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People Who Don't Brush Their Teeth on Long Flights Are Gross

Airports + Flying
by Morgane Croissant Mar 14, 2022

This is the Travel Take, where Matador’s writers and editors make the case for their favorite travel hacks, tips, and personal tics.

Airplane bathrooms are disgusting. There’s no way around the fact that when 300-plus passengers share six lavatories on a long flight, the facilities get nasty, and get nasty fast. Flight attendants do their best to keep them decent, but it’s hard to make the teeny tiny smelly box that passes for a bathroom remotely satisfactory — especially in economy.

That said, a gross bathroom is no excuse for not brushing your teeth during a flight. A good rule of thumb for airplane buccal hygiene is: If you ate a meal on board, then brush your teeth. After all, we’ve been told by dentists for decades that we need to brush our teeth at least twice a day, and that brushing three times a day can lead to better heart health, so why would that change when we’re in an airplane?

But despite being backed by just about every tooth expert in the world, my seemingly irrefutable logic is not one that everyone is on board with. When I briefly mentioned brushing your teeth during a flight to a room full of travelers who spend a shocking amount of time in airplanes, I was met with a chorus of “ick” and “yuck”.

Apparently, my dental regimen, although impeccable, made me the scummy one.

Brushing your teeth on a flight does not mean you have to put your toothbrush down by the sink or close your mouth around the tap. You can go through the entire operation without making it nauseating. Just keep your toothbrush away from the high-touch surfaces and gather water from the tap in your cupped hands — that’s not rocket science.

But as I understand from my extremely sanitary coworkers, the water from an airplane tap is one of the foulest things out there. I am officially the office dirtbag.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency is in charge of setting standards for water quality in airplanes, as well as enforcing those standards. The water that comes from the bathroom tap should be safe, technically. And despite studies that have shown that the water quality varies (sometimes drastically) by airline, I choose to believe I can swish half a cup of the stuff in my mouth and spit it out without getting sick. So far, despite my ostensibly filthy habit, I have not.

But if the cleanliness of the water is too big a worry for you to start brushing your teeth during a flight, you have options. Get a cup of water from the crew or grab one of the small bottles of water provided with your meal or seat, and use that to rinse your mouth and clean your toothbrush. There’s nothing vile about that.

Brushing your teeth during a flight is not gross — not brushing your teeth is. Airlines don’t pack amenity kits with toothbrushes and mini tubes of toothpaste for the glory of it all — they do it so that passengers use them and arrive fresh at their destination.

Of course, you can brush your teeth at the airport before boarding and after landing, but why would you want to wait? It’s not just about consideration for the people you are traveling with or the people around you (those may be protected from your bad breath or the food items stuck in your teeth by the current mask mandate onboard airplanes), but for your own personal hygiene and comfort.

If my tirade has convinced you to take a leap towards better mouth health while flying, go even one step further and bring some floss.

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