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A better way to dry

As cold and flu season approaches, we'll be hearing this message over and over again: To stay healthy, be sure to wash your hands a lot.

But what we don't hear so often is the rest of that story: To best prevent the spread of germs, you also need to DRY your hands.

That point's driven home by an interesting pair of studies published Tuesday in the Journal of Applied Microbiology. The studies, quite transparently funded by Dyson Limited of the United Kingdom (maker of such technologically advanced gadgets as this summer's coolest fan and my favorite vacuum cleaner) set out to determine how the company's new Airblade hand-dryer stacked up against conventional hot-air dryers such as are found in public bathrooms.

Under some circumstances, the Dyson dryer (which uses ambient-temperature air to kind of shear water off hands held stationary in the device) did a better job than the hot-air dryers of keeping just-washed hands' bacterial loads low.

But when all the air dryers were pitted against plain paper towels, the conclusion was clear: Drying hands with paper towels did a better job than the machines of getting rid of lingering bacteria.

Of course, the study notes that paper towels can make a big mess themselves because they're hard to dispose of in a sanitary, non-germ-spreading way. But still, the study couldn't escape the finding that even the latest high-tech hand-drying gizmo doesn't quite stand up to good ol' low-tech paper towels.

I found the study's transparency and frankness about its conclusions particularly interesting in light of a report also published Tuesday (in the journal PLoS Medicine) showing the extent to which ghost-written "scientific" studies about drugs published in medical journals and elsewhere have been found to have deliberately misled readers as to the benefits and risks of using those drugs. The research was spurred by the drug-maker Wyeth's use of such ghost-writers to promote hormone therapy ; it drew on more than 1,500 documents showing how widespread the practice of ghost-writing (having a marketing team write heavily "spun" material and getting an academic physician to sign his or her name to the research) is.

The take-home message? Whenever you read -- or read accounts of -- scientific research, do so with a critical eye. Beware of sweeping conclusions based on small study samples. Check the credentials and conflicts of interest of the study's authors. And never make a medical decision based on any single study, at least not without talking it over with your own physician.

And one more thing: Please wash -- and thoroughly dry -- your hands before you leave the bathroom.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  September 9, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health , General Health , Infectious Disease , Influenza , Kids' health  
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