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Study Finds Public Restroom Hand Dryers May Be Spreading Bacteria: What's The Best Hand-Drying Method?

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A new study finds that hand dryers at public restrooms tend to spread bacteria onto the hands of those who use it. Are paper towels the more hygienic hand-drying option? 

Hand Dryers Transmit Bacteria

A recently published study got the attention of the public as researchers found that the hand dryers in public restrooms actually transmit different kinds of bacteria onto the hands of its users. Evidently, the devices suck the bacteria from the air and spread them onto people's hands.

The results of the study published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology are rather worried, especially that handwashing is an important part of personal and public health. However, this is not the first time that the safety and effectiveness of hand dryers are being questioned.

Hand Dryer vs. Paper Towel Debate

Just last February, a microbiology student's post, which showed a photo of a petri dish that's teeming with fungi and bacteria went viral a few days after being placed into a hand dryer for just three minutes. It sparked the hand dryer-paper towel debate yet again as the public, experts, and even the manufacturer of the hand dryer in question weighed in on the matter.

Hand drying is actually significant after handwashing because bacteria transmission is much easier when the hands are wet, making it an equally important part of the hygienic process. In 2012, researchers sought to end the debate on which is the better hand drying methods. They reviewed and analyzed the data from multiple comprehensive studies that sought to determine the effectiveness and safety of each method.

Researchers found that paper towels and air dryers were equally efficient in drying the hands but the latter took a significantly longer time to achieve the same dryness as paper towels of single-serve cloth towels. However, there is one setback when it comes to paper towel usage: it's more taxing to the environment in terms of waste disposal and sustainability.

With regard to removing bacteria, the studies yielded varying results. Some found that the use of paper towels is the more effective method while the others conclude hot air dryers to be the most effective in bacteria reduction. Some even found no difference between both methods.

However, it is also the matter of hand movements. One research found that using hot air dryers are more effective than paper towels in reducing bacteria if the hands are stationary during the drying process, but less effective and even resulted in bacteria increase if the hands are rubbed.

The Better Option

After reviewing all the data from previous studies, researchers concluded then that paper towels are more effective in removing bacteria. It physically removes and transfers the bacteria from the hands to the paper towel. In contrast, air dryers take a longer time to dry the hands and could even lead to greater number of bacteria.

"Therefore, this makes paper towel drying, during which little air movement is generated, the most hygienic option of hand-drying methods in health care," the researchers concluded.

Hence, what is really the best and safest option when it comes to hand drying? Even experts have differing opinions on the matter. Dr. Amity Roberts, a Thomas Jefferson University Hospital scientist, said after the student's post went viral, it's still better to use air dryers if there are no other options rather than not wash the hands at all. Perhaps it would also be wise to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if one really doubts the effectiveness of either option.

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