How To Help Avoid Getting A False Positive On TSA Swab Tests

If you’re traveling by plane in the United States, you know that sometimes you’ll get pulled aside for a “swab test.” Being a “chosen one” appears to be random (although some think it’s if you look suspicious or if a TSA officer still has to fill his/her quota for the day) and it’s certainly harmless enough – they swab your hands (and/or your laptop, shoes, film, cell phone, bags, wheelchair or cast) with a cotton cloth and check for explosive residue in an Explosives Trace Detector (ETD). If you’re negative, you’re free to go. But if you’re positive, you have to go to the next step of security.

The problem is, some people wind up with a false positive. Here’s why:

TSASee, the test is looking for the stuff bombs are made up and the two chemical compounds that are usually used are nitrates and glycerin.  The thing is, there are a lot of typical, everyday things that have those chemicals in them:

  • hand soaps that contain glycerin
  • lotions that contain glycerin
  • cosmetics, hair products, etc. which may contain glycerin
  • baby wipes which may contain glycerin
  • certain medications (e.g., nitroglycerin and other nitrates)
  • lawn fertilizers
  • munitions
  • accelerants
  • fireworks and other pyrotechnics

So what can you do? Simple. Before you get to X-ray, wash your hands….REALLY well (don’t forget to scrub your cuticles and under your fingernails!). Make sure there are no remnants of soap or lotion (or meds or munitions or fireworks) on them. If you recently used a baby wipe, again, make sure your hands have been washed afterwards (although really, if you’re using a baby wipe for its intended use, I hope you’re washing your hands anyway, if you catch my drift). Same thing with your shoes, and if your suitcase or laptop or anything else may have somehow come in contact with any of those chemicals, wipe them down too.

If you still get flagged as positive, don’t make a fuss – most likely you’re going to get patted down again by a TSA worker of the same gender as you, and if you want to get on that plane of yours, there’s nothing you can do about it. If you become belligerent or hostile, they’re just going to think you have something to hide and it certainly won’t get you through the process any faster. So let them do their job and if you have nothing to hide, you should be done soon enough anyway. Assuming you got to the airport far enough in advance (you did get to the airport far enough in advance, right?), the chances of you missing your plane because of this short delay are pretty small.

By the way, if you’re aware of any contact you may have had with those chemicals, let the TSA workers know…it might help them get to the bottom of things faster so you can be on your merry way.

By the way, you can probably thank, in part, the would-be bomber of the Dec. 25, 2009 Northwest Airlines flight 253 over Detroit for prompting the whole hand-swabbing thing. The year after that, TSA implemented the program and spent about $60 million on ETD machines. They’ll never admit that’s why the hand swabbing all started but really, c’mon, what else could it be? So thanks, bomb failure dude!

A tip of the hat and a huge THANK-YOU to Shannon D., who gave us the initial heads up about this topic!

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3 thoughts on “How To Help Avoid Getting A False Positive On TSA Swab Tests”

  1. I haven’t flown to the US in many years but I have never heard nor experienced this TSA test, I ve walked through metal detectors, and had wand waved over me. I’ll have to look it up. Is this only done in the USA?

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    1. Hi Kelly! I can’t speak for other countries (we travel quite a bit but only travel internationally once every other year or so) but the TSA has been doing it since at least 2010, if not before then. Not everyone get swabbed (unlike going through the metal detector, which just about everyone does, or the wand, which happens relatively frequently) and I think it’s only happened to me a small handful of times. So I could see how you might not have experienced it. 🙂

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