Paper towels 'more effective than hand dryers' in fighting infection

Leading European microbiologists find high-power hand dryers could be increasing the risk of infections spreading

Leading European microbiologists have shed doubt on the impact of high-tech hand driers to fight the spread of infection in hospitals, claiming instead that traditional paper towels may prove more effective.

Six experts working in hospitals and universities in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Sweden and the UK have signed an eight-point consensus statement entitled Hand drying: an important part of hand hygiene.

It highlights the importance of hand drying following thorough handwashing and notes that air drying blows water containing microbes off the hands which can contaminate others in the washroom environment.

From the results we have examined it appears there may be a greater risk of exposure to microbes associated with some types of hand driers

“From the results we have examined it appears there may be a greater risk of exposure to microbes associated with some types of hand driers,” said Marc Van Ranst, professor in virology and chairman of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Leuven in Belgium.

“There was an increased level of microbial contamination on and beneath air driers, particularly jet air driers. These findings have implications for the prevention of spread of microbes and infections that should be explored further by the medical community and beyond.”

Signatories to the consensus statement examined a wide selection of scientific literature and also the studies sponsored by the European Tissue Symposium, in particular those undertaken by Eurofins-Inlab in Germany and the University of Westminster in the UK.

Hand hygiene is recognised as the most important standard measure to prevent cross contamination or transmission of nosocomial hospital acquired infections.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends the use of paper towels in its poster on handwashing. The consensus statement is expected to prompt further research and steer policy guidance, not only in healthcare settings, but also in other workplaces and in the washrooms of high-traffic public venues such as sports stadia, schools and airports.

These findings have implications for the prevention of spread of microbes and infections that should be explored further by the medical community and beyond

“Paper tissue absorbs water and micro-organisms," said Roberto Berardi, chairman of the European Tissue Symposium.

"It is crucial that hospitals and all healthcare facilitates adopt a method of hand drying that minimises the risk of recontaminating the hands and blowing microbes onto yourself, others or surfaces around you.

“This scientific consensus statement is an important step in supporting our efforts to promote paper towels as the most-hygienic hand drying solution in clinical settings and beyond.”

The statement makes the following eight observations:

  • The importance of handwashing to prevent the spread of infection is widely accepted by scientists. However, hand drying has received much less attention
  • Some microbes remain on the hands after washing and these are more easily spread around if hands are not dried adequately
  • Proper hand drying completes the handwashing process by reducing the risk of transmission of microbes
  • Generally-available hand drying methods in public washrooms are based on either water absorption (single-use paper and textile towels) or water dispersed by several ways (warm air dryers and high-velocity air dryers)
  • There is evidence that hand drying using towels is associated with lower numbers of microbes both on the hands and in the washroom environment than using warm air dryers of high-velocity air dryers
  • Warm air dryers are less efficient than others methods at drying the hands. Damp hands are more likely to transfer microbes
  • High-velocity air dryers are particularly likely to spread microbes because they blow water that contains microbes off the hands. These microbes could contaminate the user, others persons and the washroom environment
  • These points have implications for the prevention of the spread of microbes and potential infection, especially in settings where hygiene is important. Therefore, the choice of hand drying methods should take into account the risk of contaminating the hands, other individuals or the environment