Health experts often tout hand washing as the best thing you can do to avoid colds, flu, and other infections. However, there may be something even more crucial to prevent getting sick: hand drying.
“How you dry your hands is as important as how you wash them,” says Philip Tierno Jr., professor of microbiology and pathology at New York University School of Medicine and author of The Secret Life of Germs
In fact, drying your hands incorrectly can nix the benefits of washing, he says. Also, wet hands spread germs more than dry hands, so proper and thorough drying is key.
Drying options in public and workplace bathrooms typically include paper towels and/or electric air dryers. The question is, which will most effectively get rid of the germs on your hands?
A 2012 study in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings
looked at 12 studies about hand-drying methods and their ability to remove bacteria.
The study authors concluded that paper towels are more hygienic than electric dryers and remove more bacteria.
One of the studies found more germs remained on hands after hot air and jet drying than paper towel drying.
The main reason is likely that paper towels create friction and this helps physically remove bacteria.
In fact, some experts believe this friction removes more microbes than actual washing.
One issue with electric dryers is that the nozzles can become contaminated.
“They can become a problem because people stick their hands in the dryers or on the rim,” says Dr. Tierno. “This leaves potentially harmful bacteria, which can contaminate you if you touch the dryer. Plus, these public dryers are rarely cleaned.”
The dryers that use high heat to dry can encourage bacteria to multiply. And even if your hands don’t touch the dryer, these devices can blow bacteria in the air toward you and other surfaces in the bathroom.
Paper towels caused “less contamination of the washroom environment,” say study authors.
Research also revealed that paper towels do the job more quickly than air dryers.
According to the studies, paper towels dry 96 percent of the moisture on hands in just 10 seconds, and 99 percent in just 15 seconds. However, hand blowers take 45 seconds to dry thoroughly.
And what about those old-fashioned cotton roller-towels that are less common these days? They were also found to be less effective than paper towels, although better than air dryers.
The bottom line: Paper towels can be found in 85 percent of the 30 million public bathrooms in the U.S. and is your best, germ-free bet.
But be sure to use the right technique.
“When you press the button on the paper towel dispenser after washing you can contaminate your hands with germs from other people,” explains Dr. Tierno.
Instead, press the button on the dispenser before washing your hands so the paper towel is hanging there and ready when you’re done sudsing up. After drying hands, use that towel to turn off the faucet and open the bathroom door.
“Then toss it in a receptacle outside the bathroom,” says Dr. Tierno.
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