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Why Paper Towels Are Better Than Air Drying In Public Restrooms.

Posted Dec 04 2012 10:00pm

Posted on | December 4, 2012 |

While you wouldn’t know it from the weather on the Eastern seaboard, it’s flu season. The CDC sounded the alert this week that the season has started early.(1) The main three strands are pretty severe, they say, and the flu vaccine is effective against the main culprits. Beyond getting a vaccine, most Americans think prevention. So do I. That’s why I was surprised by recent studies suggesting that using air dryer blowers in public restrooms was less hygienic than towels.(2) How is that possible?

Turns out, this issue has been closely examined by infectious disease experts and epidemiologists at the Mayo clinic. Why towels? Well most of the answer is behavioral. Turns out that people quietly subvert the hand blowers for two reasons. First, they don’t like the noise. Too loud. Second, they don’t like the wait. Too long to dry. So if that’s the only choice they tend to cut short the drying and finish up by patting their hands on their non-sterile clothes. Alternately, they may skip hand washing completely. Other issues: over-drying. People don’t like dry skin. And the blowers may promote germ splatter some say.(2) In fact, studies show that blowers speed bacteria in a 6 foot arc.(3)

Counter-arguments anyone? How about the environmental benefit. Sorry. Blowers use more energy than is required to create and transport paper towel. Now add to this that paper towels have multi-use. You’re in a public restroom. You go to the sink, dispense soap, and start the faucet. Problem. Those handles are chronically infested. But a thorough wash and rinse brings you back to clean. You grab a paper towel, dry to comfort, and then toss the paper. No says the epidemiologists. Skip that last step for a moment. Use the towel to turn off the faucet if it’s not automatic. And then use it again to open the door of the restroom. (Most of these open in, requiring grabbing a dirty handle.) You are now outside and free to toss the towel in the first rubbish container.

Sounds a bit compulsive? Yes. But really just a mild adjustment of behaviors which make pretty good sense. And after all. It is flu season.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee.


1. CDC Press Breifing: US Influenza – December 4, 2012.

2. Huang C, Ma, W, Stack S. The Hygienic Efficacy of Different Hand-Drying Methods: A Review of the Evidence  Mayo Clinic Proceedings . August 2012(Vol. 87, Issue 8,Pages 791-798)

3. Mitcheel H. Burning Question: Air Blowers or Paper Towels. Wall Street Journal. December 3, 2012.

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