Photo: Joni Hanebutt/Shutterstock

What Airport Body Scanners Can Really See, and When You Should Skip Them

Airports + Flying
by Morgane Croissant Aug 28, 2023

Long gone are the days when the TSA used backscatter x-ray scanners that left very little to the imagination. Today, they’ve been replaced by another type of full-body scanner that’s pretty hard — but not impossible — to avoid if you fly in the United States.

This story is part of the Matador guide to airports

What is the X-ray machine at the airport called?

There are three types of security screening equipments in airports in the US:

  • CT scanners, a type of x-ray machine used for luggage
  • Walk-through metal detectors to detect metal objects
  • Full-body millimeter wave scanners to reveal metal and non-metal objects

Is the airport body scanner an x-ray machine?

There are two types of airport body scanners: One type uses x-ray technology while the other uses millimetre-wave technology. In the US, Canada, and the European Union, airport scanners use millimetre-wave technology only. Millimeter-wave technology does not emit x-rays and does not pose any health risks.

What do airport body scanners see?

Full-body scanner at airports

Photo: Anton Gvozdikov/Shutterstock

Airport body scanners in the US and Canada are able to detect metal and non-metal objects that may be concealed under clothing and their exact location on your body. Full-body scanners do not reveal your naked body or the insides of your body, instead, airport security staff see a generic human shape, without any specific identifying features, that resemble that of a doll. The generic human shape is the same for every traveler going through an airport scanner.

Can airport body scanners detect health issues?

Airport body scanners that use millimeter-wave technology, like those in the US and Canada, do not reveal what’s inside a person’s body. Unlike x-ray technology, millimeter-wave technology only checks the contour of the body; therefore, it cannot detect health issues such as tumors or inflammation.

Is it safe for pregnant people to go through an airport x-ray machine?

In the US and Canada, full-body scanners do not use x-ray technology, instead they use millimeter-wave technology, which is safe for pregnant people.

For more regarding pregnancy travels, consult Matador’s guide “Everything You Need To Know About Flying While Pregnant, According To an OBGYN“.

Can breast milk go through an airport scanner?

Equipment and supplies needed to travel with breast milk: breast pumps and milk storage

Photo: Nor Gal/Shutterstock

According to the TSA, the CT scanners and x-ray machines used to screen your luggage do not have any negative effects on food, medicine, or breast milk. However, If you prefer that the baby food you’re traveling with not go through the x-ray machine or CT scanner or be opened, you must inform the TSA agent. Note that in this case, you may be asked to go through additional security screening.

Traveling with breast milk can be daunting. Knowing what to expect when flying with breast milk can help you arrive prepared.

Can Dexcom go through airport security?

Dexcom is a continuous blood sugar monitoring system for people with diabetes. The system consists in a sensor attached to the body, often the belly or the back of the arm, that transmits glucose level to a portable device such as a cell phone or connected watch.

Dexom sensors should not go through full-body scans or x-ray machines, however, they can withstand metal detector and screening wands. Let the TSA agent know about your sensor prior to security screening, so they know to screen you with a pat-down, wand, or to perform a visual screening only. Make sure to explain that you cannot take off your sensor. Do not leave your Dexom sensor in your luggage or it will go through an x-ray machine; instead put it in a separate bag to give to the TSA agent.

The information above is valid for all CGM (continuous glucose monitoring) systems.

For more information about the realities of traveling with diabetes, check out Matador’s What It’s Like To Travel With Type 1 Diabetes“.

Can I go through an airport body scanner if I have a pacemaker?

Airport body scanners using millimeter-wave technology, like those in the US and Canada, are safe for people using pacemakers.

X-ray machines and metal detector pose very limited risk to those wearing a pacemaker, however, to be on the safe side, always inform the security agent that you have a pacemaker implanted.

Can I go through an airport body scanner if I have surgical metal implants?

It is safe for travelers with surgical metal implants like titanium hips, or plates and screws, to go through an airport body scanner.

Can I go through an airport body scanner if I have breast implants?

It is safe for travelers with breast implants to go through an airport body scanner. The breast implants will not be visible to the TSA agent.

Breast prosthesis, however, will be detected during a full-body scanner. Travelers with breast prosthesis should inform the TSA agent about their prothesis before proceeding into the scanner; they may go through additional security screening.

Can I go through an airport body scanner if I have a colostomy bag?

If you have an ostomy pouch, whether colostomy, ileostomy, and urostomy, inform the TSA agent before the security screening. You can go through the full-body scanner, the metal detector, or even a pat-down with your ostomy pouch, without having to empty it or show it to the TSA agent. Know that you may be required to undergo additional security screening.

How do you avoid body scanner at the airport?

In the US, travelers are allowed to refuse to go through the body scanner and opt for a physical search instead. Passengers who have been selected for enhanced screening, however, cannot opt out of the full-body scanner.

Travelers who sign up for TSA precheck can usually avoid having to through a full-body scanner, however, they still need to walk through a metal detector.

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