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Paper Towel or Hand Dryer: Which is Better for Public Health?

Ah, the famed hand dryer versus paper towel debate.

There is a general consensus among the scientific community that air dryers are a more environmentally-friendly hand drying method than paper towels for public restrooms. However, when considering hand dryers and paper towels, the topic of public health is relevant. Since 80% of infectious diseases are spread by the hands and wet skin is more likely to transmit bacteria than dry skin, the proper drying of hands after washing is imperative in preventing the transmission of disease.

The often contaminated air in a restroom can be inhaled by or deposited upon the user after recirculation by air dryers, which can lead to the spread of infections beyond its walls. By analyzing particular pathogens existing in a public restroom, a study from the European Tissue Symposium concluded that paper towels reduced the presence of all types of bacteria, while two types of air dryers, hot air dryers and jet air dryers, increased all types and most types of bacteria on the hands respectively.

Friction produced by the use of paper towels also appears to play a major role in removing contamination. A paper published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that bacteria were removed by the “mechanical abrasive action of drying” provided by paper towels.

Interestingly, air dryers also produce noise pollution, which is a potential concern for those who use and clean the facilities. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, workers should not be exposed to more than 85 decibels of noise in an eight hour workday. A study from Noise & Health, an inter-disciplinary International Journal, found that hand dryers can reach up to 91 decibels. It notes that “Prolonged exposure to high levels of occupational noise can cause damage to hair cells in the cochlea, resulting in varying degrees of noise-induced hearing loss.

Although these effects appear to be concerning, their real-world impact on public health is not nearly as substantial. Dr. John Ross, a board-certified specialist in infectious diseases and internal medicine from Harvard Medical School, notes that “the vast majority of microbes detected from the use of air hand dryers do not cause disease in healthy people… direct contact with other people is much more likely as a means of acquiring infection.” In addition, the study published in Noise & Health was unable to demonstrate whether individuals would be exposed to the sounds of air dryers long enough to actually cause hearing loss. Most importantly, global warming, which is accelerated by the use of paper towels, has its own health concerns, including increased occurrences of vector-borne diseases, dehydration, heatstroke, and major organ damage particularly among children, the elderly, and the poor. In the majority of cases, these conditions are far more concerning than a fairly small risk of infection, hearing loss, and irritation of the hands.

So, what can we conclude? Well, hand dryers have their own health implications, but their likelihoods are not as great or urgent as those created by global warming, which is accelerated by the use of paper towels. For these reasons, hand dryers are the better option in terms of health (and in general!) for public restrooms. One instance that is important to note, however, is the case of health care settings. In these facilities, patients, especially the immuno-compromised, are more likely to develop infection from their often weakened bodily defense system, making paper towels the likely better option. As this only affects a select group of people and public restrooms, it can still be said definitively that hand dryers are the superior hand drying method.

Photo: AsapSCIENCE

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Christine is a 17-year-old from Friendship, Maryland. She is passionate about medicine and enjoys writing about health-related topics. In her free time, you can find her on the softball field or listening to podcasts.

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