Like it or not, we all have to use public bathrooms from time to time. Assuming you do the right thing and wash your hands when you do so, you have probably noticed that different public conveniences deploy different methods for drying your hands afterwards.
Some washrooms have hand dryers blasting out warm air. Some offer towels for wiping dry. Break that basic division down even further, and you’ll find various sub-categories of each. In the towel trade, there’s a choice between disposable paper towels (not very environmentally friendly?) and those washable roller cloths which perhaps mercifully have fallen out of fashion somewhat (we’ll get onto hygiene shortly).
For hand dryers, there is even more variety – the traditional push-button or sensor-operated box with and adjustable nozzle for directing the hot jet either downwards or up into your face, the Dyson-pioneered twin-directional jaw-like contraptions which rely on air speed rather than heat, and numerous variations on these themes.
What most people don’t realise is that, behind the scenes, a fierce and rather dirty battle has been raging between the towel suppliers and the hand dryer manufacturers. It’s barely noticeable but for occasional outbreaks in the press – an article on the subject cropped up again recently in a UK national daily. What it boils down to is the two sides trying to gain the moral high ground on hygiene. Or, to put it more bluntly, it’s a big argument over whether hand dryers, towels or both actually spread germs rather than aid the improvement of bathroom hygiene, as they are meant to.
So, what do we believe? Is one method of drying your hands more hygienic than the other?
Digging the dirt
When you dig into the topic, it soon appears that most of the finger pointing is being done in the direction of hand dryers. Typical claims include the idea that air dryers blow germs into the atmosphere, helping them spread, that people tend to touch hand dryers more (even sensor operated ones) making them inevitably dirtier, and that they are slower to dry hands than towels are, which makes them less efficient when it comes to preventing the spread of germs.
But it is always worth wondering what the motivation behind studies like these are, as well as questioning the assumptions behind them, no matter how pseudo-scientific they sound. Why would anyone carry out a comparable study into hand dryer hygiene, anyway? The accusation is that most of these ‘objective’ reports making disparaging claims about hand dryers were funded by the paper towel lobby, worried that technology might finally be about to challenge its status in the washroom.
It is not hard to pick holes in the conclusions, either. If hand dryers are blowing bacteria off people’s hands and into the air, then why are paper towels any better? (We won’t even mention those revolving cloth monstrosities). What happens when you have wiped all those germs off onto a towel? We’ve all seen bathroom floors strewn with paper that has somehow ‘missed’ the bin.
To get a professional’s view, take a look at this hygiene company which specialises in eco-friendly public bathroom services and only offers hand dryers – not a paper towel in sight.
And apart from that, aren’t we missing something even more fundamental – aren’t we talking about a process that happens after people have supposedly washed their hands? If hands are still dirty enough to be spreading germs around a bathroom at the drying stage, surely, we’re looking at the problem from the wrong angle?