Update before we start: I drafted this article a month ago, before Hurricane Michael. Since then, my brother, Shaun, is out of his primary employment due to the storm, and he is also trying to help his neighbors. You can buy our whimsical tee shirt today and support both Shaun and the American Red Cross.
I don’t know what to do after I pee. Okay, it’s not that bad, but I have long been nagged by questions about how to save the world in small steps with my bathroom hygiene routine.
Today, I’m going to address the biggest dilemma that’s been on my mind: hand dryer or paper towels? Every time I use a public restroom, and I see the environmental claims on a hand dryer, I wonder if that’s true or just marketing hyperbole. If I’m actually presented a choice between the paper towel dispensor and dryer, I go into temporary paralysis that is often broken by using whichever one is closer.
I set out to finally put this mentally to rest. As it turns out, I’m far from the only one that has had this choice on their mind. There is a great volume already out there, and I went down the rabbit hole reading up on the subject. For me, the main concerns were environmental impact (and also noise pollution, but much less so). After scanning some initial search results, I added “hygiene / fecal matter” to my list of dimensions that I needed to consider. After all, I’m not making the world a better place if I spread intestinal sicknesses.
These articles were very helpful in providing an overview of the issues and supporting data.
I decided to do some back of the envelope checking on my own, and I found some figures for CO2 emissions and electricity generation in the United States at the website for the Energy Information Administration. I worked out that a hand dryer session emits about 0.025 pounds of CO2 on the high side (a nice 45 seconds to get good and dry, with an older style 2200 Watt dryer). These numbers are in the ballpark, but on the lower end of the numbers mentioned in those articles. I imagine that might be in part to an increased use of renewable energy in the US power grid over the last 10 years (so less CO2 per KiloWatt hour).
I also found a report from Massachussets Institute of Technology that directly compared various hand drying methods for environmental impact.
The takeaway on environmental impact — hand dryers win, especially the newer ones.
What about hygiene? My brother mentioned something about “fecal matter,” when I brought up the subject, and I also found a lot of noise about possible dispersion of virus and bacteria by the blowing air.
However, the NIH looked at the bacterial dispertion back in 1987 and found no cause for concern. The Mayo clinic looked at efficacy of different drying methods in 2000 and also found no difference (you can also just let your hands air dry, apparently).
A 2014 study found that the hand dryers, especially the newer jet ones, can disperse more virus from poorly washed hands, but I try to do a thorough job with the actual washing phase, so this didn’t worry me too much.
A 2018 study, though, found that using hot air hand dryers can deposit more bacteria onto the hands (presumably by focusing the bacteria in the air onto your hands). For that, I’m giving the hygiene point to paper towels, but I’m still not going to lose sleep over using the hand dryer.
Finally, besides hygiene, I’m concerned about the noise level. The dryers, especially the newer ones, have always bothered me some with their loudness, but it was my son that really brought this concern more to the forefront for me. When he was younger (and his ears were right at dryer level), he would cry and say that it hurt his ears. For many years, I covered his ears so that he could use the hand dryer.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends noise levels no higher than 85dB over 8 hours, with the exposure time cut in half for every 3dB increase. Hand dryer noise is approximately 82 dBA to 100 dBA, with the higher speed dryers tending to be noisier, especially with the hands in the airstream (which is fairly important for actually drying your hands!). At 100dB, that means it would be an occupational health hazard to be exposed more than 15 minutes a day. So, a minute here or there in public restrooms is probably not killing our hearing, but it’s still annoying.
A few other things to consider here: some newer models are reported by the manufacturers to have much quieter noise levels. Also, the levels mentioned earlier focus on adult users and measuring noise at shoulder height. I’d imagine that the sound might be a lot louder if your shoulder height is down closer to the nozzle and airflow.
Overall, I give the noise point to paper towels, and I’ll continue to cover my kids’ ears if they ask me, too. Despite the slight points to paper towels on hygiene and noise, I feel like the environmental concern is the greater for me, and I would probably still tilt towards the hand dryer.
And that is where I was going to leave it until my brother brought up two other viable options: air dry and “Dry ‘Em on Your Pants” (or shirt). Both save all the energy use and carbon emissions and ought to pose less yuck factor (unless your pants are just nasty). After giving air dry a few attempts and either feeling foolish (see my technique below, and you’ll understand why) or being left with unsuitably wet hands, I’ve decided that I shall henceforth Dry ‘Em on My Pants to save the world.
How about you? Which factor tips the scales for you? Does having this knowledge help you dry your hands with newfound clarity, or has it only given rise to new dilemmas? Will you join me in a hand drying on pants revolution?