Paper Towels Better at Removing Virus than Air Dryers After Handwashing, Small Preliminary Study Suggests

Paper towels appear to be better than air dryers at removing germs left behind when people don't wash their hands properly, according to a small preliminary study.

The research carried out at a hospital in the United Kingdom involved four volunteers whose hands were dosed with a bacteriophage, or a virus which infects bacteria but not humans, to simulate contamination. In a hospital public toilet, they dried their hands using paper towels or an air dryer. The participants also wore an apron so scientists could see whether the bug reached their bodies and clothing while they dried off.

After the volunteers finished, researchers swabbed public and patient areas that the participants touched with their hands or apron. These included door handles, a stair handrail, elevator and access panels, chairs, a phone, the apron, and parts of a stethoscope.

The team found both methods "significantly reduced" the contamination of hands after washing. But every surface was contaminated with the bacteriophage after air drying versus six after paper towel use, they said. On average, surfaces were more than 10 times contaminated after dryer use.

The germ was found on aprons and clothing in both scenarios, but only from the body to environmental surfaces after using the air dryer.

The authors concluded: "There are clear differences, according to hand drying method, in the residual microbial contamination of the subject's hands and body.

"Crucially, these differences in contamination translate into significantly greater levels of microbe contamination after JD (jet dryer) vs PT (paper towel) use from hands and body beyond the toilet/washroom."

They added: "As public toilets are used by patients, visitors and staff, the hand drying method chosen has the potential to increase (JD) or reduce (PT) pathogen transmission in hospital settings."

The authors were due to present their research as an abstract at European Congress on Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, meaning it hasn't been peer-reviewed. Scientists present their work in this way to spark debates on a topic.

Donald Schaffner, distinguished professor at Rutgers University and an expert in topics including hand washing who didn't work on the study, told Newsweek: "This study confirms previous research showing that paper towels may assist in the removal of micro-organisms from hands following a handwash, or they may just show that dryer hands spread fewer bacteria."

Asked to outline the potential uses of the research, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Schaffner said: "This research confirms that paper towels may remove microorganisms following a hand wash, and therefore have benefit (greater removal), but the paper towels must be handled appropriately."

A key limitation of the study was that it was not yet fully peer reviewed and only a conference presentation, said Schaffner. It was also unclear if the differences in the germ being transferred to surfaces were due to participants' hands being dryer after using paper towels or if the bacteria were removed by the paper towel.

"The research would have been improved if the authors have investigated paper towels to see if the virus was present," said Schaffner.

On the COVID-19 myth-busters second of its website, the World Health Organization has stressed using hand dryers alone are not effective in killing the new coronavirus.

"To protect yourself against the new coronavirus, you should frequently clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water. Once your hands are cleaned, you should dry them thoroughly by using paper towels or a warm air dryer," the UN agency said.

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Stock image. Scientists have investigated whether paper towels or hand dryers are better at removing a residual germ after hand washing. Getty