Hand Dryers versus Paper Towels

hand dryer
CC Flickr photo courtesy of sabotrax.

Hand dryers versus paper towels. What’s more environmentally friendly?

It’s a question that you have probably asked yourself in a public restroom of some sort.

I was curious too, so I decided to do a little research and see what the pros and cons of each option are. Here’s what I found.

Slate.com covered the issue in detail, back in 2008.

Their conclusion is that hand dryers win in almost every scenario:

The bottom line is that hand dryers will be the greener choice in about 95 percent of circumstances. If the choice is between using a tiny corner of recycled towel versus a 2,400-watt dryer, then the Lantern can see how the towel will win. But dryers get the nod in most other scenarios, particularly if the dryer is rated at less than 1,600 watts.

Treehugger.com looks at some of the same original data, and comes to a similar conclusion.

This also provides more evidence that one of the biggest keys to more sustainable products is greener and cleaner electricity sources. Additionally, the study notes that the use of paper towels has double the global warming burden of the hand dryer. I will probably keep drip drying my hands or wiping them on my pants, but in the event that I have to choose between paper towels or a hand dryer (based on this report at least) I’ll pick the blowier, greener choice of the hand dryer.

But there’s also the hygiene, cleanliness and health angle of paper towels versus hand dryers. And in this contest, it appears that paper towels come out ahead, at least compared to the Dyson Air Blade.

Paper towels were found to reduce the number of all types of bacteria on the fingerpads by up to 76% and on the palms by up to 77%. By comparison, the Dyson Airblade increased the numbers of most types of bacteria on the fingerpads by 42% and on the palms by 15%. However, after washing and drying hands under the warm air dryer, the total number of bacteria increased by 194% on the fingerpads and on the palms by 254%.

But that’s not an accurate assessment, according to the About.com Infectious Diseases curator.

After coming home, I looked up medical research papers on the use of hand dryers vs. paper towels and found that the vast majority of research has shown that there is no difference between using paper towels and warm air dryers in terms of removing bacteria!

A Mayo Clinic study supports the About.com guy, saying that hand dryers are clean. Although to be fair, that other study was only talking about the Dyson Airblade and not commercial hand dryers in general.

The difference was determined between the amounts of bacteria on hands artificially contaminated with the bacterium Micrococcus luteus before washing with a nonantibacterial soap and after drying by 4 different methods (cloth towels accessed by a rotary dispenser, paper towels from a stack on the hand-washing sink, warm forced air from a mechanical hand-activated dryer, and spontaneous room air evaporation). The results were analyzed using a nonparametric analysis (the Friedman test). By this method, changes in bacterial colony-forming unit values for each drying method were ranked for each subject.

RESULTS: The results for 99 subjects were evaluable. No statistically significant differences were noted in the numbers of colony-forming units for each drying method (P = .72).

So whether it is energy savings and eco friendliness, keeping trash out of the landfill, keeping bathroom trash cans emptier and keeping your hands clean, it appears that hand dryers are the clear winner. Hand dryers are green.