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Heavy Metal: Airport security and body piercing jewelry

Let’s talk about body piercings today. No no, don’t run away. If you don’t have any, read on with morbid curiosity. If you have them, please stay, because this affects you directly as it relates to going through airport security.

Do you wear body jewelry in private places and you’re worried that you may set off airport metal detectors?

One person who would know is professional body piercer Elayne Angel. Elayne is not only covered in various forms of ink and metal herself, but she is also one of the pioneers in professional body piercing, a field she personally helped expand decades ago. Elayne has served multiple terms on the board of the Association of Professional Piercers as an advocate for field safety, and her most recent project has been authoring The Piercing Bible, the definitive guide for consumers and professional body piercers.

With activities like attending conventions and being on a book tour, Elayne travels extensively… with her body jewelry on. “I haven’t had any trouble personally, and I still wear almost 40 pieces of body jewelry regularly and travel frequently,” she said.

Elayne addresses this topic in her book, The Piercing Bible – The Definitive Guide to Safe Piercing (Random House/Crossing Press, May 2009).


Master piercer Elayne Angel. In addition to performing body pierces, she is liberally adorned with body tattoos, including a very elaborate back piece of two full angel wings. Her legs are tattooed with a rainbow of fish scales, and vines cover her arms like long-sleeve gloves. Elayne as she currently appears (“with hair!” as she says; photo by Michael Alago) on the left, and a poster highlighting her tattoos (right). Images courtesy of Elayne Angel.

The following is an except from her book that addresses body piercing and airport security specifically (reprinted by permission):

Metal Detectors and Security

Many piercees are concerned that their piercing(s) will set off a metal detector in an airport or other venue. Precautions have intensified markedly since the events of September 11, especially in airports. Security personnel will react differently to the presence of piercings, and so will the metal detectors.

Many heavily pierced people will tell you in all honesty that they have traveled extensively without so much as a single beep. Other stories circulate regarding piercees enduring strip searches or being required to remove body jewelry before boarding a plane.

When your travel companions are unaware of your penchant for piercing, you may be concerned about an unplanned disclosure during the security screening. If revealing your piercings during travel is unacceptable, wear nonmetallic jewelry. Quality metal body jewelry is non-ferromagnetic and will not set off the large walk-through metal detectors. However, the hand-held wands are often more sensitive and frequently do sound an alarm when scanning directly over metal body jewelry.

This is precisely what happened to a woman who was required to remove a nipple ring with pliers in order to be permitted by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents to board her plane. This sparked a lawsuit and a change in policy by the TSA. As of March 2008, a passenger has the option to request a visual inspection in lieu of removing body jewelry.*

Depending on the location of your piercing, you may be examined in a private room by a security officer of your own gender. If you wish to take your trip, it is best to be calm and cooperative. Don’t wear or carry long spike-style jewelry during travel, as these are sometimes construed as weapons and confiscated. Spikes aside, you should not be compelled to remove body jewelry, since it isn’t a security threat.

* Transportation Security Administration, “Statement on Alleged Improper Screening at Lubbock, Texas, March 28, 2008,” www.tsa.gov/press/happenings/lubbock.shtm (accessed May 8, 2008).


The cover of Elayne’s book, The Piercing Bible.

So there’s mostly good news and some bad news. You can still wear your metal piercing jewelry when you travel, and the TSA will not ask you to remove them. That’s the good news. The bad news is that if it sets off a metal detector, you will still be pulled aside and asked to get inspected. And if you are modest about disrobing in front of strangers or you prefer not to deal with the additional time such a secondary screening or inspection may take, then temporarily replacing your metal jewelry with nonmetal jewelry (such as those made of lucite) may be a good option.

The following is the text that is at the TSA URL that Elayne refers to in her article:

March 28, 2008

TSA has reviewed the circumstances related to the screening of a passenger with body piercings that occurred recently in Lubbock, Texas. It appears that the Transportation Security Officers involved properly followed procedures in that incident. They rightly insisted that the alarm that was raised be resolved. TSA supports the thoroughness of the Officers involved as they were acting to protect the passengers and crews of the flights departing Lubbock that day.

TSA has reviewed the procedures themselves and agrees that they need to be changed. In the future TSA will inform passengers that they have the option to resolve the alarm through a visual inspection of the article in lieu of removing the item in question. TSA acknowledges that our procedures caused difficulty for the passenger involved and regrets the situation in which she found herself. We appreciate her raising awareness on this issue and we are changing the procedures to ensure that this does not happen again.

The Piercing Bible is available in general release and you can purchase it at your local bookstore or Amazon.

You can also purchase Elayne’s “angel wings” poster online from body jewelry retailer LeRoi.com.