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A Cautionary Tale re: Security and Skin Ointments

Back in 2017 I was travelling to France and had applied for Global Entry and been conditionally approved, but wasn't able to schedule the interview before I left the US. I was coming back through SFO so planned to try to get the interview done when going through customs when I re-entered.

I had been in an airbnb in Avignon with no window screen and had gotten eaten alive by mosquitos. I had gone to a local pharmacy and gotten hydrocortisone for the bites. They sold me ointment, not cream. I was using the ointment liberally all over my arms and neck. Ointments are petroleum based.

The morning I was returning to the US I got my boarding pass and headed to security for my flight CGD->SFO. My boarding pass was flagged "SSSS" which I didn't understand at the time meant "Secondary Security Screening Selection." I think the incomplete Global Entry process triggered the SSSS, but will never know. But when I got to security they (among other things) checked my fingers for explosives residue.

The make the story short, there was a great deal of angst.

Fortunately I had the tube of ointment in my pack, lots of bug bites to point to, etc. Finally the nice lady (and she was nice about it) told me to rub my fingers really well on my jeans legs, and I passed muster.

PS: No problem getting the Global Entry completed at SFO.

Posted by
784 posts

And could have been just a random selection. Happened to my husband at a gate when boarding a Delta flight at Amsterdam. He got flagged. I wasn't but stood aside waiting for him as I didn't like the idea of getting on the plane not knowing what was happening. The person swabbing for explosives thought I had been flagged too and had me come over for the test. Thankfully we were both fine and got on with no trouble.

Posted by
8391 posts

SSSS is random, every x person in line to check in. They always swab at SSSS.

Posted by
3655 posts

SSSS is either random or it's triggered by something in your pattern of travel or profile. It's the airline that gives you the designation. I can't see how Global Entry could factor into it. Two stories:

  1. I was fleeing a disabled Northwest Airlines mechanical problem in Albuquerque. The only way to get home was to leave the secure area, get a paper printout of my ticket from the Northwest counter, then hawk it down the check in counters to see if anyone would get me home. I was treated by the airline's system (Frontier) as a one-way cash paying customer which generated the SSSS and the extra security re-entering the secured area where I had just spent 6 futile hours.

  2. Returning from New Zealand with my son he was given the SSSS from Air New Zealand. That was just a minor hiccup in Auckland but unfortunately the SSSS carried through onto the next boarding pass, the United flight out of O'Hare. The problem was he checked his chargers in his bags, wore down his laptop battery on the 14 hour flight, and the O'Hare policy with SSSS is that electronic devices that cannot be turned on are confiscated. He as able to talk his way out of that one without me. Lesson learned is that in parties where some get SSSS and some don't, turn over all carry on items to the non-SSSS passengers.

Posted by
424 posts

My last transatlantic flight was returning to Detroit from London just prior to the pandemic. I was unable to generate my Delta boarding pass that morning at the hotel and of course the reason was that I had been flagged the dreaded "SSSS".

It really was an unpleasant experience because the screening at Heathrow was done in a small partition inside the large passenger's waiting area. Everyone waiting is watching what goes on behind the glass. I was rather taken aback when they told me to lift my shirt in front of that audience. Fortunately I am in fine shape but it's still rather embarrassing. Should it happen again I think I will ask for the more private option. The worst part is that we travel carry on only which means I had scientifically fit as much as I possibly could into my carry on and personal bags. They made me take out each item one by one and even examined inside my camera's cleaning tissues. The line for SSSS was becoming longer and longer. It took me a very long time to get everything to fit again. They kept pushing my items over the edge of the table which made me take even longer repacking. I felt bad for the screeners doing such an unpleasant unrewarding job.

The experience was made worse because our original flight had been canceled due to weather (most of the flights that morning were canceled) and we lost our comfort plus seats and could only get economy bulkhead seats on the next available flight 6 hours later. Luckily we had arrived early enough to be among the few people who could get the next available so we were thankful for that. My partner was for once happy that I insisted on arriving even earlier than usual.

It was a long frustrating day and evening I hope never to repeat.

Posted by
3655 posts

they told me to lift my shirt in front of that audience.

In the Albuquerque story above I was told that because of the rivets in my jeans that I had to roll down my waistband right in the security line, thus revealing my underwear to everyone-- no privacy screen or booth was offered. I was happy to be wearing underwear that day! Also my entire bag was unpacked and every item, socks etc., was x-rayed individually. It was a brutal 14 hour day (for a 2 hour flight).

Posted by
3619 posts

Have been told by a couple of security screeners that many hand lotions and skin creams contain small amounts of substances that will register as explosive material residue. Happened a couple of times and that resulted in the checking of liquids in the 3-1-1 bag and swabbing of our carry on bags. Since then no more screen cream or hand lotion before boarding and no more problems.

Posted by
3259 posts

Have been told by a couple of security screeners that many hand
lotions and skin creams contain small amounts of substances that will
register as explosive material residue.

^^^^^ This! This has happened more than once to both my DD and me. So now I put all of my lotions and potions in my checked bag and try to remember not to use them on the morning of a flight.

Posted by
11235 posts

Three times this year I was randomly selected for extra screening after I had gone through the xray machine. (I have pre-check and the buzzers and bells didn't go off until I was a few feet passed the machine. I even got a nod from the TSA agent as if everything was okay. And then the buzzers went off) Once they only wanted to check my shoes for explosives, once they wanted to swab my bag for explosives, and the last time was to have me go through the more intensive lookie loo machine.

