Brown Towels: Where Hand Hygiene Meets Sustainability

Paper towels can dry hands efficiently, remove bacteria effectively, and advance sustainability.

Hand Hygiene Image courtesy of GP PRO

As a facility manager or BSC, you do your best to advance both hygiene and sustainability to support the well-being of building occupants and the environment. But there is no question that sometimes sustainability is sacrificed for hygiene and vice versa. Due to heightened awareness and concern about hygiene (particularly hand hygiene)  in the current novel coronavirus pandemic, this could be truer now than ever before.

As business owners, school leaders, and government officials prepare to open their facilities, you’re undoubtedly facing an unprecedented number of dilemmas and decisions. But rest assured. Ensuring a safe and sustainable means of hand drying needn’t be one of them.

Advance hand hygiene with paper towels

From the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, one message has been repeated loud and clear from epidemiologists and health experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO): wash your hands with soap thoroughly and frequently to help protect yourself and others.

It’s difficult to challenge this imperative when you think about the vast number of infection-causing bacteria, viruses, and other microbes that your hands come in contact with daily. Add in the estimated number of times you touch your face (23 times per hour according to the University of New South Wales) and risk microbes entering your body through your nose, eyes, or mouth, and it’s clear that unclean hands are unhygienic.

But while proper handwashing has been widely discussed and accepted, proper hand drying has not—even though improper hand drying can undo the many benefits of handwashing. According to research from the Mayo Clinic, bacteria are more likely to be transmitted from wet skin than dry skin, making proper hand drying a critical component of the hand-hygiene process.

When it comes to hand drying, options run the gamut, from cloth towels to paper towels; from jet dryers to warm air dryers; from shaking your hands in the air to wiping them on your pants.

In a recent article from Business Insider, Miryam Wahram, a biology professor at William Paterson University and the author of “The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World,” said that, hands down, drying hands with paper or cloth towels is the most hygienic as the friction of drying removes even more germs.

The Mayo Clinic reviewed 12 studies on the hygienic efficacy of several hand-drying methods and concluded that, from a hygiene viewpoint, paper towels are superior to electric air dryers. The review also noted that paper towels can dry hands efficiently, remove bacteria effectively, and cause less contamination in the restroom environment. A University of Westminster study similarly found that jet dryers disperse over 190 times more viruses than paper towels.

People can also use paper towels to protect clean hands from germs when turning off faucets and opening the door upon leaving the restroom.

Support sustainability with paper towels

If you hold true that paper towels are hygienic, the next question is whether they are sustainable. Many people assume paper towels are inherently sustainable as they are made from renewable materials. While paper restroom waste is not currently recycled, the hygienic benefits of paper towels— combined with the fact that most are made from responsibly sourced virgin fiber or recycled fiber—increasingly make them a preferred hand-drying solution.

Most commercial paper towels—both white and brown—are made with high levels of post-consumer recycled content. In addition, a good number of commercial paper towels meet or exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) minimum recycled content guidelines and are certified by credible third-party organizations, such as The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), or The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). These certifications validate that the products were made following responsible forestry practices and that other global social responsibility concerns have been addressed as well. Certifications from Green Seal and EcoLogo help to further validate the amount of recycled fiber content and a minimal environmental impact during processing.

Brown vs. white towels

Recycled white paper towels are generally made from high-quality office paper waste that is in increasingly short supply. As the value for these materials increases, the amount ending up in landfills is declining. But recycled brown towels are made with high levels of mixed paper waste, including magazines, cereal boxes, junk mail, and paperboard packaging. At this time, a lot of mixed paper ends up in landfills. However, thanks to new technology, an increasing number of paper manufacturers can use the fiber from mixed paper waste to make brown paper towels. As more businesses and schools switch to brown paper towels, they are helping support the recovery of greater amounts of mixed paper waste, keeping such material out of landfills.

Fortunately, you do not need to sacrifice quality for sustainability. While the words “brown towels” might harken images of your grade school restroom, the fiber recovery process has undergone significant advancements in recent years, which means many brown paper towels perform equally to white in terms of softness and absorbency.

When the facilities you manage or clean reopen as the pandemic slows down, know that there are hand-drying products available that ease the pressure of simultaneously supporting hygiene and sustainability.

Julie Howard

Vice President and General Manager of GP PRO's Towel, Skincare, and Aircare Category

Julie Howard is vice president and general manager of GP PRO’s Towel, Skincare, and Aircare Category. GP PRO is a division of Georgia-Pacific and a leading provider of advanced restroom solutions for commercial facilities. To learn more about GP PRO, visit

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