Hand Dryer Hygiene

There has been a recent wave of media interest in the hygiene impact of hand dryers versus single use paper towels (and to a lesser extent cotton towels) in public washrooms. This follows on from some recent research from the University of Leeds (UK), published in the Journal of Hospital Infection, and which was commissioned and paid for by the European Tissue Symposium, an industry body entirely funded by the paper towel manufacturers. This is not the first time that such studies have been commissioned by the paper towel manufacturers over the past 20 years, and in each case they have been followed by media campaigns that consistently draw inaccurate conclusions in search of attractive headlines.

As a responsible designer and manufacture of electric hand dryers for over 40 years, Airdri would like to make its position clear on this subject and dispel some of the myths and speculation surrounding hand dryer hygiene. We have been at the forefront of moving the technology of hand drying forward, to produce more effective, hygienic and environmentally friendly products, and we will continue to do so secure in the knowledge that electric hand drying is the optimal solution for all public washrooms.

The reality is that all the independent studies undertaken over the last 30 years have shown no significant difference in hygiene between paper towel use and hand dryers. It must also be said that all the sponsored studies undertaken have been limited in both scope and ambition, and in the worse cases, have used scientifically questionable methods that seem biased towards a predetermined conclusion. Scientific research must set narrow parameters in controlled conditions so that any results can be fair and logical, and the studies published on hand dryer hygiene have consistently had limited time and sample size and have been undertaken in unrealistic laboratory conditions. Yet, the results of such studies have then been used to apply generalised conclusions to a complex scenario such as a public washroom, where the source and propagation of microbes is far more varied – from the flushing of the toilet to hand contact with the door handle.

The most recent research, as mentioned above, has at least tried to test in the real-world situation of a hospital public washroom, yet still found mixed and confusing results. For example, concentrations of air born bacteria were less when using hand dryers, as was the bacteria found on the sinks. The only significant increase in bacteria, when hand dryers were used, was found on the floor below the hand dryer and on the unit itself, although the report does not specify whether the hand dryers were push button activated and whether the sampling point was the button. The report itself concedes that the variations between washrooms could be attributable to the cleaning regimes at each hospital.

Perhaps the two most important elements that have been missing from all the published studies, as well as the subsequent media articles, are that of perspective and context. Disappointingly, none of the studies published over the last 30 years has shown how the levels of bacteria found would compare to other rooms that we regularly come into contact with such as canteens, offices and classrooms, nor do they tell us if the bacteria levels seen pose any form of increased health risk. Furthermore, they do not get to the heart of the matter, which is widespread poor or non-existent hand washing. Preying upon public fears of infection, and a wider lack of education on the role and abundance of bacteria in our lives is not helpful in moving forward the debate on washroom hygiene, which should be focused on the primary function of hand cleaning.

Ultimately, there can be no debate on the advantages that hand dryers bring to both the operators and users of public washrooms. The reduced running costs, reduced maintenance and improved user experience are well documented and indisputable, as are the environmental savings of reduced carbon emissions, water consumption and use of landfill. This has resulted in the steady rise of hand dryers as the preferred option for all washrooms and it should be no surprise that this has elicited a reaction from the older technology that it replaces.

At Airdri, we welcome any discussion on washroom hygiene and any independent holistic research that looks at all aspects of washroom hygiene and gives legislators, washroom operators and the public a fair and balanced viewpoint. We also welcome the recent formation of the Electric Hand-dryer Association (eHA) which will provide a unified voice or the hand dryer industry, and we urge our distributors and customers to contact us or the eHA if they have any concerns over hand dryer hygiene.