The concept of hygiene is rooted in the relationship between cleanliness and the maintenance of good health. Since the widespread acceptance of the germ theory of disease, hygiene has become increasingly conflated with that of sterilization. Recent research on microbial ecology is demonstrating that humans have intimate and evolutionarily significant relationships with a diverse assemblage of microorganisms (our microbiota). Human skin is home to a diverse, skin-habitat specific community of microorganisms; this includes members that exist across the ecological spectrum from pathogen through commensal to mutualist. Most evidence suggests that the skin microbiota is likely of direct benefit to the host, and only rarely exhibits pathogenicity. This complex ecological context suggests that the conception of hygiene as a unilateral reduction or removal of microbes has outlived its usefulness. As such, we suggest the explicit definition of hygiene as 'those actions and practices that reduce the spread or transmission of pathogenic microorganisms, and thus reduce the incidence of disease'. To examine the implications of this definition, we review the literature related to hand drying as an aspect of hand hygienic practice. Research on hand drying generally focuses on 'hygienic efficacy', a concept not typically defined explicitly, but nearly always including alterations to bulk microbial load. The corresponding literature is differentiable into two divisions: research supporting the use of forced air dryers, which typically includes effectiveness of drying as an aspect of hygienic efficacy; and research supporting the use of paper towels, which typically includes risk of aerosolized spread of microbes from hands as an aspect of hygienic efficacy. Utilizing a definition of hygiene that explicitly relies on reduction in disease spread rather than alterations to bulk microbial load would address concerns raised on both sides of the debate. Future research should take advantage of cultivation-independent techniques, working to bridge the gap between the two existing divisions of research by using health outcomes (such as the spread of disease) as dependent variables, taking into account the microbial community context of the skin microbiota, and focusing on understanding the relative contribution of bioaerosols and residual moisture to the risk of disease transmission.