PSA Holiday Travelers: This Is The Dirtiest Spot In The Airport

mbg Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."
Woman Walking to Airplane Gate at Airport

Image by Santi Nunez / Stocksy

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The airport is the last thing standing between you and your holiday vacation, and all you have to do is walk through it without getting sick. But it's easier said than done—especially during flu season.

Air travel, or as mbg's lifestyle editor likes to call it, "a germaphobe's worst nightmare," is notoriously hard on the immune system. Consider this your friendly holiday reminder that the dirtiest spot in the airport probably isn't the toilet; it's the TSA bins.

That's what a team of researchers found when they sampled the surface and air quality at the Helsinki-Vantaa airport in Finland back in 2016. After testing 90 points in the airport—including the bathrooms—for various pathogens, they found that plastic security trays were the most "commonly contaminated" with the precursors to respiratory viruses.

They guessed that this is because every passenger needs to pass through security, and the fast clip of lines means that each bin can be touched by several hundred passengers a day before being disinfected. Surprisingly enough, most bathroom samples did not contain detectable respiratory viruses, likely because they are more regularly cleaned. People also know to wash their hands and limit surface-touching in them.

So until antibacterial bins become the norm (they're just starting to roll out in airports across the U.S.), it can't hurt to beeline to the bathroom sink after you get through security this year.

"Infectious diseases experts all agree that washing your hands at key times is crucial to ensure you stay healthy and help keep others you come in contact with healthy too," Mera McGrew, founder and CEO of soap company Soapply, reminds mbg. The other big moments she says to suds up in the airport include before eating, after using the toilet, and after sneezing, coughing, or blowing your nose. And don't skimp on your time in front of the sink: Scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds is what the Mayo Clinic recommends.

Here are a few more best practices for safe holiday travel.

Over the years, we've asked plenty of leading health experts for more of their tips for avoiding germs on the road and in the air. Read 'em over, pop on an airline-themed ASMR track, wash your hands (then wash them again), and prepare for happy holiday travels.

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Before you leave home:

In the terminal:

  • Pretty much every expert agrees that drinking plenty of water before, during, and after flying is the ticket to a healthier journey, so don't forget to pack that reusable bottle!
  • Save yourself some bloat and discomfort (and cash, and plastic!) by forgoing airport food and packing your own healthy travel snacks instead. Go with fresh fruit, vegetables with a high water content like cucumbers or celery, raw nuts, or one of these nutritionist-approved nibbles. And if you're in a bind, here's a list of airport options that aren't so bad.
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On the plane:

  • The first thing mbg health contributor Gretchen Lidicker, M.S., reaches for midair is magnesium oil. "I rub this oil on my lower back to fight off pain and stiffness or the insides of my forearms to help me de-stress and get to sleep. In fact, I've been known to fall asleep before takeoff and wake up only when the plane hits the ground," she writes. Count us in.

Ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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