Paper Towels Versus Hand Dryers

A predicament of personal preference for removing moisture from hands.

For the 71 percent of Americans that a recent survey from SCA Tissue says actually wash after using the restroom — not just the quick rinse-and-dash, that doesn’t count — a solution is needed for removing moisture from their hands.

Hotels and high-end boutiques don’t much factor into this discussion because they tend to have linens to complete the handwashing process.

However, in other commercial locations like educational institutions, healthcare facilities and government-affiliated, state-owned or municipality-run complexes, staffs and other building occupants know the pros and cons of an age-old issue have been weighed out: Paper towels versus hand dryers.

After visiting handwashing stations or restrooms, their hand drying option — paper towels of various fiber contents, hand dryers in numerous configurations or the option of both — hinges on an important conversation that every individual in a supervisory or managerial level has had or absolutely needs to have with key personnel in the custodial, janitorial or maintenance department.

The predominant pair of problem-solvers presiding over this predicament are paper towels and hand dryers.

Some facilities managers provide their patrons with a choice; they both stock their restrooms with paper towels and have hand dryers installed.

Other decision-makers have taken choice out of the equation, selecting either paper towels or hand dryers as the exclusive drying option in their restrooms.

Price, maintenance and environmental footprint are generally factored into the selection process, as each has an influence on budgets, workloads and sustainability goals.

But, what is often not factored into the equation is what restroom patrons want to use and what frontline professionals want to maintain.

And, given that this is a service business of the utmost competitiveness — budgets are being cut, contracts are being underbid and entire operations are being outsourced to save money, remain competitive and increase profits — customer satisfaction is principal.

“Offering only paper towels or an air dryer in a restroom isn’t patron-friendly,”states Samantha Mehrotra of the Cascades Tissue Group.

Industry research says customers want a hand drying choice, claiming it is important to have paper towels and hand dryers as drying options.

A spokesperson for Kimberly-Clark Professional (KCP) says, “People use paper towels for more than drying their hands; paper towels are used to touch door handles and water faucets, wipe faces and spot clean clothing — tasks that an air dryer simply can’t do.”

Tit For Tat

It can be surmised that providing restroom patrons with a choice is preferred but, if that is not an option in your facility, which drying route do you go?

According to Bill Gagnon, director of marketing and key accounts for Excel Dryer, a quality high-speed hand dryer can eliminate the need for a paper towel dispenser in most cases, cutting waste as well as the expense of stocking and maintaining the dispenser.

“Increasingly, high-speed hand dryers are being specified to handle the bulk of hand drying needs in a restroom,” notes Gagnon. “For example, a facility that may have previously installed three or four paper towel dispensers may choose to install one to help augment the personal care needs of restroom patrons. This option meets the needs of patrons and the facility managers who wish to reduce maintenance, waste and create a cleaner, hands-free environment.”

As convenient as hand dryers are, it is difficult to dismiss research championing the hygienic properties of drying with paper towels.

Mehrotra proclaims, “A study conducted earlier this year in part by Dyson Ltd., makers of the Dyson Airblade hand dryer, conceded that ‘rubbing with paper towels appeared to be the best means of reducing bacterial loading on the fingertips.’”

The findings of the Dyson study are consistent with the results of an earlier research effort spearheaded the University of Westminster in London.

“The Westminster study found that, when participants used paper towels to dry their hands, the number of bacteria was reduced by up to 77 percent whereas air dryers actually increased the number of most bacteria on hands — up to 254 percent more for warm air dryers and 42 percent more for jet air dryers,” continues Mehrotra. Image courtesy of Dyson Ltd.

As one might expect, however, research has been conducted for both camps, and compelling arguments can be made regarding the superiority of either choice of drying apparatus.

Gagnon argues that, because of the dry atmosphere caused by constant heating, bacteria counts are often two to four times lowerinside a hand dryer than on other surfaces in the restroom, such as sinks, doorknobs and soap dispensers.

And, a pertinent study published in the December 2011 edition of the American Journal of Infection Control notes that bacteria was found on unused paper towels, meaning possible contamination can be spread unknowingly by some potential users of paper towels.

In response to a recent Cleaning & Maintenance Management magazine poll, DeEon Phillippi, building maintenance supervisor for Century College, offered the following: “Hand dryers leave less of a mess on the floor. They also reduce other costs such as those associated with removing the refuse from restrooms, the cost of liners and overall waste removal costs.”

Countering Common Points

Countless studies, surveys and research undertakings can be cited and sourced to argue that one hand drying option is superior to another, but the truth is that the method chosen is more of a personal preference than anything.

Some say that paper towels add to deforestation and simply create refuse as an outdated hand drying option.

“Unlike paper towels, hand dryers leave no refuse behind, which can carry bacteria,” points out Gagnon.

To remedy this, many manufacturers now offer their paper towels with various levels of recycled content to show their commitment to source reduction.

Aside from the refuse issue, select paper towels are now being made with antimicrobial treatments that inhibit germ and bacterial replication.

“New innovations in paper manufacturing over the last several years have made it so recycled fiber sources can be produced to be just as soft, fluffy and absorbent as virgin fiber sources,” quips Mehrotra.

Some manufacturers are looking towards third-party validation to prove their environmental commitments and are choosing raw materials from sustainably-harvested forests and incorporating non-tree fibers into their offerings.

“It’s the next step on our sustainability journey — one that reinforces our commitment to ‘Reduce Today, Respect Tomorrow,’” asserts a KCP spokesperson. “Today, alternative fiber products use up to 20 percent fewer trees than conventional products.”

It is said that air dryers simply blow germs and bacteria around the restroom.

To counter this, some makers of hand dryers have fitted their machines with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that remove 99.97 percent of potentially present bacteria and particulates that measure .3 microns or larger from the air.

Responding to a Cleaning & Maintenance Management magazine poll on hand drying, Alan Goytowski, custodial services supervisor for the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, opines, “I’m voting for paper. True, there is debris on the floor and more trees cut down. But, there is not the spray of soiled water against everything near the dryer.”

Others claim that paper towels do not penetrate irregularities in skin, leaving them moist.

Although paper towels are able to dry hands through physical means, scouring away fomites and other particulates, clinical research has shown that the warm air of heated air dryers can “penetrate all the crevices in the skin, whereas absorbent towels may not reach such areas, even though the skin appears dry.”

Hygiene Is The Important Discussion

An estimated 80 percent of infections in the U.S. are transmitted by hand contact.

And, according to the Mayo Clinic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), handwashing is the key to hygiene — regardless of which drying method is chosen.

“As a society, we’re lazy when it comes to hand hygiene,” offers Mehrotra. “Consider that post-H1N1, 54 percent of people aren’t washing their hands often or more effectively than they did before the pandemic started. The beauty of innovation is that it compensates for peoples’ imperfect hand hygiene habits and prevents them from getting sicker.”

This is why, regardless of whether you and your building occupants prefer paper towels or hand dryers, all thoughts, opinions and supporting data needs to be placed on the discussion table.

Only with all of the facts and figures can an informed decision — one that takes into account hygiene, costs, maintenance, sustainability and occupant satisfaction — be made that best meets the drying needs of those in your facility while augmenting your economic and environmental goals.

Posted On November 6, 2012
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