Fact Finders: Paper Towels vs. Air Dryers? Researchers look at hand-drying debate

Published: Sep. 8, 2020 at 10:51 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Washing your hands is a critical step in slowing the spread of COVID-19.

But, what about drying them?

A University of Arizona Health Sciences research team reviewed nearly 300 papers and published studies on the hygienic benefits of hand-drying methods compared paper towels to electric warm-air hand dryers.

“This has been a question that’s been debated for a long time. What’s better? Using paper towels or electric hand dryers,” said Kelly A. Reynolds, MSPH, PhD, director of the Environment, Exposure Science and Risk Assessment Center at the UArizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

“Neither one’s better. The most important thing is that you just dry your hands," said Reynolds.

To clarify if a particular hand-drying method is more hygienic, investigators conducted a comprehensive review of studies on hand-drying methods, relative to hygiene and health risks. The project, funded by Excel Dryer Inc., considered published scientific studies and “gray literature” on the topic. Gray literature includes unpublished or published research in non-commercial forms, such as government or academic reports, policy papers, white papers and other evaluations.

Reynolds said the team found incomplete data or a lack of real-world scenarios in the studies.

“When you touch a surface that is contaminated with a germ, a wet hand picks it up more efficiently than a dry hand and if you do have germs on your hands,your wet hand will transfer germs to surface more efficiently,” said Reynolds. “If there’s a COVID-19 particle on a surface and your hands are wet, you’re more likely to pick that virus up than if your hands are dry.”

Whether you prefer paper or power, drying your hands properly is the best way to prevent you from picking up germs or passing them on to others, Reynolds said. But, you will want to stay away from using your clothing as a rag.

“The thing we really don’t want people doing is using their clothing to dry their hands, especially because right around the area where your hands rub against your clothing, on your pants or your hip area, that’s where we actually find the highest concentration of germs on people’s clothes," said Reynolds.

Dr. Reynolds said that the most important thing to focus on in handwashing is technique. That is the most effective way to prevent cross-contamination, whether you use an air dryer or a paper towel.

“The message here is to wash your hands properly, that’s the 20 to 30 seconds, use soap, use water and then dry your hands completely," said Reynolds. “That’s the big takeaway.”

The final research project publication, “Comparison of Electric Hand Dryers and Paper Towels for Hand Hygiene: A Critical Review of the Literature,” evaluates an extensive range of previous research. The study was published in August in the Journal of Applied Microbiology.

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