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Sharp Health News

Surprise: Bathrooms aren’t the dirtiest place on an airplane

Dec. 11, 2015

Germs on planes

I’m passionate about travel, but I’m not so excited about exposing myself to all those icky germs on airplanes, in the airport and in other public places where crowds gather. When I travel, I always carry hand sanitizer and antibacterial hand wipes — as I did on a recent trip to Southeast Asia.

It’s a good thing because airplanes and airports are among some of the germiest places around, according to a study commissioned by, a website that helps people calculate the driving and flying time between cities. The findings — based on samples gathered by a microbiologist who examined five airports and four flights — may surprise you.

It turns out that airplane bathrooms and airports actually have fewer germs than other things we consider far less innocuous. On the airplane the dirtiest place by far is actually the tray table! That contrasts sharply with the germs found on the toilet flush button, overhead vent or on the seat belt buckle. Even the bathroom stall locks present very little bacteria in comparison.

In the airport, the findings were similar. The tests found that drinking fountain buttons were far germier than bathroom stall locks. Thank goodness for bottled water.

In a study of 22 households by the National Sanitation Foundation, it was determined that pet bowls, pet toys and home countertops are often dirtier than some things in the airplane and airport, while home toilet seats, cell phones and money are actually cleaner.

It would seem counterintuitive that bathrooms are cleaner than tray tables and countertops, but the findings suggest that airlines and airports are doing a decent job of sanitizing restrooms, which is a good thing, because dirty bathrooms can easily spread disease.

The bad news is that airlines and airports don’t appear to be doing a good enough job of cleaning other areas. This oversight is likely due to the pressure on airlines to board a plane quickly, which means the tray tables often aren’t cleaned until the end of the day.

To combat this problem, I frequently use hand sanitizer and wipe down surfaces around my seat with antibacterial wipes. I also avoid touching hand rails as much as possible in public spaces, like airports. According to Dr. Fadi Haddad, an infectious disease specialist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital, taking these steps is the best defense in preventing a cold or flu while traveling.

“Considering how many people you come into contact with during travel, especially around the holidays, it’s best to be on germ high-alert and arm yourself,” explains Dr. Haddad. “Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer when hand-washing isn’t readily available, cover your mouth when you cough, and avoid touching surfaces where high germ colonies are most likely to be present.”

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