During the COVID-19 pandemic, public spaces have been upgraded in many different ways: hand sanitizer dispensers are everywhere, restaurants provide electronic menus, and face masks are mandatory. But there’s one place in every restaurant, every shopping center, and every hospital that remains a hotbed for germs. That place is the public restroom.
Even though washing your hands as frequently as you can is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of the dangerous virus and many other germs, its effectiveness can be easily undone by the next step - drying your hands. Is it ever a good idea to use air hand dryers in a public restroom, especially considering the global threat of the coronavirus pandemic? Here’s some compelling research.
Air Hand Dryers Have a Bad Reputation
Air hand dryers, or jet air dryers, were increasingly popular in the past decade. Valued for being the more cost-effective and environmentally conscious choice, many businesses and public institutions have installed these devices in restrooms all over the world. But medical researchers have long been skeptical of them.
In 2018, the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology published a study concluding that bacteria and pieces of excrements can become stuck inside air dryers and blown straight onto your freshly washed hands. Furthermore, the study found that bathrooms with working electric dryers had more bacteria spores in the air than those where such dryers weren’t used.
A different study that assessed the spread of pathological bacteria in a hospital environment found similar results. Published in the Journal of Hospital Infection, the study looked at hospital restrooms across the UK and found that jet air dryers introduced 27 times more bacteria into the air than paper towels did.
According to the study, these bacteria continued circulating in the air for 15 minutes after the use of the dryer. The research concluded that air hand dryers are not suitable for a hospital environment. Read more about this research in the article Jet Air Dryers Actually Spread Bacteria.
Air Hand Dryers and Viruses
We know that using high-speed air dryers isn’t a good idea because they spread bacterial spores, but what about viruses? A study published in March of 2021 in the journal Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology tested just that. In the study, the researchers intended to understand if viruses could spread through air hand dryers in a hospital environment. To do so, the researchers applied a harmless virus on either bare or gloved hands.
The research team then asked participants to dry their hands by using either an air dryer or paper towels. The next and final step of the experiment was to trace the spread of the virus around the hospital. Having compared the two hand-drying methods, the study found yet again using a hand dryer resulted in more of the virus spread across the hospital, including the participants’ hands and even clothing.
The study concludes that using paper towels is a much better hand-drying choice than air dryers. It needs to be pointed out that the sample size of the study was rather small (only 4 participants) and the amount of the virus applied on the hands was higher than what you’d usually expect to encounter in a real-life situation. Also, it’s difficult to say if other viruses, such as the novel coronavirus, the flu virus, or even the rhinovirus that causes the cold would behave similarly to the one they tested.
Still, the study shows that we should probably be wary of air dryers as we navigate through our lives in a pandemic. Certainly, using paper towels is a much safer choice overall. So, if you do need to use a public restroom, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and dry them with paper towels, avoiding touching contaminated surfaces like the paper towel dispenser or the doorknob with your hands. It’s a better idea to use your elbow to dispense paper towels and grasp the restroom doorknob using the paper towel instead of your bare hands. Stay safe and take care!
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