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May 2019

[UPDATE] Paper Towels vs Hand Dryers: which are better?

Written by Nathalie Leblond
Cleanliness and Hygiene, Handwashing and Hand Hygiene

If you are a regular subscriber to our blog, you’ll know by now that handwashing is one of the subjects we really like to discuss here on Insights. (And if you’re new to our blog, here’s just one of our posts: 5 reasons you should make a habit of handwashing to get you started). But did you know that drying your hands effectively is almost as important as washing them, as bacteria breeds faster on wet hands than on dry?

The options available to dry your hands in a public bathroom are relatively limited: paper towels or hand dryers, with a few places here and there still offering the linen roller towel. Fortunately linen roller towels are becoming less and less common - for both hygiene (damp towels breed bacteria) and laundering (water constraints and expense) reasons .

I recently read a really interesting article in the Guardian online which looked at how the options for hand drying have changed very little in the last 100 or so years. Paper towels date back to 1907, and the first electric hand dryer was patented in 1922, and until Dyson launched its Airblade dryer in 2006, not much innovation had gone into either. Dyson changed that with its revolutionary approach to hand drying, and its futuristic design. In fact, the first Dyson Airblade was considered to be so cutting edge that it was featured as set dressing on the Star Trek reboot in 2009”.

Science has tried - and failed - to come to a consensus about the hygienic superiority of paper vs dyers. This despite a number of studies (nearly all funded by paper companies) that claim that warm air dryers turn bathrooms into a breeding ground for bacteria - blowing germs over any available surface. (Read our blog post on the veracity of some of these studies here.)

And so, as the experts in hygiene, we therefore frequently get asked the question “Which is the better choice; paper or hand dryers?” A simple question, one might think, but like most things in life, the answer is not always clear-cut. My response is therefore always “what do you mean by better? Do you mean which one works better to dry hands? Or which one is more hygienic? Which one is better for the environment or better for the bottom line?“ because each of these things will play an important role in determining what is ultimately the best solution for your organisation.

So here are the four main factors we ask our clients to consider when trying to get to the bottom of the “which is the better choice: paper or dryers” question.  



Paper is available in various formats including tidy fold (individual sheets) or roller towel (perforated), one and two ply, and the paper towel dispensers are rented from a hygiene services company such Initial on a monthly basis. The unit is stocked, and then the consumable (the paper) is charged as an additional cost should the client require more during that month. Paper invariably works out as a more expensive option than hand dryers, simply due to the rising cost of producing paper worldwide.

Hand dryers:

Hand dryers can usually be purchased outright, or rented from a hygiene services company such as Initial.  The rental cost will include a regular service to ensure that the dryer remains clean and functioning as intended. The upfront cost to buy a hand dryer outright might deter some customers, but when compared to the ongoing and steadily increasing cost of paper, this upfront cost is significantly lower.  

2.The Environment


The carbon footprint of any paper product will always be higher than that of a hand dryer, even if it’s recycled paper, simply due to the fact that paper-making is a water and energy intensive process. However, there are some further factors to consider before making a decision either way. There are some mitigating factors for paper that should be considered too. For example, not all paper is equal when it comes to the water and energy usage.

Initial sources our paper from Lopac. Lopac’s 2 ply laminate is made from paper imported from Spain where it has a FSC, PEFC & EU Ecolabel certifications. This means that Lopac uses paper processed from certified sustainable forest management sources and that paper from this supplier does not have a detrimental effect on carbon and water resources in South Africa.

Something else to consider is that washrooms also require a constant source of plastic bin liners to hold used paper towel, and these have to be disposed of along with the paper. As used paper towels are not recyclable, they must either be landfilled or incinerated. The paper towel itself will naturally degrade in landfill, but the plastic bags will take much longer.

Hand Dryers:

As with paper, not all dryers are created equal, and it’s important to know a little bit about how they are produced and their power requirements, before making a decision. For example, the Dyson Airblade V is a cold air dryer with 1 000 w motor. It’s fast drying time of 12 seconds and the fact that it uses cold air and a HEPA filter mean that it is the most hygienic of electric dryers.

It also uses the least amount of electricity - making it extremely cost effective to run - and this combined with Dyson’s manufacturing process means that the Dyson V has the lowest carbon footprint of all dryers, and drastically lower than paper.


A 2012 hygienic efficacy study of different hand drying methods, led by researchers at Queensland University in Brisbane, Australia put the “paper vs dryers: which is more hygienic”  question to the test.  


The study revealed, "from a hygiene viewpoint, paper towels are superior to electronic air dryers" and "drying hands thoroughly with single-use, disposable paper towels is the preferred method of hand drying."  It concluded by recommending, "The provision of paper towels should be considered as a means of improving hand hygiene adherence." In fact, with just 10 seconds of drying with a single serve towel, the residual water on the hands was reduced to just 4% and dropped to just 1% with 15 seconds of drying.  The bottom line, paper towels can generally achieve 90% or more dryness with normal use.

Hand Dryers:

Air dryers were slower and required up to 45 seconds to reduce the residual water to 3%.  Hot air dryers were the least effective method of removing bacteria from washed hands. However, rather than warm air dryers “growing” bacteria as is often suggested, the reason that paper is more effective at removing contamination is that friction caused by the physical wiping of hands with a paper towel is actually the key component in removing contamination.

4.User experience

User experience is the last - and probably least scientific - of our criteria for consideration. That’s not to say that it isn’t important. Some people have very clear preferences, and no amount of research or scientific studies will change their minds.  

Most people - no matter how good/fast/quiet the hand dryer - don’t feel that a hand dryer is as efficient as using paper. Users may have hygiene concerns with warm air dryers. By and large, people still prefer to dry their hands on paper. Paper is perceived as more hygienic, and more effective.

In short; the pro’s and con’s of each option


  • Pro’s:  more often the end-user’s first choice, quicker, removes more bacteria
  • Cons: more expensive, less environmentally friendly


  • Pro’s: cheaper to run, better for the environment overall
  • Con’s: may be slow, noisy, and perceived as “unhygienic”

I hope I’ve given you some food for thought when considering these two alternatives for your washroom. Any reputable hygiene provider should be able to give you the same level of detail for their products to make sure you are making a fully informed decision; one that weighs up the costs and benefits of each option.

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Nathalie Leblond

Nathalie Leblond

I joined Rentokil Initial South Africa in 2004 as the PA to the MD, and after 6 months maternity leave I re-joined the Company in 2009 as the Marketing Co-ordinator for Rentokil. I'm now the Marketing Communication Manager for Rentokil Initial. I'm still terrified of cockroaches (Americana's only!) but the rest of the creepy crawlies we deal with don't really bug me (see what I did there?), so I guess I'm in the right industry! I am passionate about what we do here at Rentokil Initial and also write for our Hygiene Blog, which can be found at blog.initial.co.za, and our Ambius blog - https://www.ambius.co.za/blog. Life outside of Rentokil Initial mostly revolves around my daughter, who has just turned twelve, and my husband (who is a bit older). I love living in Cape Town and wouldn't trade living here for anywhere else in the world.

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