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Dry before you die!25th of November 2010
A report of the Dutch cleaning research organisation VSR on the best method for hand drying is summarised by scientific journalist Anton Duisterwinkel.
Both the internet and many trade magazines are littered with articles on hand drying, advocating either paper towels, cotton roll towels or warm air dryers as the most hygienic or most sustainable method. On close inspection, these articles often appear to be sponsored by the paper industry, textile industry or suppliers of hand dryers, respectively. Dutch cleaning research organisation VSR, aiming at professionalising the cleaning industry, searched to provide an independent and objective opinion. Using scientific, non-sponsored research only.
The first and major conclusion of that research is that proper hand drying is very important for health. Hand drying with towels - either paper or cotton - removes a very substantial number of micro-organisms, even from washed hands. Also, on dry hand, bacteria and fungi cannot replicate. More importantly, dry hands stay cleaner and transfer less bacteria to surfaces and hands of others.
The effect of proper hand drying can be great. It is estimated half of common colds and flu attacks can be prevented by proper hand washing and drying. Hand washing and drying also can prevent hospital acquired infections, and consequently substantial cost and suffering - and even deaths. For the Netherlands, with 17 million inhabitants, the yearly damage of insufficient hand hygiene amounts to hundreds of millions of euros and a dozen deaths. Dry before you die!
Despite these facts, hand washing discipline is lacking even in hospitals. Only 20 to 60 per cent of hospital staff clean their hand after contacting patients, often only very briefly and not sufficiently. And 10 to 25 per cent of those who use the toilet at a petrol station don’t bother to dry their hands after hand washing. Partly because no satisfactory hand drying method is available.
VSR concluded that paper towels provide the best hygiene. Soft paper removes the most micro-organisms, quickly provides complete hand drying, is hygienic itself and doesn’t spread any bacteria. Cotton roll towels are second best, the major difference being that loose paper towels can be used to close taps and open doors, so that the complete hand drying sequence is hygienic. Traditional warm air dryers seldom completely dry the hands and do spread bacteria. Modern jet air dryers may be better than this, but no independent scientific data is available.
When using paper towels, it is important that the paper dispenser is filled in the correct way - with soft paper towels - can be used without touching and that sufficient capacity is provided for used paper.
A drawback of paper towels is that a great deal of energy is used in making and transporting them. The potentially large carbon footprint of paper towels can be reduced by using fully recycled paper only, using low weight towels, and ensuring that the paper is made using renewable power like solar, wind or tidal energy. It helps to buy the paper locally and to ensure that the used paper towels are burnt in an installation that generates electricity. In this way, one can have both clean hands and a clean conscience.