That sinking feeling sets in just as you reach the front of the TSA security line. You’re not worried about having done something wrong—you just realized that you forgot socks and now nothing will stand between you and that gross, cold airport floor.
I’ve been there. I have TSA PreCheck, so in theory I shouldn’t have to take my shoes off. But on occasion, I’ve worn shoes that are too bulky to be allowed through the metal detector. Or random screening kicks in and I have to take my shoes off—only to remember that I’m not wearing socks.
So is it really that bad to go barefoot at airport security? Expert opinions vary, but after reading this quote from podiatrist Dr. Michael Nirenberg, I’m firmly in the “keeping a barrier between my feet and the floor” camp. Nirenberg says, “The risk is raised in cases of open sores or wounds, cuts, abrasions, dry, fissured skin, or poor circulation, diabetes … children are more susceptible to catching warts because their immune system is not fully developed.”
Or, if you turn to WebMD (as I always do when I want to confirm my very worst health fears), you’ll find alarming quotes, including this one from Dr. Rami Calis, DPM: “Athlete’s foot is not the only issue. … Think of all the things that fall off people’s shoes. Also, there might be small tacks or sharp pebbles that could cut you—and if you have an opening in the skin, that is asking for infection. Even a sock won’t protect your foot. If you do step on a tack, then we’re talking about [possibly] having to get a tetanus shot, and possible infections.”
The TSA, of course, disagrees. According to its blog, the TSA actually commissioned a 2003 study on this issue with the Department of Health and Human Services. The study found that as long as the floor wasn’t moist, the possibility of contracting a foot fungus while walking through barefoot was “extremely small to remote.”
Infectious disease specialist William Schaffner agrees that the risk of infection is low for most healthy travelers. In a Wall Street Journal story, he advised, “It’s in prolonged dampness that a toe fungus can get a foothold, so to speak. So unless you’re in the middle of a monsoon and the airport has flooded, you’re not going to be sloshing through a sea of water and spreading foot germs.” He tells travelers who are still worried to either wear socks or to wipe their feet with disinfecting cloths after getting through security.
I’ll feel a little bit better next time I wind up barefoot at airport security, but I’m definitely keeping my shoes and socks on whenever possible. How about you?
More from SmarterTravel:
- 7 Unintentionally Gross Things You Do While Traveling
- 10 Germiest Places You Encounter While Traveling
- TSA Rules: Airport Security Frequently Asked Questions
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2016. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.