Should we ban hand dryers in public toilets?

Written by Science, Science & Tech

It might seem like the most natural and hygienic option when it comes to drying your hands, to use the now widely available hand dryers in public bathrooms. But did you know that all your hard scrubbing of hands to stay clean and germ-free might be undone by using public hand dryers afterwards?

New research has clearly shown that both warm air and jet-air dryers can blast faecal particles and potentially dangerous bacteria around toilets, leaving them to reside on your hands and bathroom surfaces. This comes with new evidence that hospital toilet facilities can pose a greater risk to public health through antibiotic-resistant bacteria occurrence.

Writing in the Journal of Public Health, researchers from the University of Leeds argue that the use of conventional hand dryers increases the risk of cross-contamination substantially, and that official guidance for preventing bacterial contamination in hospitals greatly needs to be improved.

Professor Mark Wilcox, who led the international study, stated that: “When people use a jet-air dryer, the microbes get blown off and spread around the toilet room. In effect, the dryer creates an aerosol that contaminates the toilet room, including the dryer itself and potentially the sinks, floor and other surfaces. If people touch those surfaces, they risk becoming contaminated by bacteria or viruses.”

He also went on to say: “we found multiple examples of greater bacterial contamination on surfaces, including by faecal and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, when jet-air dryers rather than paper towels were in use. Choice of hand drying method affects how likely microbes can spread, and so possibly the risk of infection”.

The study itself investigated whether the way that people dry their hands impacts upon the quantity and types of bacteria found in the toilets across three hospitals. It concluded quite substantially that Staphylococcus aureus, Enterococci and Escherichia coli bacterial counts were found to be significantly higher on the days when the hand dryers were in frequent use, and these bacteria are known to have key roles in disease processes such as septicemia, pneumonia and gastroenteritis.

The likelihood of the highly antibiotic-resistant strains of S. aureus (MRSA) being common in hospital settings only further clarifies the impending risk of bacterial infections through both family and healthcare professional contact with patients.

So how can you keep these beastly bugs at bay the next time you use a public toilet?

Well, you should wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water and still dry your hands, as not drying them after washing can actually encourage more bacteria to survive on your mits.

Additional studies have shown that paper towels remain the bona fide champion of hand drying utensils, with prompt disposal of used tissue into a nearby bin. And for that reason, the use of paper towels as opposed to hand dryers should be made routine practice in all healthcare environments, due to the clear hygienic benefits of their use.

You may also want to avoid using jet-air dryers altogether, with previous studies’ findings indicating that these are likely the worst offenders. Although the chance of picking up an infection in public bathrooms is of little risk, greater attention to detail is necessary for hospital settings where patients with an impaired immune system are conversely at a huge risk.

Therefore, nationwide implementation of paper towels and better education of appropriate hand washing techniques are perhaps the solution to this problem that is only likely to become more prominent and recognised in the coming years.

Now for the next challenge: how do I open the toilet door after drying my hands in the most hygienic way possible? By using paper towels of course!

Last modified: 19th November 2018

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