Planes and airports are notoriously germy places. In fact, one of the secrets airlines don’t want you to know is staff members clean tray tables, blankets, and pillows only infrequently. Just think of all the things you touch when you get on the plane. There’s the overhead bin, arm rest, window shade, and probably the tray table. Each one is covered in germs and microbes that might make you sick every time you fly. And the bacteria-infested surfaces in the airport aren’t much better.
According to Travelmath, airports and airplanes are dirtier than even the germiest places in your home. Want to know which places on the plane or in the airport are the worst? We have some answers. But we can’t promise you won’t want to fill your entire quart-sized plastic bag with hand sanitizer.
1. Latches on overhead bins
USA Today reports the latches on overhead bins get a lot of handling, but almost no cleaning. That makes them a hotbed for bacteria, viruses, and other microbes.
Passengers are constantly fighting to find room for all of their belongings in the overhead thanks to rising airline fees for checked baggage. That means that passengers repeatedly open and close multiple bins, looking for a place to stash their bag or coat. If you needed another reason to travel light and fit everything into a bag that will slide under the seat in front of you, reducing your exposure to germs — and cutting your chances of catching a cold — is a good one.
Next: Bring your own reading material to avoid this germy item.
2. In-flight magazines
Similarly, countless passengers handle those in-flight magazines. While blankets and pillows — more on those soon — are washable, magazines aren’t. So the germs and microbes build up until a new magazine arrives. That might only happen quarterly for airline publications. If the in-flight magazine looks ragged, that’s probably a good signal that you should stay away.
You should bring your own reading material to prepare for a boring flight. If you really want to check out the airline’s magazine, just fire up your tablet, and read it online. The Huffington Post reports that as many as 30% of airplane passengers don’t wash their hands after using the restroom. (Ick!) Between those passengers’ germs and those spread by travelers coughing and sneezing, in-flight magazines are undoubtedly covered in germs.
Next: Use your sleeve to move your window shade.
3. Plastic window shade
Another gross test of the level of germs on a surface? How long bacteria, such as MRSA, can stick around on the objects normally found in the cabin. Time reports researchers at Auburn University infected airplane surfaces with MRSA and E. coli 0157 to see how long they could survive. The researchers determined bacteria can survive on the window shade — the one situated right at your elbow if you sit in the window seat — for up to three days. That gives them plenty of time to infect multiple flights’ worth of passengers.
The New York Times notes plane windows don’t block UVA rays. Researchers blame UVA rays for skin cancer, aging, and wrinkling. So it’s probably a good idea to brave the germs and pull down the shade. (Perhaps wipe it down with a sanitizing wipe first?) But either way, you should definitely wear sunscreen, no matter your mode of transportation.
Next: You’ll want to keep that hand sanitizer in your pocket for bathroom breaks.
4. Bathroom fixtures
Drexel Medicine warns that airplane bathrooms are “one of the germiest places on a plane and a breeding ground for bacteria like E. coli.” That’s in part because planes usually have approximately one restroom per 50 passengers. That’s gross under any circumstances. But even worse? The Huffington Post estimates that a plane bathroom can see hundreds of uses between cleanings. That’s something you really don’t want to think about.
If you do need to use the restroom, Drexel Medicine advises taking along disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer. And try not to touch anything directly. Use paper towels when you touch the toilet seat lid or the faucet. Please remember to close the lid before you hit that germy flush button. And always wear shoes when you head to the restroom. No, it’s not safe to assume that that’s simply water on the floor.
Next: Don’t put the airplane blankets near your face.
5. Blankets and pillows
Another germ hot spot Drexel Medicine advises you avoid? The blankets and pillows, even if the cabin gets chilly. Flight attendants hand out these items for passengers to use. But staff cleans them only infrequently. That should leave you wondering how many drowsy, drooling passengers have used them before you.
USA Today reports that it’s only safe to use a blanket that’s still sealed in plastic — a pretty rare sight on most flights. If you really want a blanket or pillow to cozy up with on a long flight, just pack your own. That way, you won’t be cuddling up with a blanket that somebody else has sneezed on.
Next: Maybe bring Clorox wipes to clean your armrests.
6. Rubber arm rest
The Auburn University researchers found that E. coli, unlike MRSA, really take to the rubber arm rest on your seat. The bacteria could live on the arm rest for up to 96 hours. Especially if you’re in the middle seat, it feels like a constant fight to find some elbow room on the arm rest. But if you want to avoid exposure to E. coli and other bugs, you might just want to let your neighbors have those arm rests.
USA Today reports that it’s something of a myth that airlines clean the plane between flights. How often — and how well — each aircraft gets cleaned is a closely guarded secret. But most experts say that a thorough cleaning doesn’t happen often. An aircraft is supposed to be thoroughly wiped down after 30 days of service or at 100 flying-hour intervals. But that means that each plane can get used for dozens of flights without getting a deep cleaning.
Next: Have an extra Clorox wipe for the seat pocket.
7. Seat pocket
If you need somewhere to stash your book or your tablet, try to look somewhere other than the seat pocket. The Auburn University researchers found MRSA could survive in the seat pocket material for up to 168 hours. At least in theory, that’s plenty of time for multiple passengers to contract the difficult-to-treat infection.
But not all is lost if you have to handle the seat pocket. The researchers found the more porous the surface, the lower the bacteria’s ability to infect you. So the nonporous flush button in the bathroom, for instance, is much more likely to transmit microbes than the seat pocket (even though the bacteria can survive longer in the seat pocket).
