“The public needs to have confidence in restaurants, bars, hotels, shops and gyms if they are to return to these facilities - and the same applies to away-from-home washrooms”, says Essity’s Stuart Hands. However, according to the company’s latest survey, attitudes to public toilets are changing as people demand new Covid-19 protocols.
The issue of hygiene – and hand hygiene in particular - has moved very much to the fore during the Covid-19 pandemic. We now understand that the coronavirus lingers on surfaces after we have touched them where they can be picked up by the hands of others. So rigorous surface cleaning coupled with thorough hand washing is being heavily promoted – and with good reason.
According to governments, scientists and health experts, we should wash our hands more frequently and for longer than we are used to doing in order to help eradicate the virus. After the hands have been meticulously washed with soap and water they need to be thoroughly dried since germs breed more readily in moist conditions. And hand drying should be carried out either with a paper towel or a warm air dryer, claims the World Health Organisation (WHO).
And this, of course, has sparked a return to the age-old debate: which hand drying system is preferable, air or paper?
The arguments have been raging for years with various studies examining the benefits of paper hand towels compared with those of warm air dryers. These discussions have historically taken into account a range of factors such as cost, effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability. However, in today’s pandemic-stricken world it is the issue of hygiene that carries the most weight.
There has been much speculation in the press as to whether or not warm air dryers could serve to blow the virus around the washroom – an occurrence that could potentially lead to other washroom users being infected. Various studies claiming to both prove and disprove this theory have made headlines over the past few months, making members of the public anxious and confused as to what they should do for the best.
Meanwhile there has also been a radical assertion that hand dryers used alone without hand washing could actually kill Covid-19 – a myth that has been debunked on the WHO website along with other, equally false claims.(1)
It is understandable that such topics should be closely examined and then widely reported at a time when we are all living with so much uncertainty. For it has become a matter of great importance to all of us that we should adopt the right systems – ones that will help keep ourselves and others safe.
But what is also critically important is the way people actually feel about the premises and systems they use. Washroom visitors, for example, want to feel safe and reassured when using these facilities.
And an anxious visitor to a washroom where social distancing is impossible might skimp on his or her hand hygiene in order to swiftly remove themselves from an uncomfortable situation. This could result in the visitor leaving the premises with unwashed hands with which they could go on to contaminate surfaces outside the washroom.
Essity and the Tork brand have recently carried out research into people’s attitudes concerning washrooms. We commissioned United Minds in cooperation with CINT to question more than 4,000 people in April this year with the view to ascertaining how public perceptions have changed in the wake of Covid. Washroom users from the EU countries of Spain, Sweden, France and Germany were included in the study.
According to the results, 66 per cent of the survey respondents said the pandemic had made them feel less safe when using facilities with unhygienic washrooms, while 79 per cent had higher expectations of washrooms in terms of providing a safe and hygienic environment than they did before Covid-19.
When asked specifically about hand drying, 62 per cent of the survey respondents said they preferred paper towels over alternative methods. And nearly 37 per cent of the respondents expressed a new preference for hand towels in the wake of the pandemic.
Around 61 per cent of respondents who preferred hand towels said they did so because they felt they were a more hygienic option for the user. When asked about the public places in which respondents said they preferred to see paper hand towels versus air dryers, 53 per cent cited restaurants while other top responses included workplaces (46 per cent); hospitals (45 per cent) and shopping centres (44 per cent).
Another key point that emerged from the study was the fact that hand towels are no longer considered to be simply a hand drying option but are also being put to other uses.
A total of 72 per cent of the survey respondents said they now routinely used paper hand towels to act as a barrier between their hands and frequently-touched surfaces in public washrooms such as taps, door handles and light switches. And 75 per cent said they wished more washroom facilities offered paper hand towels as an alternative to air dryers.
Clearly, members of the public want to feel safe when they venture out to places to eat, drink, shop and be entertained. They expect the facilities they visit to be clean, hygienic and equipped with the right products. And when this is not the case, those businesses will potentially suffer because people might simply stay away.
According to the study, 50 per cent of respondents said they were less likely to go to places where paper hand towels were unavailable as a hand drying alternative.
So failing to provide hand towels in the washrooms - both for hand drying purposes and as a barrier when touching surfaces and fixtures - could have a significant impact on the profitability of businesses Essity believes.
Speed of drying
There is also the question of speed when using the washroom. We are now being faced with a situation in which fewer people are allowed to use the washroom at once to facilitate social distancing. But we are also expected to wash and dry our hands longer and more thoroughly to keep ourselves Covid-safe.
It is possible to extract hand towels from the dispenser and use them on the go, whereas warm air dryers require the visitor to remain in situ while the air does the work for them. And this could lead to queues, logjams and more risk.
According to our study, 64 per cent of respondents felt air dryers took too long to dry their hands and admitted to often leaving the washroom before their hands were completely dry.
Everywhere we go in the public arena we see cleaning being carried out more openly. Bar and restaurant staff work around the clock to disinfect tables between guests, while shop and hotel employees ensure that the hand sanitiser dispensers provided are constantly topped up and are always made freely available to the public.
Such overt cleaning and hygiene practices serve to reassure us that our safety is being considered and that our patronage is valued.
Washrooms are an integral part of any facility visited by the public, and it is clear from the study that the provision of paper hand towels – either in place of air dryers or as an alternative - is a reassuring sight for many. We predict that businesses everywhere will take note of this emerging data and will increasingly equip their washrooms with paper towels in a bid to inspire customers to return.
• About the survey: 2020 Survey conducted by United Minds in cooperation with CINT in April 2020. The survey covered four markets: Germany, France, Spain and Sweden. In total, 4035 answered the survey.