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Will Sanitizing Your Luggage Keep You From Getting Sick? A Doctor Weighs In

Travel Safety Technology + Gear
by Morgane Croissant Jul 1, 2024

This summer, as part of a pilot program, JFK Airport’s Terminal 7 is equipped with Clean, a luggage-disinfecting system that uses UV-C light to “eliminate 99.9 percent of viruses, bacteria, and other harmful pathogens from luggage surfaces in seconds,” a press release explains.

The system is a machine that resembles a TSA luggage scanner. When bags go through Clean via a small conveyor belt, they are blasted with a special kind of ultraviolet light that denatures the DNA of the bacterias and viruses that may be present on their surface, effectively killing them.

Clean charges travelers $7 to sanitize one piece of luggage, and $10 for two. Travelers are able to use all forms of payment except cash. Members of some airline loyalty club can use Clean to sanitize two pieces of luggage for free.

While currently only available at JFK airport, clean operations and machines are likely to be found in other airports, cruise ships, train stations, and airport lounges very soon, says Rodney Jones, president of ThinkClean Technologies in an email.

Do people actually disinfect their luggage?

For some travelers, a luggage-disinfecting system like Clean is a godsend. A quick look at a November 2023 thread titled “Do you clean your luggage after a trip?” on Rick Steve’s Europe’s travel forum reveals that many travelers do indeed worry about the cleanliness of their baggage.

“After this last trip, I wiped our suitcases (both hard and soft-sided, wheels & handle included) down with anti-bacterial wipes, emptied out and sun-aired them,” explains user CanAMcherie from Washington.

In an email, Arsen Misakyan, frequent traveler and co-founder of LAXcar, reveals to me a similar post-trip routine. “I’ve been disinfecting my luggage after every trip for about 5 years now, a habit I started after COVID-19.” Misakyan uses Clorox disinfecting wipes to clean handles, zippers, and wheels, then sprays the exterior with Lysol disinfectant. Afterwards, he airs out the luggage to ensure it’s dry before storing it. When asked if, given the chance, he would use Clean, despite the price, he responded enthusiastically.

“I think the new luggage disinfecting system at JFK is a fantastic idea, especially at $10 for two pieces of luggage. This cost seems reasonable for the peace of mind it offers. I would definitely pay for this service to ensure a higher level of sanitation than I can achieve manually. It’s convenient and adds an extra layer of hygiene, which is crucial in today’s travel environment.”

Disinfecting your luggage to stay healthy

Clean’s motto on their website is “Don’t get sick, get Clean”, but does disinfecting your bags with Clean, or wipes or sprays, really keep you from getting sick? And does your luggage even need to be sanitized? I asked Dr. Lawrence Loh, a public health physician and adjunct professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, Canada.

“UV-C light for the purpose of disinfection has been shown to be effective in controlled experimental settings. However, the World Health Organization and other national health agencies indicate that it should be used as an accessory modality to primary cleaning methods. That’s because real-world results can vary depending on the surface it’s used on, the length of exposure, and the intensity of the light,” he explains.

Not only is luggage extremely varied in its shapes and materials (some are textile, some are plastic, some are leather, some have ridges, some are smooth, etc.) potentially impacting the efficiency of UV-C lights for the intent of sanitizing, but Clean promises a near-perfect result in 15 seconds, which may not actually be enough, Loh says.

“Based on scientific papers that document the efficacy of 254 nm UVC light against various microorganisms and our hands-on application of various UV validation tools, we are confident in the luggage sanitization service offered by Clean”, Jones explains in an email conversation. “We have conducted field trials in real-world conditions to verify effectiveness and performance. Using dosimeters from Intellego Technologies (the leader in UV technology validation), we have confirmed that luggage placed at a distance of 12 inches or less has enough exposure within 20 seconds to kill 99.9% of many pathogens including SARS/Covid, Influenza, MRSA, and C. diff,” he continues.

But beyond the efficiency of Clean, disinfecting your luggage after a trip is not the best mean of preventing sickness. “In preventing infectious diseases while travelling, I wouldn’t start with luggage. That’s pretty low risk,” Loh says. “Your luggage is mostly handled by you. It’s not a high-touch surface compared to something like say public screens or doorknobs.”

According to Loh, better ways to stay healthy during your travels is first and foremost, to wash your hands with soap regularly. His other recommendations include wearing a mask in crowded areas during respiratory spikes, being up to date with vaccinations, and practising food safety.

Clean VS. Sanitized

One clarification that needs to be made about Clean is that the system may sanitize your luggage, but will not actually remove the dirt and stains from it. If your rolling suitcase was dragged through dirt, dust, or even dog poop, a few seconds under a UV-C light won’t make a difference. You’ll need to get a wet and soapy cloth to take care of it. “The presence of opaque dirt impacts the effectiveness of UV-C light”, Loh explains.

The same goes for bed bugs, a much more realistic threat coming from inside your luggage. UV-C light would not address what’s inside. Neither would external household disinfectant, or soap and water.

In an email conversation, Amber Haggerty, frequent traveler and blogger at, explains, “I travel often and started using a heated container to sanitize my luggage after the news of Paris’ bedbug woes. I chose the Ranger Bed Bug Heater from Amazon, instead of a chemical sanitizer or insecticide because I believe they’re safer and more reliably able to kill any bedbugs that might be lingering in my luggage.” Haggerty added that is she unlikely to use the luggage-disinfecting system at JFK because it only cleans the surface of the luggage — unless it’s free, in which case she would reconsider.

One golden rule for every traveler is this: no matter if you disinfect your bag (with Clean or something else), wash it with soap and water, or just leave it as is: Don’t. Put. It. On. The. Bed.

“Treat your luggage as a used pair of shoes: don’t put them on the bed or anywhere you want to keep clean,” Loh says.

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