A new study says the airport is more germ-infested than you could have possibly imagined
The world’s busiest airport, in Atlanta. Tami Chappell/Getty Images

A new study says the airport is more germ-infested than you could have possibly imagined

If you haven’t heard by now, the world we live in is quite a dirty place. From our cell phones to our kitchen sponges — heck, even your shower loofah — is festering with bacteria.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the airport — a place that many, many, many people visit every day — is also pretty filthy. A new study from InsuranceQuotes.com found that there’s one place in particular where the germs are partying hard: the self check-in kiosk.

The Texas-based company performed a swab test on six different surfaces at three major U.S. airports (the only one they named was Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta). Every surface was swabbed three times; the testers then calculated the average of the number of bacteria and fungal cells per square — known as colony-forming units — on each surface.

The self-service check-in kiosks tested were the biggest offenders, with 253,857 CFU. For comparison’s sake, the average home toilet seat has 172 CFU, according to the study authors.

A self-service check-in kiosk at Los Angeles International Airport
A self-service check-in kiosk at Los Angeles International Airport Jae C. Hong/AP

If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘Well I’ll just wait in line to get my boarding pass from now on,’ you won’t fare much better. The minute you take a load off and sit by your gate, you’ll come into contact with 21,630 CFU by way of the chair’s armrest.

If you still think you can beat the germ-infested system by not touching anything and buying a ton of hand sanitizer at one of the terminal stores, think again: A 2012 study from St. Petersburg College found that 50% of credit cards contain MRSA, a strain of bacterium that can lead to staph infections. Cash is not king in this case, as 80% of paper bills were contaminated.

So what’s a travel-loving germaphobe to do in this sickly situation? In the case of communal surfaces, like armrests and tray tables, writer and self-proclaimed germaphobe Rachel Chang suggests using a napkin as a barrier to touch any item you may need — whether that’s a water fountain button or a ketchup bottle. Chang says bringing a napkin from home, rather than taking one from a communal dispenser, is your best bet.

For something like that dirty check-in kiosk, Chang recommends using your sleeve as a barrier, though we’ve yet to test whether the digital screens can register human touch through a sweater. Philip Tierno, author of The Secret Life of Germs and a clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU, told Chang that sanitizing wipes are always a good idea (for tray tables, headrests, seat belts and toilet flushers).

What’s important to know is that germs are inevitable — and some of them are necessary for human health. Washing your hands is an easy measure you can take to keep from getting sick: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s one of the best ways to protect yourself. Just don’t use a loofah to do it.

Happy travels!