What method of hand-drying is better for the environment? Is it hand dryers or paper towels?
Both methods have their pros and cons. However, choosing the best hand-drying method depends on several factors, including environmental impact, hygiene, and costs.
Read on as we compare hand dryers and paper towels to help you choose the most effective hand-drying method, whether installing a commercial washroom or choosing from towels or hot air when out and about.
Hand dryers or air dryers are electric devices most commonly found in washrooms in places like restaurants and public areas. However, you can also install them in the home.
They are used to dry hands and come in different varieties, including standard warm air dryers, hot air dryers, and jet dryer models. Most hand dryers operate with a button or an automatic infrared sensor. George Clemens invented the standard warm air dryer in 1948.
On the other hand, paper towels are soft, absorbent materials made of paper. Manufacturers make paper towels with virgin materials from trees or recycled materials.
Single-use paper towels are typically associated with paper waste and are considered to be not sustainable. Typically, you can’t recycle used paper towels but can compost them to reduce waste.
One important factor to consider when comparing hand dryers and paper towels is their environmental impact. Which of them is better for the environment?
Let's start with paper towels. While paper towels from recycled materials have a lower environmental footprint than those made from virgin materials, you cannot recycle these paper towels again. This means that most paper towels end up in the bin.
According to the EPA, paper and paper towels contributed 7.58 billion pounds of MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) in 20184. But, unlike warm and jet air dryers, paper towels do not consume electricity at the point of use. The environmental impact is further improved when this electricity comes from renewable energy sources.
Looking at air dryers, modern jet air dryers have a faster drying process. These dryers use air power to evaporate the water from wet skin, generally using only a small amount of energy.
Students researched the social, economic, and environmental impact of a paper towel and the Dyson Airblade hand dryer. The research found that hand dryers produce 42% less carbon dioxide than paper towel dispensers.
Generally, low-energy jet dryers, electric hand dryers, and other options have a lower carbon footprint than paper towels.
Here are some commercial hand-air dryers you can shop for:
Made of stainless steel, this hand air dryer is corrosion-proof and can withstand everyday wear and tear. It comes with a sleek design to give your bathroom that modern look. You can easily install it yourself, saving you the cost of an electrician.
Its HEPA filter helps to remove dust from your moist bathroom and is easy to remove and clean. It dries your hand in just a few seconds and has a minimal noise level.
This powerful air dryer comes in a stainless steel coating for protection against wear and tear. You can also dry your hands faster, using lower energy consumption. You can easily install this dryer in three simple steps.
These dryers are perfect for home or commercial use in washrooms, restaurants, hotels, and malls.
You can maintain good hand hygiene thanks to this hand air dryer. With a fast drying time of around 7-12 seconds, you can lower power consumption and reduce your carbon footprint. After 60 seconds of use, the air dryer will go off automatically. It also comes with a safe heater on and off switch for easy use.
You can install this dryer within a few minutes and plug it in directly with a power cord within a few minutes.
Related: For other hand-washing essentials, you’ll find our guides to zero-waste hand soap and eco-friendly hand sanitizers an excellent next stop to reduce waste in the bathroom.
Another significant factor to consider when choosing between a paper towel and a hand dryer is the cost. What method of hand drying is more cost-effective?
Unlike paper towels, hand dryers only come with a one-time upfront cost and require little electricity with each use. On average, paper towels cost two to three times more than warm jet dryers and twenty times as much as a cool jet air dryer in a month in a heavy-use environment such as a public washroom.
Hand dryers do require some maintenance in the long run, which can incur additional costs.
So when choosing between both, you want to consider your usage level.
From a hand hygiene viewpoint, air dryers seem to be a more hygienic way of drying hands. However, several studies by the paper towel industry reveal the exact opposite.
According to a study by the University of Westminster titled ‘European Tissue Symposium (ETS): A comparative study of three different hand drying methods: paper towel, warm air dryer, jet air dryer,’ jet air dryers can increase germs on your fingertips by 42% while warm air dryers can increase bacteria and germs by 194%1.
Also, the study revealed that air dryer surfaces have contamination levels 75 times more than the average toilet seat. Moreover, air dryers can blow water droplets containing bacteria as far as six and a half feet around a public washroom, which can cause cross-contamination.
On the other hand, paper towels dry hands effectively and much faster than air dryers, resulting in low bacterial transfer. The World Health Organization (WHO) also recommends paper towels for health workers to remove bacteria effectively.
