Should You Think Twice About Washing Your Hands on a Plane?

A recent study found that the water used on flights—the same water used for hand washing and for coffee and tea—might be unhealthy. So, we asked some health experts what we should do to stay clean and safe up in the air.

Should You Think Twice About Washing Your Hands on a Plane?

A recent study revealed that airplane water is not clean—including the water we wash our hands with.

Photo by Trophayy/Shutterstock

For the past decade the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center has been analyzing airline food to determine the health and quality of the meals and snacks served on airplanes. This year, the team of researchers turned their attention toward the water used on airplanes—and the results are worrisome.

The water that airlines use to make coffee and tea as well as the water coming out of the faucet in the bathroom could be unhealthy, according to their 2019 Airline Water Study, which was released earlier this fall. The study ranked 11 major U.S. carriers and 12 regional airlines on the quality of water they provide onboard their flights based on factors like whether or not the water tested positive for E. coli and coliform bacteria.

Only three major airlines—Alaska Airlines, Allegiant Air, and Hawaiian Airlines—were reported to have relatively clean water. That’s despite the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (ADWR) requires that safe and reliable drinking water be provided to aircraft passengers and crew.

“Aircraft drinking water quality depends on a number of factors—e.g., the care used to board the water, the water transfer equipment (such as water cabinets, trucks, carts, and hoses), and the operation and maintenance of the onboard water system,” an EPA spokesperson told AFAR in a statement.

The spokesperson noted that air carriers are required to take corrective action when failures occur in procedures for boarding water, or when the boarded water doesn’t meet the regulatory standards.

But according to Charles Platkin, executive director of the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center and author of the 2019 Airline Water Study, airlines send their own water samples to a lab to test the levels of E. coli and coliform bacteria and self-report the results to the EPA.

“You think self-reported data is the best method? It’s not,” said Platkin. His concern is both that the data being submitted isn’t telling the whole story of how unclean onboard water might be and that the EPA isn’t doing enough to enforce its own regulations.

The EPA “rarely levies civil penalties to airlines in violation of the ADWR,” Platkin’s report stated.

Until—and unless—airlines clean up their act, or rather their water, the report advised passengers to avoid drinking tea, coffee, or water that’s not from a sealed water bottle; it also advised against washing hands in the lavatory.

“I’m not saying every airline has tainted E.coli water, they don’t, but I certainly wouldn’t want to wash my hands with potentially [tainted water],” said Platkin.

Given the findings, what’s a reasonably hygenic passenger to do? We reached out to some experts to help us figure out the best path forward for a clean and healthy in-flight experience.

What is the risk, really?

First off, let’s tackle what coliform bacteria and E. coli are and what kind of risks they pose. Coliform bacteria are microbes that typically don’t make you sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But if there’s a high level of these microbes in say, water, there could be harmful germs like viruses, bacteria, and parasites present.

It’s a similar story with Escherichia coli (E. coli), a bacteria that’s typically harmless. But there are some strains of E. coli that can cause stomach illness and are transmitted through contaminated water or food, the CDC tells us.

While we know that airlines reported traces of coliform bacteria and E. coli in their water, what we don’t know is how much or what kinds.

“It’s important to know that the risk of coliform counts has to do with the level that are present,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, wrote in an email.

Unfortunately, we don’t know what those levels are, and we also don’t have any information regarding any microorganisms other than coliform bacteria and E. coli, noted Platkin. That’s a whole lot of unknowns.

To wash your hands or not to wash your hands?

The 2019 Airline Water Study concluded that travelers should not drink any water on a flight that isn’t from a sealed bottle; that they shouldn’t drink the coffee or tea served onboard; and that they shouldn’t wash their hands in the bathroom—and use hand sanitizer instead.

The first two items are easy enough to comply with if you’re nervous about the potential drawbacks of drinking water that comes from the aircraft tanks. Fine, we’ll pass on the subpar coffee and tea and stick to bottled water. But the last item had us wondering—is it really better to skip washing your hands after using the restroom?

“My answer is ‘no,’” said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University and an infectious diseases expert. “The hazard is very low.

“First of all, we don’t know how dense the bacterial load is,” he said.

His advice? Rather than skip washing your hands on an airplane altogether, wash your hands using whatever soap is provided. “If you’re worried, once you disembark, you can go to the restroom and wash your hands again. If you have a small vial of hand sanitizer or if you have a sanitary wipe and you want to be that careful, by all means use it,” said Schaffner.

Schaffner explained that in the process of washing your hands, the soap encircles organic material and lifts if off, readying it to be rinsed away. The friction from rubbing your hands together with soap is critical. And when your dry your hands with a paper towel, that’s another line of defense as well, especially if the water is potentially contaminated, as it provides more friction.

“But the water, I would imagine, doesn’t resemble pond scum. It’s obviously not [dirty] to that degree. If you add on the hand sanitizer, or sani-wipes [after washing], you’ll do very well,” said Schaffner.

Hand sanitizer strategy

If you’re still not convinced and would prefer to stick with hand sanitizer, or at least use hand sanitizer in addition to washing, make sure you have an effective sanitizer and are using it correctly.

According to the CDC, you should use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. But that’s not enough to get you out of the woods. You also have to make sure you apply it correctly.

“Apply the product to the palm of one hand and rub the product all over the surfaces of your hands until your hands are dry,” the CDC recommended. So apparently our quick squirt and then shake our hands like a Polaroid picture to dry them off isn’t the most effective approach.

If you’re looking for a great hand sanitizer, we have a few staff favorites that meet the CDC’s recommendation of containing at least 60 percent alcohol:

  • AFAR’s Maggie Fuller swears by EO Lavender Hand Sanitizer Spray. “[It] makes me feel like I’m in a spa even when I’m in the middle of a 17-hour, cramped flight. Plus, I hate the feel of gel sanitizers so the alcohol spray is a lifesaver,” Fuller said. Buy Now: $22 for six two-ounce bottles,
  • A mom (aka a germ warrior) and frequent traveler, I myself don’t leave home without Jao Refresher Sanitizer Gel, which also has a light lavender scent. The gel only comes in an eight-ounce bottle, but you can decant it into Matador FlatPak toiletry bottles to make it TSA friendly. Buy Now: $29 for an eight-ounce bottle,
  • And, there’s nothing wrong with good ol’ Purell Hand Sanitizer Gel. Buy Now: $12 for eight one-ounce bottles,

As for the coffee or tea, we can’t really help you there, other than to say, is it really worth it?

>> Next: Please Don’t Put Your Suitcase on the Bed, Ever

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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