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    Even an ordinary hand dryer has a bit of history

    I had washed my hands – as we all should – with soap from the dispenser and hot water in the auction-house restroom when I turned to my left and was faced with two choices:

    Paper towels or a hot-air hand dryer.

    The paper-towel dispenser was coal black in a modern style. The hand dryer looked ancient, with its laminated faux-wood grain label, chrome nozzle, plastic push-button and utilitarian beige paint. It fit in well with the tenor of a place where antiques and vintage were the sole reason for being.

    The hand dryer was nothing like the sleek Dyson AirBlade dryer I use when I visit Wegmans way too much.

    A photo adorns the wall next to a hand dryer in the auction-house restroom.

    Its presumptive age got me to thinking about where it fit into the evolution of how we dry our hands after we wash them in a public restroom.

    We all know that we should clean our hands with hot water and soap to help fight germs that lead to illnesses – to both us and our colleagues at work, families at home and friends wherever. We don’t have to be as fussy about it as the character Adrian Monk on the old TV show of the same name (he actually had compulsive-obsessive disorder or OCD), but we could learn from him.

    How to best dry your hands is a matter of opinion and debate by both the makers of hand dryers and paper towels, both insisting that their way is the most healthy.

    hand dryers

    Xlerator hand dryer. Photo from

    The process of using air to dry your hands has been around for almost a century. The first machine – called the electric towel – was invented in 1921 by three workers for the AirDry Corporation of Groton, NY. It was described in its 1922 patent as a drying apparatus for “delivering a blast of heated air for drying the face, hands or hair of a person, or for drying jewelry, metal parts, glassware, or other articles.” The machine was attached to a wall with a nozzle that could be moved around. It was operated by a foot pedal on the floor.

    The dryers could be found in restrooms, barbershops and factories. They were loud and slow.

    It wasn’t until around 1948/1949 that hand dryers became popular, when inventor George Clemens improved on the design. He built a company around the product, joined by other companies that saw the future in it. Decades later, the invention would see other improvements. The Excel Company released its Xlerator in 2002 that cut the amount of time the machines dried your hands but not the noise.

    I don’t think any of the dryers have conquered the noise yet.

    hand dryers

    Which to choose? Paper towels or hand dryer?

    The Mitsubishi Company of Japan invented a hand-dipping model that made it to the United States in 2005. The British company Dyson released its AirBlade two years later in this country. (The dryer in the auction-house restroom was a TEW hand dryer, made by a Taiwanese company.)

    Hand dryers are not without their detractors and supporters. Two studies in the last five years have found that they spread more germs than paper towels.

    In 2014, scientists at the University of Leeds in England found that bacteria counts were higher when drying with hand dryers as compared to paper towels. The study was funded by the European Tissue Symposium, which represents tissue-paper producers. A Dyson official called the research inaccurate. Others studies have reached the same conclusion.

    hand dryers

    Dyson AirBlade hand dryer.

    A more recent study, in 2016, found that the Dyson AirBlade jet-air dryer spread more germs than the standard warm-air dryers and even more than paper towels. Again, Dyson – and others – disputed the results.

    To be safe, the Cleveland Clinic recommends this regimen for cleaning and drying your hands: wet your hands with warm or cold water; turn off the tap; soap and lather your hands, wash back of hands, fingers and beneath nails; wash for 20 seconds as you sing “Happy Birthday”; rinse well under clean, running water, and dry with clean towel or air dry. Use hand sanitizers if nothing else is available.

    After being so careful, though, how do you open the door with your clean hands? Grab a paper towel, of course.

    hand dryers

    Soap dispenser and paper-towel holder side by side in auction-house restroom.

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