Are Hot Air Hand Dryers Really Germ Cannons? Here’s What You Need to Know

Images Hand dryer in a public restroom.
Massimo Merlini/Getty

If you’ve been anywhere near the internet recently, you’ve probably seen at least one news report about the horrors of public bathroom air hand dryers.

A new study published by researchers in Connecticut says “there is evidence that bathroom hand dryers can disperse bacteria from hands or deposit bacteria on surfaces, including recently washed hands.”

To be clear, the researchers — from the University of Connecticut, Hartford Hospital, Quinnipiac University and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center — are talking about public-bathroom germs, if you catch my drift.

Yep, gross.

Many news reports stop there, but there’s a lot more to the story and less reason to freak out than you might think.

Researchers go on to say that the results don’t provide clear information on whether hand dryers give bacteria a cozy place to grow or simply blow already germy air around the room.

In fact, even though bacterial spores were found on bathroom surfaces, researchers can’t conclusively say that air hand dryers were responsible.

This isn’t the first time air dryers have been called out for being spore-spreading wind turbines of destruction.

A 1989 study suggested air dryers could contribute to airborne infections in hospitals,                      and subsequent studies support the idea that air hand dryers may be unsuitable in health-care environments.

Yet other research claims “drying hands with hot air dryers is not likely to generate airborne infection.”

In other words, no one knows for sure.

One thing’s for certain: Regular hand washing is a vital part of staying healthy.

If you don’t want to take a chance of getting a blast of bacteria blown in your face by an air dryer (and who can blame you), dry your hands on disposable paper towels, or just let them air dry on their own.

Worried about the environmental impact of throwing paper towels in the trash several times a day? Stock up on hand towels and keep some in your purse or backpack for quick and sanitary drying.

Whatever you do, just don’t walk around with dripping-wet hands. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says doing so can transfer germs to other surfaces and people as easily as if you hadn’t washed your hands at all.

If you’re really skeeved by public bathroom hand-drying options, you can always fall back on hand sanitizer to clean your hands. Just make sure it contains at least 60% alcohol.

Until researchers can definitely say whether air hand dryers are wall-mounted germ cannons, try not to get too wrapped up in scary headlines that don’t tell the whole story.

Wash early, wash often and learn some useful alternatives to handshake greetings because a lot of people don’t bother to wash their hands at all.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her favorite stay-healthy alternative greeting is waving at people from 50 feet away.