The Nastiest Spot On An Airplane Isn't What You Think

The dirtiest place on an airplane? It has to be the bathroom, right? All those people sharing just a few seriously cramped bathrooms while thousands of miles in the air isn't exactly the most hygienic situation in the world. But if you thought the airplane bathroom was the worst spot on the plane for germs, you're wrong.

CBC's Marketplace conducted a study in 2018 to find the dirtiest part of a plane, collecting over 100 samples from 18 flights across three different airlines. The Canadian company took swabs from the seatbelts, tray tables, headrests, seat pockets, and the handle to the bathroom. And, well, it turns out the dirtiest place on a plane isn't the bathroom after all. It's actually your headrest and the seat pocket in front of you. Really. The exact places you're putting your head and hands the most. As if it wasn't bad enough that we're getting more breakouts and dry skin on our flights. According to flight attendants who spoke to the outlet, seat pockets are so gross because of the vast array of things that get pushed in there during a flight. Just some of the items they claimed to have found in the seat pockets at the end of a flight? Tampons, dirty diapers, and even condoms. Please excuse us while we throw up.

Your airplane headrest and seat pocket could contain E. coli and staph

CBC's seriously eye-opening study found that there were traces of E. coli bacteria on both the headrest and the seat pocket, which insinuates there were traces of fecal matter on them. Gross. Coming into contact with E. coli can have some pretty serious consequences, too. It's been known to cause some nasty symptoms in the human body, including bloody diarrhea, stomach cramps, and a fever. But there are even more serious germs causing problems than that. The study found some of the headrests swabbed also had traces of staph and hemolytic bacteria on them. Staph could lead to a staph infection if ingested, and that's certainly no picnic. Staph infections can cause painful red lumps or swollen skin, skin sores, crusts, blisters, and sore eyes. As for hemolytic bacteria, that can lead to strep throat. Strep throat can result in a sore throat, fever, and even puss around the tonsils.

One thing to remember though? It goes without saying airplanes are dirty. That's just a fact because of how many people travel on them and how quick the turnaround to get it back in the air has to be after it touches down — with not nearly enough time to disinfect it fully on a lot of occasions. However, a separate 2018 study found that while airplanes are bacteria magnets, they're not really any dirtier than other public spaces. And we take our chances with those every day.

How to avoid the germs on an airplane

Unfortunately, for the very vast majority of us who can't afford to fly on private jets, having to face the germs on an airplane is pretty inevitable. But there are ways you can try to protect yourself as soon as you step on that plane. One of the first lines of defense is wiping down the area you're going to be sitting in. Of course, you can't take a collection of cleaning products onto a plane with you due to airline safety rules, but you can take antibacterial wipes onboard. Thoroughly wiping down your seat, headrest, and the seat in front of you (including the seat pocket, of course) could seriously decrease your chances of encountering something nasty. Equally, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be your best friend on any flight. After you've touched the plane, squirt a little in your hands to kill the germs. The Centers for Disease Prevention (CDC) recommends an alcohol content of 60% or higher.

As we learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, wearing a mask can also help keep you and others safe from breathing in each other's germs. You also may want to invest in a neck pillow, as putting that around your neck will keep your head a few centimeters further away from the dreaded germ-ridden headrest. If you're particularly vulnerable, you may even want to try getting your hands on a disposable airplane seat cover or a tray table cover for your trip.