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Hand sanitizing, SARS mask wearing, squat-hovering over the airplane toilet seat. You may think you have your airport hygiene hacks down pat, but this recent study by InsuranceQuotes.com may force you to think again.

Turns out self-service check-in kiosks are by far the dirtiest places in any airport — which, after that initial wince of disgust, makes a lot of sense when you think about the sheer number of individuals handling the ubiquitous touch screens every day.

Researchers conducted 18 tests across six surfaces at three major US airports, including Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL), the busiest airport in America since 1998. Each surface was swabbed several times to establish a consistent sample, then the numbers were averaged to find the amount of colony-forming units (CFU) — a.k.a. viable bacteria and fungal cells — per square inch.

The average self check-in screen contained 253,857 CFU according to the findings, while one particularly potent kiosk hosted over one million CFU/sq. in. In comparison, the average household toilet averages just 172 CFU.

While self-service kiosks were the germiest spots by a very wide margin, the report also called out second- and third-place contamination culprits. Gate bench armrests averaged 21,630 CFU/sq. in., while water fountain buttons averaged 19,181 CFU/sq. in. — comparable to the bacteria levels in the average household kitchen sink.

Gate bench armrests are the second dirtiest place at the airport, with an average of 21,630 CFU/sq. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)
Gate bench armrests are the second-dirtiest place in the airport, with an average of 21,630 CFU/sq. in. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

Of course, the microbial onslaught doesn’t end with the airport. The researchers also swabbed a number of surfaces onboard several major commercial carrier flights, revealing that lavatory flush buttons average 95,145 CFU/sq. in., followed by tray tables averaging 11,595 CFU/sq. in., and seatbelt buckles 1,116 CFU/sq. in.

Cleanliness standards are up to the individual airline, as the FAA doesn’t regulate how often or how thoroughly airlines are required to sanitize aircraft according to a 2017 Thrillist report.

Cleaning crews typically just remove trash and wipe down lavatories between flights according to InsuranceQuotes.com, while deep cleaning only takes place every month or so at best.

You can read the full report here — which will make you want to wash your hands immediately.

Feature image by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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