The hand dryer was invented by George Clemens in 1948, later improved with a hands-free sensor to turn it on.

English: Push-button hand dryer in the toilet ...

Push-button hand dryer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The jet air dryer was invented by Mitsubishi Electric in 1993.

It seems like an easy decision for owners of places with public restrooms, like restaurants, airports, and roadside stops.

Installing hand dryers, with a modest up-front cost and low maintenance and electric bills, eliminates the cost of refilling paper towel dispensers and emptying trash bins, also keeping restrooms tidy.

For a while, we were told that not only is it cheaper, it is also more hygienic and environmentally friendly.

It turns out, that’s not true.

First, the environment.

Paper is made from a renewable non-polluting resource, wood.

But, you have to cut down a lot of trees to supply the number of paper towels we use.

A 2009 study gave hand dryers better scores on 6 environmental factors and paper towels better on 5.

On cost, hand dryers win. Owners will only switch under pressure from users.

On hygiene, studies are mixed.

Some say hand dryers are as hygienic and some still say they are more hygienic, but according to a 2012 Mayo Clinic literature review, the best evidence says hand dryers are less hygienic.

How Do Paper Towels, Air Drying, Hand Dryers and Jet Dryers Compare?

Although paper and cloth towels were compared in the studies reviewed, they weren’t compared to each other, so until there is a head-to-head competition, paper and cloth appear to be equivalent, relative to the other major methods of drying your hands.

Despite its ongoing costs, paper has several advantages in drying your hands.

Paper removes bacteria better for several reasons:

  • It dries your hands faster (10-15 seconds)
  • The friction of the paper on your skin removes additional bacteria
  • It does not spread bacteria into the air.

By contrast, hand dryers:

  • Take longer to dry your hands (30-45 seconds).
  • Leave more bacteria on your hands than paper towels
  • Spread bacteria about three feet in the air around the dryer, including on the user’s clothes
  • If you rub your hands under the dryer, you spread the bacteria even more.

What about the new jet dryers:

  • Take about the same length of time to dry your hands as paper towels (10-15 seconds)
  • Leave more bacteria on your hands than paper towels
  • Spread bacteria in the air up to six feet around the dryer.

Why not just let your hands air dry:

  • Wet hands increase the growth of bacteria by providing a warm, moist place for them to multiply.

Aside from the cost and tidiness, is there any other reason public restrooms stopped using paper?

It turns out, kids in junior high like to wad up paper towels and clog toilets or wet wads of them and throw them on the ceiling to stick.

Why not just forget the whole thing and not wash your hands at all?

25 to 33% of Americans take this route. They just don’t bother to wash their hands after using the bathroom.

That’s why you see hooks on the back of restroom doors so you can open the door with your forearm instead of your hands, or trashbins by the door so you can use a paper towel to open the door and dispose of it on the way out.

This way, you can avoid touching door handles used by people who did not wash their hands.

Both polio and typhoid fever were spread by people who did not wash their hands after using the toilet.

Other diseases spread through fecal matter:

  • Hepatitis A
  • Hand-foot-and-mouth disease
  • Norovirus
  • Shigellosis
  • Giardiasis

Airborne diseases:

  • Cold
  • Flu
  • Chicken pox
  • Meningitis

The last time my grandson visited, I inspected his hands and sent him back to wash them three times before dinner, then led him to the bathroom for a hand-washing demonstration.

“Make the soap suds up. The suds surround the dirt and help wash it down the drain.”

“Wash both the front and back of your hands and in-between your fingers.”

20 seconds of washing, 10 seconds of drying on a towel.

All done. 

Thanks to pediatricians Dr. Aaron E. Carroll and Dr. Rachel C. Vreeman for busting the hand dryer hygiene myth in their book, Don’t Cross Your Eyes: They’ll Get Stuck That Way! And 75 Other Health Myths Debunked.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers


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