether or not the study was set up to mimic a real-world scenario.

From the study:

“Many of the findings were overgeneralized and included unsubstantiated claims, internet rumours and inaccurate information reported as fact… One of the concerns with the grey literature reviewed in our study is the potential bias in the reporting. Some of the top-ranking articles in our Google search were white papers authored or sponsored by paper companies. Additionally, media reports frequently used sensationalized headlines. While such headlines may increase traffic, they sometimes overgeneralize or exaggerate study results. Consumers may only read headlines which can influence public opinion towards biased or erroneous conclusions (Ecker et al. 2014). Ecker et al. also found that readers are more likely to recall details of the article relative to expectations set by inferences in the headline and not by what the article actually says.”

The abstract concludes:

“Results were mixed among and within studies and many lacked consistent design or statistical analysis. The breadth of data does not favour one method as being more hygienic. However, some authors extended generalizable recommendations without sufficient scientific evidence. The use of tools in quantitative microbial risk assessment is suggested to evaluate health exposure potentials and risks relative to hand-drying methods. We found no data to support any human health claims associated with hand drying methods. Inconclusive and conflicting results represent data gaps preventing the advancement of hand- drying policy or practice recommendations.”

Video: Expert Insights: What is the safest way to dry your hands? – University of Arizona Health Sciences

Although we are not saying paper towels are harmful, it’s interesting to note what isn’t widely publicised such as hundreds of thousands of bacteria are actually located on an unused paper towel, with the bacteria capable of transferring to wet hands when being used. Paper towels made from recycled fibers harbored between 100- to 1,000-fold more bacteria than the virgin wood pulp brand.

Also, germ transfer is rife when paper towels get stuck in the dispenser and bacteria can be transferred from the zig zag of hands to paper-towel dispensers and back again. It means you have to touch the inside of the dispenser and the next lot of paper towels as you fight with them to get one or two out.

We know that moist areas are an ideal area for bacteria to grow and Taylor et al. (2000) state “paper towels would be deposited in bins and therefore, could potentially act as a bacteriological reservoir if disposal was not managed correctly.” In other words, a bacteria breeding ground in the washroom.

That’s a lot of staff wasted time making sure dispensers are filled up and bins emptied.

Other things to consider when looking at the research regarding hand dryers is that the amounts of bacteria found were so significantly less than everyday items, such as those found in the office we come into regular contact with. Millions of bacteria per square inch are found on everyday items. In research aimed at hand dryers there are usually 10’s – 100’s found.

To put this in perspective, research by EMLab P&K, highlighted by CBT Nuggets found that there are:

  • 4,620,000 bacteria units per square inch on an ID badge
  • 3,543,000 bacteria units per square inch on an office keyboard
  • 1,600,082 bacteria units per square inch on a mobile phone

Out of this, 42% were bacteria that cause strep and staph infections and 21% was bacteria resistant to antibiotics, whose group include MRSA.

The environmental impact of incorrect advice and guidance

Did you know? One ton of virgin paper towels consumes 17 trees, uses 20,000 gallons and pollutes 7,000 gallons of water, produces more than 3 tons of CO2 emissions, and requires 40 cubic feet of landfill space? Not very good for the environment!

Hand dryer benefits:

  • Touch free
  • Never run out
  • Massive cost reductions (95% + savings against constant purchasing of paper towels)
  • Better for the environment

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