The Germiest Places on a Plane (and How to Avoid Them)

Add sanitizer to your packing list.

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After standing in a TSA line for 25 minutes and enduring a 45-minute flight delay, the only things on your mind once you’ve boarded the plane are getting your headphones in and sleeping through the inevitable hour of taxiing.

But don’t rest your head against the seat in front of you just yet.

While some exposure to germs is a natural and safe part of life, airplanes host hundreds of passengers a day, who each make the plane their temporary home: eating, sneezing, napping, drooling, using the bathroom, and even changing their kids’ diapers. It’s no wonder so many travelers pick up colds—or worse—after flying.

After swabbing and analyzing different surfaces of several airplanes, here are the places researchers have found to be the germiest.

  • Seatbelt buckles. These contained 230 colony-forming units (CFU) of bacteria per square inch. That's more than what you would find on the average household toilet (which contains just 172 CFU per square inch).

  • Lavatory flush button. You might expect any part of the toilet to be the obvious offender, but the bathroom (err, lavatory) is actually one of the few spots that does get a quick cleaning throughout the day. Cleaning crews must miss the flusher, though, since this contained an average of 265 CFU per square inch.

  • Overhead air vents. That inconspicuous little nozzle above your head is germier than the flush button, with an average of 285 CFU per square inch.

  • Tray tables. Yep, the germiest spot on the plane, with almost no competition, is that handy tray table. It carries around 2,155 CFU of bacteria per square inch. FYI, that’s 12 times the amount of germs as on the average household toilet.

But that’s not all. Other germy spots to look out for are the bathroom sink and latch for the overhead luggage compartments, according to Charles Gerba, PhD, professor of microbiology and environmental sciences at the University of Arizona.

“Airplane bathrooms are cleaned and disinfected regularly,” says Dr. Gerba, “but with roughly 50 people to a bathroom, they’re an easy way to pick up an infection. I’ve found the fecal coliform E. coli on some sinks, flush handles, and toilet seats that I have tested.”

To avoid this germ overload, pack antibacterial wipes and a travel-sized hand sanitizer in your carry-on bag. Before getting out your headphones or diving into a book, take a moment to wipe down everything around your seat. Remember to look up: that germy air vent needs a good cleaning, too.

If you need to use the tray table, avoid placing any food directly on the surface (but, TBH, that’s just good manners).

Learn more tips on avoiding the common cold in your daily life here. For more germ tips, here are the germiest places in the gym to look out for.