Each time they said it was just random. But three times in a row? And at two different airports.

By the way....most UK airports, and Heathrow in particular, are the worst. Extra thorough and extra slow. One time at Heathrow my carry on was pulled out for extra screening. The screener kept walking away to go argue with her coworkers as to who should get the next break. Fifteen minutes had gone by and she was still not finished with me. Luckily a supervisor walked by, saw the open bag in front of me and asked if I was being helped. I told her what was happening and she quickly got my agent back to finish.

In Guernsey, I had a half ounce bottle of hand sanitizer that caused the security agent to freak out. . The label was in Norwegian--I bought it in Oslo--and she kept saying "I don't know if this is allowed." I told her its hand sanitizer. She insisted on taking into the back room to have it checked. A few minutes later she walked out with her supervisor who handed it back to me and said it was fine. "I know," I said. "It's hand sanitizer." (Pre-covid)

At Gatwick, I had two agents freaking out and not sure what to do about a travel sized roll of duct tape. They had never seen it before nor heard of it. They wanted to know what is is used for. I told them. They weren't sure it's allowed. I told them it was. They said okay, they would allow it this time.

Once at London City, my carry one was pulled aside and even the agent searching my bag had no idea why I was stopped. He said sometimes if there are too many electronics together they can't make out what each is.

In Kirkwall, Scotland, there is one security line. On the day I was trying to get through, they were training someone. My flight was scheduled to go in a few minutes and most of the passengers still hadn't been screened. (It's a small airport.) Someone from the airline came over, said something to the security agents, and the trainee was removed so a more experienced agent could get people through the line.

Italy seems to be the most relaxed. Once in Milan, I was on line behind a "hen" party where the bride to be was blindfolded so she didn't know where she was going. The security agents on that line, all female, were loving it and preoccupied with this. I put my bag on the belt and watched in go right through the x ray machine without stopping or anyone looking at it.

In Venice, it seemed all bags were being screened for maybe a second or two while going through the x ray machine.

Berlin was efficient. Once my carry on was pulled aside. The agent, who spoke English, pointed to the xray of the insides of my bag and asked me about an item. It was a stick deodorant. I told him and he said okay. Never had to open the bag.

Posted by
2462 posts

Heathrow is the worst airport to fly through. Once coming from Croatia I has a cylinder wooden bank and they flagged my bag, thought It was wine. Just like Silas above, I had carefully packed and they took out and unwrapped everything. Then pushed it to the side and yelled, next. I was trying to put everything back and they kept shoving it further down telling me to hurry up. I was so stressed out my husband flagged down a supervisor to complain. That helped. We avoid Heathrow at all costs. We just booked our trip to Croatia and we are going through Amsterdam.

Posted by
13055 posts

A bar of glycerine soap (which I have used all my life) triggered a thorough search and swabbing of items as well as my hands. I did not know at that time that glycerine can can be read by the machine as a potential explosive (I.e. Nitroglycerin). Now I put that soap in my checked luggage.

Posted by
8605 posts

Not a potion, but after having been outside almost all day in the Tri-Cities area ( home to the Hanford Nuclear site), when I went through screening my brief case got swabbed inside and outside, as did my hands.

I wonder what is in the air ( dust?) that got the screening machine so upset?

Posted by
424 posts

they told me to lift my shirt in front of that audience.

In the Albuquerque story above I was told that because of the rivets in my jeans that I had to roll down my waistband right in the security line, thus revealing my underwear to everyone-- no privacy screen or booth was offered. Also my entire bag was unpacked and every item, socks etc., was x-rayed individually. It was a brutal 14 hour day (for a 2 hour flight).

I'm not sure which I consider worse.....revealing underwear or revealing bare stomach to everyone waiting to board. LOL It seems rather cruel to routinely embarrass a small subset of people.

Posted by
1757 posts

“they told me to lift my shirt in front of that audience”

My TSA “horror story” was boarding a flight returning from Amsterdam. I’d been screened once and thought I was good to go. No such luck. At a secondary screening, a female agent asked me to raise my shirt then she put her hand down the front of my pants. Yikes! No idea what she was looking for but I didn’t appreciate it in front of a line of people.

First time flying to France with my BF he got pulled out of line and an agent thoroughly examined his bald head. We were both hard pressed to not burst out laughing. Sometimes you just have to keep your mouth shut and keep moving.

I’ve been stopped a couple of times for hand cream infractions too.

Posted by
1816 posts

I was coming home from Turkey and had bought a Turkish halva-like cake at the duty-free in Istanbul.
It was foil wrapped and in a sealed box.
At Frankfurt, the agent got very suspicious of it in my carryon, and looked me up and down as if I was trying to pull a fast one.
He held it far out from his body and took it very slowly away to have it xrayed, all the while looking back at me suspiciously.
He let me keep it in the end, and when I got it home and tasted it, it was tasteless and dry! :))

In the early 80's, my friend and I were going to Hong Kong via Bahrain from Saudi Arabia .
The agent in Bahrain insisted on opening every single tube and container and sniffing the contents up close.
When he got to her toothpaste, of course it was pressurized from the flight....it ended up instantly all over his face and uniform.
He was not at all pleased with us Western women.