Twice this year, A-listers on planes have made headlines — not just because they were on board in the first place, but because of their germ-fighting plane rituals.
“Clean everything you touch,” Campbell says as she wipes down every nook and cranny of her premium seat. “ … This is what I do on every plane I get on. I do not care what people think of me. It’s my health and it makes me feel better.”
Months later, it was Nicole Richie’s gloves and antibacterial wipes routine that made news when supermodel Heidi Klum posted about her travel companion’s extreme cleaning routine. The video isn’t as lengthy as Campbell’s, so we don’t get a good look at just how thorough Richie gets beyond three Wet Ones.
Are these germ-conscious celebrities on to something? Should other travelers be following suit?
“It’s certainly going a bit overboard,” says Tania Elliott, attending physician at NYU Langone Health and a board-certified allergist and internist. “That said, is there necessarily harm in doing this? I don’t think so.”
Elliott thinks most people worry about germs on airplanes because of the recirculated air but that it doesn’t need to be a concern. She says breathing in a plane’s recirculated air won’t increase your chances of picking up a virus any more than being in any other crowded space.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is on the same page. Commercial jets built after the ′80s are outfitted with efficient air filtering systems that should put anxious minds at ease.
“Recirculated cabin air is filtered through HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters,” a CDC post on healthy flying states. “These effectively remove most bacteria and viruses from the air, limiting their spread through the cabin. Practice good handwashing and cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing to further prevent the spread of disease.”
According to Elliott, you shouldn’t be more concerned about germs on a plane than you would be in other public places, like a taxi or a movie theater. However, there are exceptions. If you have food allergies, you’ll definitely want to clean your tray table before any in-flight dining.
“I think it’s important to wipe down surfaces, because food particles don’t die,” Elliott says. “Remnants of food particles can be present for prolonged periods of time, but things like hand sanitizers or alcohol-based things actually won’t get rid of a food allergen. They’ll get rid of bacteria or viruses. So it’s important to make sure you use a detergent, even soap and water, to be wiping down those surfaces.”
The other time to exercise sanitizing seriously is if you’re in a place that’s experiencing a public medical emergency. Wearing a face mask and wiping down surfaces in case any infected droplets have fallen into your area might be the best thing you can do to protect yourself.
“If you’re traveling somewhere there is a measles epidemic, you take those extra precautions,” Elliott says. “Measles is a very, very, very potent virus.”
As for wearing face masks in general, Elliott recommends the practice only for elderly travelers or travelers taking certain medications that can compromise their immune system.
“In everyday healthy adults, perhaps it’s a little bit overkill,” Elliott says. “And again, go back to: Would you wear this thing everywhere you go? To stores and things like that?”
Instead of the sanitizing routine, Elliott recommends tips like bringing your own blanket and pillow, using your own containers to transport food and avoiding touching in-flight magazines or seat-back pocket reading material.
“That’s a place where [travelers] don’t often think about germs,” Elliott says. “You’re not necessarily thinking about the person before you who’s potentially had, like, snot all over their hands. Now you’re reading through the same magazine.”
Traveling is stressful, and stress can weaken your immune system. If channeling Campbell and Richie on your flight gives you peace of mind and eases some of that stress, maybe it’s not so crazy to wipe down everything in sight.