Why Your Piercings Likely Won't Set Off TSA's 'Metal Detector' And What Happens If They Do

Ah yes, the age-old stress of going through airport security. The long lines, removing your shoes, shoving liquids in a tiny baggie, and worst of all, going through that full body scanner. First of all, what is that thing anyway, and what is it scanning for? Can it see what you ate for breakfast or that metal plate in your shin? Of course, these are valid worries, because no one wants to be accused of concealing a weapon when that metal detector starts flashing red. However, the worry is even more pronounced for those of us that have piercings and body jewellery that can't just be popped out at will. Belly-button rings, nose studs, labret spikes, tongue studs, lobe stretchers, and even those good old earrings might be difficult or even impossible to remove, conceivably setting off a chain reaction that delays your passage through airport security.

One TikToker @fionajerman even shared a funny video to the platform that's been watched more than 34,000 times, where she flashes all the bling pierced up and down her ears, with the text overlay reading, "holding up security at the airport because my ears are setting off the metal detectors." However, will your body piercings really be an issue going through TSA security? It turns out that it probably won't be a big deal; however, here's what you need to know if that light starts beeping red.

Metal detectors can be adjusted to detect only large metal items

The question of body piercings versus the TSA airport security is such a big one that the TSA even answered that question in the FAQ section of their website, writing, "Certain metal body piercings may cause the machines to alarm and a pat-down may be required. If additional screening is required, you may be asked to remove your body piercing in private as an alternative to the pat-down." There is a big emphasis on the "may" there, because it turns out that each metal detector or full body scanner can be fine-tuned to detect only large amounts of metal, rather than a small nipple piercing. Freshtrends reports that these detectors can discern between small bits of metal, like a piercing or an implant, and big ones like a weapon. Byrdie reports that a detector's sensitivity can be adjusted to only look for large metal, which is why many people don't have a big issue with their piercings at security.

However, according to one TikTok video, you should probably be aware of just how detailed those full body scanners are. User @teachmekat posted to the video-sharing platform that the full body scanner "uses milimeter waves and it detects both metal and non-metal items," and notes that if you want to save yourself a pat-down from a TSA officer, you have to make sure everything is taken off your person. So what happens if your piercings become an issue?

You can refuse to go through the scanner

In 2008, NBC News spoke with several travelers whose body piercings set off the full body scanner alarms and were subjected to some pretty humiliating searches — and some weren't even given the benefit of a private room search. One passenger Alicia Cardenas told the outlet she had to remove her nipple piercings in full view of everyone, saying, "it was an absolute embarrassment to have my private life displayed." TSA spokesman Christopher White told the outlet that as the system irons itself out, "passengers would have to remove the piercing. And if they can't remove it, we could work with our law enforcement partners to make sure the item is not a threat."

It would seem that piercing removal is still one of few solutions open to passengers today. In 2023, Readers Digest spoke with Professor Shawna Malvini Redden, author of "101 Pat-Downs," who says that one other option is to refuse to go through the full body scanner. Yes, you have that option! However, that will require you to go through a full body pat-down, either in full view of everyone or in a private screening room, where your sensitive areas might be touched. It's up to you to decide which solution is the lesser of two evils!