This or That: Paper Towels vs. Electric Hand Dryers

Your hands are dripping wet, but what’s the healthy, ecofriendly way to dry them?

May 5, 2009

Are paper towels a better choice than hot-air hand dryers?

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Do swine flu worries or allergy-driven sneezes have you washing your hands more often than usual? That’s probably a good thing, since washing your hands frequently is a very effective way to prevent the spread of germs. But then you have to dry them off, and if you’re in a public restroom, that may leave wondering about the best option: paper towels or electric hot-air dryer?


This: Electric Hand Dryer

Pros: They’re efficient and they’re sanitary—and the newer models, at least, are fast. Old hand dryers required as much as 45 seconds to dry your hands (a hard sell compared to paper towels that wipe away water in a few seconds). But newer, hyperefficient dryers blast your hands dry in as little as 8 to 10 seconds. As for keeping your hands germ-free, a 2000 study from the Mayo Clinic found no difference between air dryers and paper towels at removing bacteria from wet hands.

Cons: Although new models have drastically cut down on electricity use, standard hand dryers use as much as 2,200 watts of power, making them a big drain on energy resources.

That: Paper Towels

Pros: They’re fast, they’re efficient, you don’t have to stand in one place, and they provide a convenient barrier between you and germy surfaces like faucet and door handles.

Cons: Unless the operator of your public restroom has a particularly strong environmental conscience, chances are the paper towels are made from virgin paper fibers and not recycled content. It takes a very large amount of energy to turn that raw fiber into paper, and if the towels are bleached, the process also involves polluting the environment. Plus, towels are messy, in many cases winding up on the floor and not in a trash bin, leading to unsanitary conditions.

This or That?

This. Go with the electric hand dryer. With both methods equally effective at ridding your clean hands of stray germs, the argument hinges on their environmental footprints. When you compare the entire lifecycle of an electric dryer with that of paper towels—including the environmental impact of producing the raw materials, the costs to supply refills, and the end-of-life disposal issues—electric hand dryers come out ahead. Franklin Associates, an independent company that conducts these analyses, usually at the request of a product’s manufacturer, did a study on towels and hand dryers, and found that paper towels can require three times as much energy as an electric hand dryer. Electric dryers also cost less in the long run, because you don’t have the cost of towel refills and they last, on average, 10 years. Refilling paper towel dispensers over and over adds up to $23 per 1,000 uses, versus $1.47 for an electric dryer, according to their analysis.

So favor electric hand dryers when they’re available. When they’re not, here are a few ways to be greener—and more sanitary—with your hand-washing:

• Go au natural. Perhaps the greenest choice of all is to let air do the work and allow water to evaporate from your hands without any outside assistance. The Mayo Clinic study found that this approach was just as sanitary as using paper towels or hand dryers. No electricity used, no trash added to the landfills.

• Use only one paper towel. The Franklin Associates study found that one reason for the high energy expenditures of paper towels was that people use two towels at a time, adding to the environmental burden as well as the long-term costs. So at least try drying off with one towel before you reach for another.

• Carry a tissue or handkerchief to open dirty doors. Worried about touching a potentially germy bathroom door handle on your way out? Get extra use out of that paper towel by using it to open the door. Or carry extra tissues (they don’t contain as much paper as a towel) or a cloth handkerchief that you can toss in the wash when you get home.

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