The Great Debate: Paper Towels vs. Hand Dryers

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You know what irritates me? Automatic dryers as the only option to dry my hands. It never fails, you can be 5,000 miles from home, and upon leaving the restroom, you run into someone you know and feel obligated to shake their hand. The look on their face shows they’re seriously wondering why your fingers are wet. I’m also tired of drying my hands on my pant legs, how about you? I always enjoy stopping at some of our country’s largest restaurant chains and seeing practically everyone in line with wet hand prints on their clothes.

Just who is thinking about us?

It’s been a debate for years—what is more effective against the spread of germs and more environmentally friendly, paper towels or the use of hand dryers? Quite the question, and one that is certain to carry some emotional ties as well. Fact is, most people just don’t like dryers.  There are those out there that feel that using paper is wasteful in many ways, and those that would not use a dryer because they feel they are ineffective. Which is right, and why? Let’s look at this in detail…

Paper Towels – Old School, but Tried and True

Long the industry standard, the first commercial paper towels were produced in the early 1900’s and have continued to be developed into a variety of types, sizes, and dispensing options. People are so familiar with them that we literally have them at every kitchen sink in America. What is different is our desire in a commercial setting, where we only want to dry our hands quickly and not to mop up the mess the dog made of the ham sandwich she stole off the counter. Paper is very effective at doing both, taking only seconds to accomplish the task and doing so with aplomb.

Paper towel manufacturers have been pretty inventive over the years, developing materials that suck up moisture quickly with fewer plies of paper, even adding anti-bacterial properties. An additional benefit is that the physical action of drying your hands with paper removes residual dirt, oils, and bacterial contamination that may remain on the skin otherwise. Gosh, the old methods work best every time they’re tried.

Hand Dryers – Are They Really Better for the Environment?

The typical hand dryer that has been used for years is a pokey-volume blower that directed warm air onto your hands to encourage evaporation of the water on the surface. The problem is that you have to stand there for 42 years to get fully dry. These traditional dryers have recently been supplanted by higher-volume jet dryers designed to strip water from the surface of the skin and more rapidly dry the hands. So, if we follow CDC guidelines on how to effectively dry our hands, we stand there for half to a full minute consuming electricity that continues to escalate in cost.

While it makes for great marketing copy, in reality many people do not find that the jet air dryers are much more effective, and generally do not like the obtuse amount of noise or the fact that many require you to place your hands into the device. Yuck—who knows if the last 9 guys even thought about using soap? My eyes are immediately drawn to that baby-changing station 10 feet away. At the end of the day, most users find that there is still a significant amount of water on the hands even when using the latest technology dryers, so they’re standing in that same line with wet pants just like before.

Contamination Issues – They’re Real

Water left on the skin is the most likely vector of contamination that can occur from hand contact with surfaces. The likelihood of disease being spread is significantly increased whenever there is moisture present, since bacteria thrive in wet environments. Those dryers that you stick your hands into gather water in the bottom of the machine, and bacteria can easily multiply in those areas.

An in-depth study  by Redway and Fawdar of the University of Westminster shows that bacteria can be aerosolized throughout the room by the jet air dryer’s powerful engine, likely borrowed from an F-15 attack fighter. This study notes that the bacterial counts on the bottoms of jet air dryers are higher than those found on the average toilet seat. Disgusting.

Redway and Fawdar conclude that since paper towels provide a much more thorough removal of water and contaminants from the hands, they are more accepted and superior alternative for controlling the spread of germs and maintaining a healthy environment for workers and clients. And we sure do appreciate that, since nobody likes to be sick.

Those flinty-eyed accountants will tell you that you are saving money by not using paper towels. Fine and you won’t have my business, either—whether I’m a patron, tenant, or a patient. You are telling me in the same breath you really don’t care about my health and well-being.

Which do you prefer, paper towels or hand dryers? Share your thoughts below.

Find Out More


A comparative study of different hand drying methods: paper towel, warm air dryer, jet air dryer., November 2008, Keith Redway & Shameem Fawdar, School of Biosciences, University of Westminster.

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Jim Smith

Executive Vice President at HP Products Corporation
Jim Smith is a resident expert for HP Products, a distributor of facility maintenance products throughout the Midwest. Jim has more than 25 years of experience in sales and marketing, supply chain management, leadership staff development, business acquisitions and mergers, forecasting/analysis and strategic planning.