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Air dry or paper towel?

Health
Boy drying his hands in a restroom

There are few people that would question the importance of hand-washing.
As numerous studies have shown over the years, hand-washing plays a key role in preventing illness by stopping germs from spreading.
“Hand hygiene is the No. 1 way to prevent the spread of pathogens and micro-organisms,” explains Angela Harris, infection control manager for Tidelands Health. “Proper hand hygiene, whether by washing with soap and water or by using alcohol-based sanitizer, helps you from spreading germs and reduces your own risk of infection.”
In short, hand-washing is essential. But it’s important to remember that proper hand-washing technique extends beyond lathering up and washing away the soap.
Indeed, medical experts say that proper hand-drying is important, too.
From a hygiene perspective, the reasons for hand-drying are quite simple — germs are spread more easily on wet hands.
Digging a little deeper reveals some nuance, however.
As anyone who has entered a public bathroom knows, electric air dryers are a common option for drying hands. But are they a better option than good-old fashioned paper towel? Maybe not.

The science

A 2012 Mayo Clinic study that examined 12 published papers in medical literature found that paper towels were superior to air dryers when it came to hand-drying hygiene.
That superiority, the authors noted, had less to do with the air dryers’ ability to effectively dry hands and more to do with the fact that air dryers can contaminate their environments by circulating germs throughout the room.
As such, the study concluded, “paper towels are recommended in locations where hygiene is paramount, such as hospitals and clinics.”

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A 2018 study by the University of Connecticut reached a similar conclusion. Researchers placed bacteria-collecting plates about a foot from  dryer nozzles. They found that far more bacteria collected on the plates when the air dryers were turned on rather than off, suggesting the air dryers were blowing bacteria onto the plates.
Harris, for her part, concurs with the underlying assessment that using paper towels is more hygienic that air driers.
“Whether in a health care setting or out in the community, I much prefer paper towels,” she says. “Paper is the better option.”
If you are concerned about the impact of paper towel use on the environment, Harris says one option is to reduce the amount of paper towels you use by shaking excess water off your hands and folding the paper towel to increase its absorption capacity.

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