According to a 2012 systematic review, paper towels dry hands faster and remove more bacteria than air dryers3. The review found little agreement concerning the relative effectiveness of electric air dryers. However, most studies suggest that paper towels dry hands efficiently and cause less contamination of the washroom environment.
Another study revealed that jet air dryers and warm air dryers increased bacterial aerosolization when drying the user's hands. The study suggests that air dryers are unsuitable for healthcare settings as they can aid microbial cross-contamination through airborne dissemination to bathroom visitors and the environment2.
Also, most people fear touching the bathroom door handle when leaving a dirty public bathroom. In this case, paper towels are a more practical option for hand drying.
If you've ever tried to dry your hands after washing them and realized there were no paper towels, you know how frustrating it can be. Paper cloth dispensers can prove onerous to refill and maintain. However, you can find towel dispensers with a larger towel capacity.
But if you're looking for a hand-drying method that's easy to maintain, you may want to consider an air dryer. Hand air dryers function with electricity and do not require any refills. However, with dryers, you still have germs and bacteria to worry about.
As mentioned earlier, hand dryers and paper towels have various pros and cons. Many studies suggest that paper towels are more hygienic and effective for drying hands. But why are they more hygienic? Let's look at a few benefits of hand dryers over paper towels:
We can all agree that one downside to air drying is its time. Getting completely dry hands could take more than a few seconds or even a minute.
On the other hand, using a paper towel reduces the drying process to only a few seconds. If we compare both hand-drying methods, air dryers are more time-consuming. After washing, most people won't wait so long to get their hands dry. This means they leave the bathroom with wet hands, which may still contain some bacteria.
People want to shorten the hand washing process in a public bathroom and leave.
If there is a long line for using the hand dryer, many people will simply leave the bathroom with wet hands, increasing the spread of bacteria. On the other hand, getting a paper towel from the dispenser only takes a few seconds, making it easy to dry your hands on the way out.
As we looked at earlier, cross-contamination is common with air dryers. Residual bacteria on the user's hands can easily be disseminated throughout the bathroom. On the other hand, paper towels keep the bacteria confined to the towel we dispose of on the way out.
While you can only use hand air dryers to dry hands, paper towels are more versatile. You can use paper towels to dry your hands and face. You can also use them to clean up spills on your clothes or surfaces.
Whereas each single-use paper hand towel results in waste, choosing eco-friendly options made from sustainable materials that biodegrade or compost is always better for the environment. A good example is these undyed towels made from 100% recycled paper suitable for commercial washrooms where you might also find or consider installing an air dryer (on Amazon):
Whereas there is some concern over keeping them clean, reusable towels are the best option for home use and the environment where installing an air dryer might not fit your bathroom's budget or needs.
When you choose towels you can use more than once, and we prevent the waste paper from piling up in the bin and ending up in a landfill unnecessarily. However, we don’t recommend these options for shared use in a public washroom.
Check out our guides to bamboo bath towels and the best reusable paper towels for sustainable options. And for the other primary paper use in the bathroom, opt for eco-friendly toilet paper.
Now the question is - which hand-drying option should you choose? Well, there's no right or wrong answer. When selecting the best drying option, it is essential to consider your priorities.
If your primary goal is to reduce your carbon footprint, an air dryer may be the best way. Paper towels are the better option for hospitals and clinics where hygiene is the goal. You can also decide to use both hand dryers and paper towels.
Whatever option you choose, it is essential to start by washing hands with soap to reduce bacteria and germs before drying them.
Keith Redway & Shameem Fawdar (2008, November) European Tissue Symposium (ETS): A comparative study of three different hand drying methods: paper towel, warm air dryer, and jet air dryer. UNIVERSITY of WESTMINSTER
Best EL, Parnell P, Wilcox MH. Microbiological comparison of hand-drying methods: the potential for contamination of the environment, user, and bystander. J Hosp Infect. 2014 Dec;88(4):199-206.
Huang C, Ma W, Stack S. The hygienic efficacy of different hand-drying methods: a review of the evidence. Mayo Clin Proc. 2012 Aug;87(8):791-8. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2012.02.019. Epub 2012 May 31. PMID: 22656243; PMCID: PMC3538484.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2018). Advancing Sustainable Materials Management
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.