Airport security check: be careful with makeup

Wednesday, August 3, 2022, five a.m., BER Airport: The security officer’s hands grip my handbag like two startled crabs. “You have a gun in your handbag!” I, shocked, stammer: “No, I didn’t!” – “I can see it on the X-ray!” she exclaims and pulls the gun out of my pocket. She holds them in front of me. A drop slowly escapes from the shot hole. “That’s a water pistol,” she says, “and a full one at that!” In my head, I rewind the previous hours in fast motion: how my partner, our six-year-old son and I get up at two in the morning, half asleep (who visited BER Airport and its safety queues, it is better to be there three hours before departure) and I urge everyone to really pack up everything that is important for the trip. My son takes my warning seriously and apparently puts what he thinks is important in my handbag.

Liquids have been banned at airports since August 2006, when British authorities prevented an attack on planes with liquid explosives. And of course weapons – even dummies – are not allowed on airplanes, every child knows that, or mine probably doesn’t. “If a weapon turns up in the security area, the federal police have to come,” says the inspector. My son looks down at the toes of his shoes. My significant other nervously looking at the clock. I wish I knew mantras to calm me down.

We had already postponed our wedding in Tuscany twice because of Corona. It was finally supposed to take place the next day. A few days earlier, however, the Lufthansa pilots had called for a strike: our flights were cancelled. Only with hardship did we get hold of this one. Years of planning would be wasted if we didn’t catch that flight.

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The security officer reports the weapon to the Federal Police, who monitor the checks at the end of the locks at Berlin Airport. Two male and female officers leisurely approach us in their bulletproof vests with the words “Police” on them. “Yes, that’s a water gun,” they state appropriately. “Now we have to do an explosives test. That’s the rule.”

Creams, make-up or sunscreen can contain substances that trigger an alarm during an explosives test.

The test for explosives, also known as the “wipe test” – in technical jargon: ETD test, explosive trace detection – is carried out by security officers using a strip that looks like a piece of rectangular white paper, which they pull over bags, laptops and clothing. They stick the strip into an ion mobility spectrometer, which detects even traces of explosive substances in the nano range. Nanoscale means that if you throw a three-gram cube of sugar into Lake Constance, you will still find three nanograms of sugar in each of the lake’s five billion liters. And three nanograms, that’s what the explosive tests detect.

After a few minutes, the federal police officer comes back with a straight face. “The explosives test is positive,” she says. I have no idea what’s going on, but I know something is really wrong here. And this time it couldn’t have been my son. He looks anxiously back and forth between his parents, my hopefully future husband stands there with his mouth open and question marks in his eyes. I already see myself surrounded by hooded special forces, at the same time the thoughts are racing as to who the hell could have planted this stuff on me, for which I will now walk into the den instead of down the altar for a long time.

“How can that be?” I ask. The policewoman remains surprisingly calm. Shouldn’t she throw me to the ground and handcuff me? Then she says a sentence that sounds pretty funny if you know me. “Are you wearing a lot of make-up?”

I experienced my youth in the eighties. As a teenager, I was hooked on a music video, Robert Palmer’s Addicted To Love, in which, in the background, heavily made-up women with black painted eyes and slicked-back hair are boredly playing the guitar. Ever since then I’ve wanted to look like her. Also at the crack of dawn in the airport security checkpoint.

I point both index fingers at my face and say, “Obviously.” There’s probably no one with more makeup on at five in the morning than me.

Frequent flyers on forums advise not to use hand cream before boarding a plane.

Then the officer explains to me that creams, make-up or sunscreen can contain substances that trigger an alarm during an explosives test. She doesn’t tell me which ones, I’ll find out examples later: for example glycerin, a substance that has a moisturizing effect in cosmetics. Or can serve as the basis for the explosive nitroglycerin. The explosive Semtex also has a signature similar to shampoo (or chocolate).

“We have to do a second test,” the officer says now. “If it’s negative, you can continue.”

The federal police are silent about the exact protocol after a positive explosives test and the individual substances that can trigger an alarm. The press office of the Federal Police is not allowed to provide any information on questions of aviation security at the security check, “for operational reasons”. Most travelers are allowed to continue if their answers sound plausible (like mine). However, Frankfurt Airport was completely closed in 2018 because a family entered the departure area without a second test despite positive explosives tests – an oversight by the security staff. There have also been partial closures at Munich Airport. If the second explosives test was also positive, a defuse group could order controlled demolitions of a suspicious piece of luggage. Frequent flyers on forums advise not to use hand cream before boarding a plane.

My second test is negative. We catch the plane. “You’re just a bomb woman,” hisses my fiancé. In fact, he will become my husband. Lucky for us, because security checks are a state task and do not belong legally in the interests of an airline: if we had messed up our wedding because of the positive explosives test – we would have been unlucky.

Today I don’t pretzel myself before a flight like I do for an 80’s music video. I no longer put on make-up before flying.

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