29 October 2020

The Guardian: “Hand dryers v paper towels: the surprisingly dirty fight for the right to dry your hands”

Public bathrooms offer three primary options to dry a pair of wet hands. First, there is the venerable crisp-pleated paper towel. Second, the old-style warm-air dryer: those indestructible metal carapaces that, through their snouts, breathe down upon our hands. And finally, the jet dryer sub-species of the sort Dyson makes, whose gale-force winds promise to shear away every drop of moisture rather than slowly evaporating it. In the quest to dominate the world’s restrooms, Campbell discovered, Dryer v Towel is a pitched contest of business strategy and public relations. Expect to be lied to a lot, Campbell told me. It’s almost like the cola wars. You have Pepsi v Coke, and you have hand dryers v paper towels.

The chief battleground for this duel is public hygiene. Science has tried and failed to come to a consensus about the hygienic superiority of one product over the other. Even so, the paper towel industry has funded or promoted a rash of studies claiming that hand dryers turn bathrooms into mosh pits of pathogens. These results almost always make news. Any sort of health scare is a gift to a journalist – an opportunity to write viral headlines such as “Hand dryers are blowing bacteria all over your hands” or “Hand Dryers are Germ-Flinging Bullshit”.

Samanth Subramanian

Nice overview of a mundane topic. There are numerous arguments for and against the two competing options, and unfortunately increasingly hard to cut through advertising and studies funded by each side to discredit the other to find impartial facts.

Hand dryers v paper towels illustration
Illustration: Leon Edler

I must admit, I have always been firmly in the ‘towel’ camp, not necessarily because of hygiene concerns, but because I usually find it hard to dry my hands properly with a dryer – and I hate leaving the toilet with moist hands. I would be curious to see how public perception has changed this year – I imagine people are much more reluctant to use hand dryers during the pandemic. No matter what manufacturers and studies may say, it only takes one infected person who did not wash his hands properly before putting them in the dryer to contaminate the entire room with viral aerosol particles.

At its most audacious, the hand dryer is an expression of faith in the mechanical – in the premise that no cubic inch of our day is too trivial to remain unimproved by technology. The wipe of a hand upon a square of natural fibre is an astonishingly ancient action; it is difficult to imagine prehistoric hunter-gatherers getting their hands dry in any other manner. The hand dryer’s essential ambition is to break a human habit tens of thousands of years old, and to persuade us that the few times we dry our hands daily, for a few seconds every time, warrants a machine. It dares us to submit to its idea of modern life.

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