Are Cloth Hand Towels from a Roll Dispenser Sanitary?
Hand hygiene is crucial to preventing the spread of infection in the workplace. While hand hygiene has always been important, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought more attention lately to effective hand washing in the workplace.
Unfortunately, there are widespread misconceptions about the effectiveness of hand drying, particularly in the US.
This article summarizes independent research findings and helps answer these commonly asked questions –Are cloth roll towels sanitary? Are towels cleaner than air dryers?
Why hand drying is important
While washing and rinsing get a fair amount of attention, they are only part of the equation. Drying hands after washing is a vital part of the process. According to an article published by the Mayo Clinic, “Wet hands spread germs more easily than dry hands do.”
In fact, studies show that damp hands transmit 1,000 times more bacteria than dry hands. Thus, you are more likely to transmit bacteria back onto your clean hands after touching surfaces such as a doorknob or light switch if they are still wet.
Therefore, it’s important to thoroughly dry your hands after washing.
An independent study of hand drying effectiveness
The Hjelt Institute of Hygiene and Microbiology (University of Helsinki) studied the effectiveness of four common hand-drying systems in terms of hand hygiene.*
These four hand drying methods include paper towel rolls or sheets, jet air dryer, warm air dryer, and cotton roll towels (also referred to as cloth roll towels or continuous roll towels).
Here is a quick summary of the finding of this research study:
- Cotton towels are more effective and hygienic than air dryers;
- Cotton towels eliminate the highest number of bacteria from wet hands;
- The mechanical action of rubbing one’s hands with cotton is essential to effectively removing bacteria;
- Good hand hygiene involves both washing and drying hands.
Which hand drying method removes the most bacteria?
Testing was done to determine the number of bacteria removed from hands by hand drying method. The following results were reported:
- Hands dried with cotton show a log reduction of 4.41;
- Hands dried with paper show a log reduction of 4.41;
- Hands dried with jet air show a log reduction of 2.48;
- Hands dried with warm air show a log reduction of 1.79.
This study shows that both washroom roller towels and paper towels effectively remove bacteria from hands.
Are cloth roll dispenser surfaces hygienic?
When testing the contamination of the surfaces of the four drying methods, the most commonly touched parts of each dispenser or dryer were swabbed (see chart below). The jet-air dryer is the only device that showed heavy contamination, including E-coli, with a particularly heavy concentration at the inside bottom of the dryer. The cloth towel roll dispenser showed the least amount of bacteria.
Do cloth towels contaminate the air?
Limiting the spread of pathogenic microbes is important.
The study measured the number of bacteria near the hand drying units (up to 6 feet) and found that bacteria were quasi non-existent near the cotton and paper towel dispensers. In contrast, it would appear that bacteria are dispersed via the air stream of air dryers and that this leads to contamination of the surrounding air.
According to the study, cloth towels and paper towels do not contaminate the air.
How do hand drying roller towels work?
A common misconception about cloth roll towels is that they are on a continuous loop in the roll dispenser.
The reality is that there is no loop at all. The towel is open-ended and the clean portion is stored in a bin at the bottom of the cloth roll dispenser. The clean and dirty sections of the towel never touch. Once the towel reaches the end, it gets placed in a bin or drum for laundering and a new, clean towel is placed in the unit.
Are cloth towels effectively laundered? At what temperature do bacteria die?
While extreme high or low temperatures technically do not kill viruses, the influenza virus and many others are deactivated at temperatures ranging from 165 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the boiling point for water.
Bacteria is killed at 165 degrees. ITU AbsorbTech’s cotton roll towels are washed at 185 degrees and dried at over 300 degrees F. Therefore, the cloth roll towels are clean and sanitary after they are cleaned.
Despite misconceptions, studies have shown that drying hands with a towel can be more effective than paper and air dryer alternatives and that cotton roll towels are a more hygienic choice for hand drying the workplace.
*The full study is available on the ETSA website: www.textile-services.eu. For a summary, go to http://www.rvr.ch/fileadmin/user_upload/cleanforestclub.ch/news/Study_Hand_washing_-English_brochure.pdf
This study was commissioned by ETSA and was carried out according to the European standard EN 1499: Chemical disinfectants and antiseptics – Hygienic handwash- Test method and requirements (phase 2/step2), April 2013.