A cut and dried debate on hand dryers

18th of October 2023
A cut and dried debate on hand dryers
A cut and dried debate on hand dryers

Claims that hand dryers may be spreading germs around the washroom have been circulating on the internet over the past few years. ECJ asks dryer manufacturers and other advocates to respond to these claims and explain why air dryers are a safe and effective method of hand drying.

The hand towels-versus-dryers debate has been going on for decades. Paper towel manufacturers claim their products are best for hand drying because they are fast, hygienic and efficient.

But air dryer companies make the counter-claim that their own systems reduce washroom waste and minimise the amount of maintenance required by facility managers. And the two sides had more or less reached a stalemate – before the global Covid-19 pandemic, that is.

This led to the entire global population becoming – perhaps justifiably – paranoid about hand hygiene. Experts believed that the virus was mainly spreading via the air, but that surfaces were also being contaminated by the virus. And anyone touching such a surface could then potentially spread Covid to others via their unwashed hands.

Suddenly everyone was washing and sanitising their hands at every opportunity. And hand towels became particularly popular in public washrooms because people began to use them as a barrier between their hands and the washroom fixtures to avoid having to touch the door handle upon exit, for example.

At the same time, negative reports about hand dryers began circulating on the internet. Claims were made that they were potentially blowing germs and viruses around the washroom environment and re-contaminating people’s hands after they had washed them. Headlines such as “TikTok viewers shocked by viral hand drying experiment” and: “Hand dryers are not as hygienic as you might think” became commonplace.

Non-scientific studies

On closer inspection it emerged that some of these web stories related to small-scale, non-scientific studies carried out by TikTok users or by school students working on science projects. However, in February this year a Leeds Institute of Medical Research experiment appeared to back up the claims. Volunteers taking part in the study dried their hands either with a jet air dryer or with paper towels. And they wore face masks as a way of measuring the risk of inhaling viruses.

A total of 89 per cent of the masks worn by people using jet air dryers were found to be contaminated by viruses compared with 29 per cent of masks worn by the paper towel users.
So, how do hand dryer manufacturers counter these accusations? And what are their arguments for using air dryers over hand towels?

According to general manager of the Electric Hand Dryer Association Udo Sonnenberg, the reports that hand dryers spread viruses and bacteria around a washroom are simply not true.

Campaign by competitors

“Even during the pandemic there was no proof that hand dyers would spread bacteria – or even the virus itself,” he said. “And the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both list hand dryers among their supported hand drying solutions.”

He claims there has been an active campaign against the use of hand dryers by competitors. “The advantages for public washrooms are significant: there is less waste plus a lower use of energy compared with producing and distributing paper,” he said.

“There are also cost savings to be made when using a hand dryer. And the latest dryers are equipped with HEPA filters and ionisers to eliminate the effects of viruses and bacteria, while some manufacturers claim their products can dry the hands in eight seconds.”

According to Sonnenberg, reports of contamination by hand dryers persist despite the fact that the worst of the pandemic is over. “The narrative is that hand dryers spread the virus so we need to shut them down,” said Sonnenberg. “And this has led to insecurity from the user’s point of view.”

The negatives stories have had an impact on the hand dryer business, he admits. “However, most customers soon see the potential savings they can make with hand dryers along with the hygiene benefits that HEPA filters or the use of UV can bring,” he said. “And that helps to rebuild confidence.”

He believes hand dryers offer genuine hygiene benefits despite what the detractors may say. “Customers don’t have to come into contact with any touchpoints when they use a hand dryer,” he points out. “There are no used paper towels left to contaminate the washroom after people have dried their hands. And today’s hand-drying technology can help to get rid of bacteria.”

Chief marketing officer at dryer manufacturer JVD Simon Pienne agrees with Sonnenberg that the social media reports focusing on the health and hygiene “dangers” of air dryers are largely false.

“Research studies have consistently shown that the risk of airborne transmission of viruses - including common respiratory infections such as colds and flu - is minimal in washroom environments,” he said. “The primary modes of transmission for such diseases are direct contact with contaminated surfaces or with droplets expelled by coughing or sneezing. Therefore even if some microbes were to become airborne via a hand dryer, the overall risk of infection would remain low.”

Social media reports can amplify and spread information rapidly, according to Pienne. “Sometimes even misinformation can gain traction,” he said. “Reports about hand dryers spreading germs may catch people’s attention and trigger discussions and debates. But it is important to note that public perception and social media discussions do not always align with scientific consensus or accurate information. And scientific research and expert opinion consistently indicates that the risk of airborne transmission of viruses through hand dryers is minimal.”

The proliferation of such reports could be attributed to a number of factors, according to Pienne. “One significant factor has been the heightened awareness and concern surrounding hygiene due to Covid-19,” he said. “During the pandemic there was a strong emphasis on maintaining cleanliness and minimising any potential transmission risks.”

However, the stories about hand dryers spreading germs have had no discernible impact on JVD’s hand dryer business, he says. “We put this down to the trust our customers have in our product and to our commitment to providing a hygienic hand drying solution,” he said.


According to Pienne, hand dryers are hygienic because they eliminate the risk of cross-contamination that can occur with shared paper towel dispensers or textile towels. “When multiple people use the same towel there is a higher chance of transferring bacteria and viruses,” he says. “Hand dryers by design avoid any direct human contact with surfaces and reduce the risk of cross-contamination. They also provide a powerful and consistent airflow that efficiently dries the hands. And it is essential to remove all moisture as damp hands can promote bacterial growth.”

He claims the company’s new SUPAIR Fresh air dryer to be a world first because it neutralises unpleasant smells while drying the hands. The product is aimed at high-traffic washrooms in busy restaurants, bars, stations and airports.

The paper towel-versus-hand-dryer debate will no doubt rage on, with new claims and counter-claims continually being bandied about online. But commentators maintain there are some compelling reasons for choosing hand dryers.

“They are more environmentally-friendly than paper towels because they eliminate the need for paper waste, says Pienne. “They also reduce the risk of waste accumulation and clogging in washroom facilities.”

Hand dryers keep the washroom clean, save money, reduce maintenance and are easy to install, according to Udo Sonnenberg. “They are also good for the climate and for your green conscience,” he adds.


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