By Gary McKechnie
Did you know that something as simple as a gum wrapper can trigger airport alarms? Here, eight ways you may unknowingly set off security measures—and what to do about it.
ver wonder why the TSA singled you out to rifle through your bag? Or what exactly made the metal detector beep? By now, we all know to ditch our liquids before reaching security. But did you know that something as harmless as a headband can prompt a time-consuming cross-examination?
On an average day, transportation security officers scan more than 2 million travelers—and all of their luggage—and that number will only continue to increase. We spoke to TSA spokeswoman Lauren Gaches for the lowdown on eight seemingly harmless items that put officers on high alert.
Aluminum foil wrappers
Why they catch attention: Nothing escapes the metal-detecting prowess of airport security systems—not even something as miniscule as a foil wrapper. Many manufacturers of chewing gum, candy, and cigarettes have caught on and made the transition from metallic wrap to paper, but the hold-outs can put a kink in your smooth passage through airport checkpoints.
What to do: Empty your pockets of any and all offending foil before passing through a metal detector.
Why they catch attention: Most screeners have been around long enough to gauge the threat level of familiar items such as keys, says Gaches. That said, retractable keys (the kind that pop out at the press of a button) can look like small knives in an X-ray image when they’re extended.
What to do: It’s not the type of item that’s guaranteed to get you pulled aside, but to be on the safe side, we recommend retracting the keys before you send them down the X-ray conveyor belt.
Why they catch attention: Even though headbands (like bulky clothing and hats) are not prohibited, sporting them may lead to additional screening. The reason is simple: Metal constitutes the frame of many headbands and, consequently, triggers the detector.
What to do: Avoid being pulled aside by sending your hair accessory through security ahead of you on the X-ray belt.
Small alcohol bottles
Why they catch attention: The TSA is naturally more focused on detecting potential explosives than in analyzing the contents of your personal minibar, but when it comes to liquors, the rules are based on size and packaging: Respectively, alcohol must be less than 3.4 ounces, bottled in original container, and contained in a one-quart sized, zip-top bag.
What to do: As long as you follow the 3-1-1 requirements for liquids, you should be ok.
Why they catch attention: Don’t expect to get onto a plane with a snow globe. Believe it or not, the liquid contents of most crystal balls surpass the 3.4-ounce limit and, consequently, aren’t allowed in carry-ons. In fact, back in October an abandoned package containing a snow globe appeared so suspicious that it caused the evacuation of Bradley International Airport in Connecticut.
What to do: There’s no way around it—snow globes need to be checked.
Why they catch attention: As an aerosol product, some inhalers are a cause for concern because at first glance they may seem to violate the “3-1-1” rule for liquids, gels, and aerosols (limit of 3.4 ounces, packed in one quart-size, see-through, zip-top bag). Of course, given that these objects are a medical must for some travelers, they are exempt from restriction.
What to do: To avoid unwanted questioning, Gaches advises travelers to inform officers in advance if they’re carrying an inhaler. It helps speed things up if your medications are properly labeled.
Why they catch attention: The TSA swears this shouldn’t be an issue, but we’ve heard plenty of tales from women (and at least one cross-dresser) who insist that the metal in an underwire bra has triggered a secondary “wanding” after passing through the metal detector. In some cases, a rogue underwire has even led to a closer inspection by a female agent in a private room.
What to do: The answer, then, may be to pack the metallic lingerie in your checked bags and sport a more comfortable model while in flight.
Jars of peanut butter
Why they catch attention: Everything on earth can be categorized as a liquid, gas, or solid—except maybe lava and peanut butter. It’s doubtful you’ll be packing lava in your purse, but what about peanut butter? It’s certainly not a liquid—you could hold it upside down for a decade and it would never drop. But anything that can “conform to the shape of its container,” such as cold cream, toothpaste, or, yes, peanut butter, can upset the swift flow of the security line.
What to do: Plan ahead and pack “conformable” liquids in the bags you’ll be checking. Peanut butter sandwiches, on the other hand, are perfectly fine.
Note: This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.