Hand dryers vs paper towel dispensers – which are better? This blog evaluates the pros and cons of each option, and how you can choose the right solution for your business.
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 breed faster on wet hands than on dry?
The options available to dry your hands in a public bathroom are relatively limited: paper towel dispensers or electric hand dryers, with a few places here and there still offering the linen roller towel. Thankfully linen roller towels are becoming far 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 their revolutionary approach to hand drying (incorporating HEPA filters into their dryers) and their 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 dryers. This is despite a number of studies (nearly all funded by paper towel 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.)
Hand dryers vs paper towel dispensers
And so, as the experts in hygiene, we frequently get asked the question “Which is the better choice; paper towel dispensers 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 “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 as 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 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.
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 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 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 towels, 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.
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, both the Initial Luna Dry and the Dyson Airblade V are cold air dryers, with extremely fast drying times (12 seconds) and the fact that they contain a HEPA filter means that air is purified before it blows onto your hands. Both the Luna dry and the Dyson are extremely cost-effective to run – and have a 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.
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.
Both the Luna Dry and the Dyson dryers are manufactured with HEPA filters fitted as standard which removes any pollutants from the air before they blow on your hands. In addition, the Luna Dry is manufactured with a protective antimicrobial cover with a scratch-resistant surface which prevents cross-contamination and reduces illness.
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 pros and cons of each option
- Pros: more often the end-users’ first choice, quicker, removes more bacteria
- Cons: more expensive, less environmentally friendly
- Pros: cheaper to run, better for the environment overall
- Cons: 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.
Want to find out more about paper or hand dryers for your business?
Contact the experts at Initial today and we’ll walk you through the right solutions for your unique requirements. You may also be interested in downloading our latest whitepaper on the importance of hand drying.