Next: Just wipe down your entire seating area.
8. Leather seat
The Auburn University researchers found microbes could live on a leather airplane seat for up to seven days. (Of course, only some airlines actually have leather seats. Some have leather seats in premium cabins but not in the main cabin.) But no matter the material of the seat’s upholstery, you can bet germs have taken up residence in your seat. And as Travel + Leisure reports, the usual cleaning between flights doesn’t actually involve eradicating any of those germs. It just requires “cursory removal of garbage, spot-vacuuming, and refreshing of the lavatories.”
You might not want to wipe down the entire seat before you sit down, but you should probably touch the seat as little as possible if you’re trying to avoid germs. And if you carry your own pillow or blanket on board, make sure that you wash them when you arrive at your destination. Those items can pick up and transmit the germs on the seat, too.
Next: Safety features also also germ hotspots.
9. Seat belt buckle
We’re not advocating that you avoid buckling up. But Travelmath — which sent a microbiologist to take samples from five airports and four flights in order to estimate the total bacteria population per square inch — found the seat belt buckle has a cringe-worthy 230 colony-forming units of bacteria per square inch.
As USA Today notes, most airlines hire third-party cleaning services that focus more on a fast turnaround — and getting the seat ready for the next passenger to occupy — than thoroughly cleaning bacteria-infested surfaces. You definitely need to make sure that you’re buckled in, and ensure that your kids are safely restrained, too. But it wouldn’t hurt to clean off the buckle with a sanitizing wipe. Alternately, you can use hand sanitizer, and avoid touching your face, after you buckle up.
Next: We really don’t understand the people who don’t wash their hands after using an airplane bathroom.
10. Lavatory flush button
You probably knew that something in the airplane bathroom would make the list, right? Travelmath determined the toilet’s flush button has 265 colony-forming units per square inch, even worse than the seat belt buckle. That high count probably doesn’t surprise anyone. USA Today advises only touching the button or handle with a paper towel. And whatever you do, don’t touch your eyes.
It bears mentioning that you shouldn’t avoid hydrating just so you can skip a trip to the bathroom. But if you’re on a short flight, you might want to use the restroom in the airport before you board. That way, you’ll at least have cleaner water to wash your hands after you flush the toilet.
Next: Need fresh air? Just try not to touch the vents too often.
11. Overhead air vent
Germaphobe? Then, you might not want to fiddle with the overhead air vent. Travelmath found the vent over your seat has 285 colony-forming units per square inch. Surprisingly, that’s even more than on the lavatory flush button. The vent (and vent controls) may be filthy. But at least the air quality is good. As Ask the Pilot reports, there’s a total changeover of air in the cabin every two or three minutes — far more frequent than in offices, movie theaters, or classrooms.
Although Travelmath’s microbiologist didn’t test it, the touchscreen entertainment system is another feature you might not want to touch when you get to your seat. As Drexel Medicine reports, nearly everyone who sits in a given seat touches the entertainment system in addition to the overhead air vent. If you need to touch it, keep your sanitizing wipes handy!
Next: The grossest area in an airplane is also the one you probably use the most.
12. Tray table
Finally, what you’ve been waiting for: It might not surprise you, but Travelmath’s researchers found of all the surfaces they tested in the airplane and airport, the tray table has the highest number of colony-forming units per square inch, at a whopping 2,155. Plus, Auburn University’s researchers found bacteria can survive for up to three days on that plastic tray table. Some airlines wipe down the tray tables each night. But as one flight attendant tells Business Insider, “they’re using a rag to start row one, and when they end up in row 35, that rag has wiped a lot of tables.”
Drexel Medicine explains people use tray tables “inappropriately.” Really want to know what that means? People stick gum to them, or, even worse, use them to change a baby’s diaper. We probably don’t have to tell you that fecal matter contains all kinds of bacteria that can contaminate the tray table. Doesn’t sound like an appealing place to eat a snack or rest your book, does it?
Next: A notoriously unsanitary hydration spot.
13. Airport drinking fountain buttons
It’s not just on the airplane that you’ll encounter surfaces covered in enough germs to make your head spin. Travelmath found the button on a drinking fountain has 1,240 colony-forming units per square inch, which makes it one of the most bacteria-laden surfaces in the whole airport.
We all know to keep our mouths away from the spigot, but few of us think about the germs that could be hanging out on the drinking fountain button. (There’s no telling how infrequently the airport cleans that surface, either.) The drinking fountain seems like a necessary evil because you can’t bring a full water bottle through security. But you might want to use a paper towel to touch the button the next time you fill your water bottle.
Next: Unavoidable spot that’s teeming with germs.
14. Security lines
None of us likes waiting in line and going through airport security. But this area of the airport poses more than just inconvenience. In fact, The Huffington Post warns it’s a prime area for exposure to all kinds of bugs and bacteria. After all, we doubt that the TSA places much of an emphasis on thoroughly cleaning the security checkpoint at the end of a shift.
Plenty of people walk barefoot through security. Travelers with coughs, colds, the flu, and worse handle all of the bins. People steady themselves on the tables and benches. And it’s not unreasonable to think unhygienic children have touched just about everything within easy reach. The moral of the story? Keep your socks on, and have your hand sanitizer at the ready.
Next: The security line is just the start of the germ-sharing areas.