Why Do They Wipe Your Hands at Airport Security?

  • Author: John Parker
  • Last Updated: November 17, 2022

Have you ever wondered why does TSA swab your hands at airport security? What are they trying to guard against? Why might they choose you?

Since 9/11, security at airports worldwide has become very strict. Passengers must remove their shoes, belts and jackets, which can make them feel uncomfortable. The procedures may seem pointless or even annoying but sadly it is necessary in today’s paranoid world.

But why do they swab your hands at the airport and what are they trying to protect against by doing so? Let’s find out…

Why Do They Wipe Your Hands at Airport Security

What is TSA looking for when they swab your hands?

The reason that TSA agents may swab your hands at the security checkpoint is to test for any residue from explosives.

The TSA hand swab is placed in an ETD (Explosive Trace Device). This is a machine known as an Ion-Mobility Spectrometer (IMS) that detects trace particles of explosive material, such as plastic explosives, or certain chemicals which might be used to make explosives, such as some fertilizer chemicals etc.

Read more about Ion-Mobility Spectrometer technology on Wikipedia

The TSA state “TSA officers may swab your hands, mobility aids, equipment and other external medical devices to test for explosive residue using explosives trace detection technology.” Also the TSA will often swab your phone.

The TSA hand check policy first started in 2010 when they began to swab hands to test for explosive residue using the new technology that was then available.

The TSA states the following on Twitter:

why does tsa wipe your hands

Why did they swab my bag at the airport?

The TSA swabs carry on luggage as one of the first tests to see if you might potentially be carrying an explosive.

A TSA agent can also carry out a swab test on anything else that you may be carrying which includes mobile phones or any other item in your carry on or in your pockets.

A bag or item testing positive will undoubtedly result in you also having a hand swab as part of the explosive detection procedure.

Who does the TSA choose for a hand swab?

Many people are surprised when they are swabbed so understandably ask why did they wipe my hands at airport security? Well it doesn’t necessarily mean they think you look suspicious.

If you are taken aside by a TSA agent for additional screening it could be just a random check.

Others frequently ask why do I always get my hands swabbed at the airport? That might be because you have SSSS on your boarding pass which stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection. According to Wikipedia, individuals from certain countries may automatically be flagged as SSSS along with any others that meet certain criteria.

Having SSSS on a boarding card could mean extra screening in the form of hand swabbing and baggage swabbing for an ETD test, pat downs, being checked with a hand held metal detector, passing through one of the body scanners etc.

The TSA state on their website:

“Some passengers will be required to undergo AIT screening if their boarding pass indicates that they have been selected for enhanced screening, in accordance with TSA regulations, prior to their arrival at the security checkpoint. This will occur in a very limited number of circumstances.”

https://www.tsa.gov/travel/security-screening

Obviously, the Transportation Security Administration does not give out information on exactly why a passenger may be on this list but things that may flag it up are things such as being on a one-way ticket or paying cash for the ticket (do you remember those days when cash was king?)

This passenger who asked why their hands were swabbed at Atlanta Airport was given very little information when he asked the TSA on Twitter:

why does tsa swab your hands

What do they wipe your hands with at the airport?

If you are selected for hand swabbing you will be asked to hold out your hands with your palms forward. The security agent will then swab your hands using a hand swab which is basically just a clean white cloth that is then placed inside the machine which carries out an ETD test for traces of any explosive.

A new swab is used for each passenger both for hygiene reasons and to stop the possibility of cross-contamination of samples.

You may be selected for further checks if you test positive but you shouldn’t worry too much as, like any machine, the detectors are fallible so can give false positives. You may just need to pass through one of the non-invasive body scanners.

Can you refuse to have your hands swabbed?

You certainly have the right to refuse to have your hands wiped and tested for explosives at air travel security but doing so will result in you not being allowed through.

Since the procedure is not in any way invasive it is hard to imagine any justification for not allowing it, other than feeling it is perhaps an infringement of your civil liberties (which it probably is and is something the American Civil Liberties Union believes). Certainly, it would seem very suspicious if you did refuse.

My experience of being swabbed

My wife and I were both swabbed and had to pass through a body scanner at an airport a few years ago as we were told that my carry on bag raised an alarm. For a while, I couldn’t imagine why it would set off an alarm as, obviously, it hadn’t been near any explosives, or at least that’s what I thought.

Then I remembered that the day before traveling I had taken my lawnmower to a repair shop to be fixed while we were away. When I put it into the trunk of the car some of the gas spilled out from the gas tank onto the floor of the trunk. Obviously when I placed my bag in the trunk to drive to the airport that was when it got on the bag!

FAQs

Why did airport security swab my phone?

A phone is one of the items that security agents may swab to check for any traces of explosives that may be on it.

Why do they swab your hands at the airport with pet?

Incredibly, the TSA swab your hands when you are traveling with a pet such as a dog or a cat because you may have put explosive devices inside the pet. Hard to believe but true.

Are random airport security checks really random?

Although the TSA may say they are random, clearly other factors come into play. If a person is from a particular country, or there are perhaps other security concerns, this may flag someone for additional screening.