If COVID-19 has made you wary of using public washrooms, you’re not alone.
About three-quarters of Canadians became more concerned about visiting public washrooms during the pandemic and more than half planned to use the facilities less frequently, according to a survey conducted by Dyson in 2020¹. As COVID-19 variants continue to pose a threat, architects, facility managers and technology companies are rethinking washroom design to minimize risks.
Darryl Condon, managing partner of HCMA, an architecture and design firm with offices in Vancouver, Victoria and Edmonton, says public washrooms are going to look a lot different moving forward—and for good reason. “There’s an increased desire to see cleanliness in action and less tolerance for mess in public washrooms,” he says. “The more comfortable people are, the safer they feel, the more likely they are to reengage in public life.”
With businesses making their way to full capacity and office workers slowly returning, Salomé Gião, senior microbiologist and scientist at Dyson, says one of the most effective things you can do to reduce the spread of bacteria and viruses is practise good hand hygiene. While public health messages have focused on handwashing, Gião says thoroughly drying your hands is just as important.
“Wet hands can transfer up to 1,000 times more bacteria than dry hands,” she says, citing a landmark 1997 study², adding that wiping them on your clothes can add even more germs if clothes are not clean. Limiting surface contact can significantly help prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses, which is why 42 per cent of Canadians are concerned with pressing buttons on hand dryers, according to the Dyson survey. Touchless hand dryers, as a hygienic and effective solution, are key to easing this public apprehension, says Gião, who expects to see more touchless technologies in not only hand dryers, but also toilets, sinks and doors.
Gião’s washrooms of the future will also have cleaner air. The Canadian government has published guidelines on how to improve indoor air, ventilation and filtration to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, and Gião urges facility managers to follow them.
While some studies have suggested that hand dryers can spread pathogens, a review of the literature published this year in the Journal of Applied Microbiology found that such studies lacked rigour, used small sample sizes or tested unrealistic scenarios like washing gloved hands in a soup of bacteria and viruses and immediately drying them. The review concluded that there’s no evidence that hand dryers pose any health risks.
A new study commissioned by Dyson and conducted by Airmid Healthgroup, a biomedical research organization specializing in aerobiology, compared the use of a Dyson Airblade hand dryer with paper towels. They found that walking around, washing your hands and drying your hands with either method all generated a similar number of aerosols—tiny particles (of liquids, solids or both) suspended in the air that may contain bacteria and viruses—and didn’t have a significant impact on the surrounding air³. “It’s a myth that jet air dryers are unhygienic and blow bacteria and viruses around,” Gião says.
Calgary’s CORE Shopping Centre was one of the first malls in North America to install Dyson Airblade 9kJ hand dryers in their washrooms. For Domenic Mazzocchi, the centre’s director of property management, the choice came down to the fact that they don’t need to be regularly refilled like paper towel dispensers and they’re more sustainable. “With COVID-19 being top of mind for our shoppers, we were looking for a hygienic solution that provided enhanced abilities and fit with our sustainability requirements,” he said. Based on a lifecycle analysis, the Dyson Airblade emits up to 85 per cent less C0₂ emissions than paper towels.⁴
People’s concerns about public washrooms have sped up some shifts in design and spurred others, according to Condon. One change that was already underway was the move toward universal washrooms, which welcome people of all genders, include private and communal areas and feature accessible design elements like sinks and hand dryers mounted at a variety of heights. These washrooms facilitate more frequent cleaning (because it can be done by people of any gender), improve the air quality (because windows can be opened in communal areas without privacy concerns) and encourage better hand hygiene (because more people can reach sinks and dryers).
“In the past, washrooms were squeezed into the bare minimum of area because of the costs and conflicting demands, but I think we’re going to see more area given to them because of sensitives to greater clearances and space,” he says. These larger washrooms—particularly important in spaces with intense periods of use, such as movie theatres and sports venues— will allow for circular patterns of movement with separate ways in and out, similar to the design of grocery stores.
Given our heightened awareness of cleanliness, Condon predicts more public demand for surfaces and materials that can be readily cleaned and don’t appear dirty when they’re not. Painted walls, for instance, are much harder to keep clean and looking clean than tile, he points out.
Condon and his colleagues are already integrating many of these ideas into their projects. “We’ve got a number of projects in the design phase that are different today than they would have been pre-pandemic and are further along in the evolution towards inclusion and equity,” he says. “Our clients are feeling the pressure from their communities and recognizing that this is an area that we need to approach with a new mindset.”
Reducing the spread of bacteria:
Tips from Salomé Gião, senior microbiologist and scientist at Dyson, on safely using a public washroom
- If there is a toilet lid, put it down before flushing
- Wash hands with water and soap, when available. If not, then use a gel sanitizer to clean hands
- Dry hands completely and avoid rubbing hands together, as it could lift bacteria from lower skin layers
- Avoid touching surfaces after washing and drying hands
- Spend as little time as possible in the washroom
Learn more about Dyson hand dryers here.