There are different schools of thought on what constitutes appropriate airplane behavior. Some people say people who recline their seats are morally bankrupt. Fights have broken out over shoe removal. With more people flying than ever, a variety of travelers with a variety of opinions are clashing over what’s kosher.
This is particularly true when it comes to onboard health and wellness routines. What may seem perfectly innocent to one passenger can be skin-crawling and repulsive to others. To clear up the confusion, we’re breaking down the basics of in-flight grooming etiquette.
“I think people are forgetting that they are still in a public environment,” says Elaine Swann, etiquette expert and founder of the Swann School of Protocol. She’s also a former flight attendant. “We’re on the aircraft and it’s small. It feels very much like this is our own space. It’s not out and about, walking in the mall or what have you, but an airplane is still a public environment.”
Swann recommends thinking about your place on an airplane in the same way you’d think about behaving in a dentist’s office or at a movie theater. Yes, you can sleep, but you’re still surrounded by people who are very much affected.
Brushing your hair might not immediately stand out as a problematic activity. Running a brush through your mane once isn’t terrible, but if you’re really going for it, that’s when you’re going to start bothering people. It’s one of the most common grooming behaviors United flight attendant Samantha Smallwood sees in the air.
“People don’t realize that their hair gets everywhere,” Smallwood says.
During brushing, your hair is ultimately going to shed from your dome and float into the airplane ether, landing on whatever it finds first. Maybe that’s the seat back in front of you, or maybe that’s your neighbor’s slacks. The bottom line is, your hair shouldn’t be someone else’s problem, so wait to brush your hair at home or in a hotel room, or do it in the lavatory.
Can you tweeze body hair in your seat during a flight? No. A thousand times no. A million times no. It is weird, it is wrong and it should only be done in private.
Please do not shave your face, head or body while seated next to other passengers.
If your grooming needs involve your mouth, do not perform them in your seat. First of all, consider the germs around you. Planes get cleaned quickly, and the tray table often gets neglected. Unless you’re pulling a Naomi Campbell sanitation routine, putting your hands in your mouth in-flight is a bad call.
Secondly, mouth grooming — flossing, brushing your teeth, applying teeth whitener — is going to gross out fellow passengers. Relegate this behavior to the bathroom, where it belongs.
Applying moisturizers and sprays
Planes are so dry, you can probably get more moisture out in the Sahara. In addition to chugging water to stay hydrated, you may be tempted to apply moisturizer while aboard a flight. Go for it!
“I think that [body] lotion and even moisturizer in your seat is absolutely acceptable,” Swann says.
If you’re applying lotion, make sure the scent is mild, and stick to applying on your hands and arms only.
As long as your moisturizer or other facial products such as creams, gels and serums are going directly onto your skin and not your neighbor, you should be good to go. Sprays and mists, however, are more difficult to control.
Applying sheet masks
The only problem with wearing a sheet mask on a plane is looking like a lunatic. While passengers walking down the aisle on a dark flight may look over and mistake you for a spooky ghost haunting the plane, it’s not offensive behavior.
Just don’t pile it up on your tray table when you’re done using it or put it in the seat back pocket. Tuck it back into its packaging and dispose of it in a proper trash receptacle.
There’s something a little too intimate about applying deodorant to do it while on a plane. You’re having to shove your hand up or down your shirt and remind everyone of the existence of your armpit while potentially wafting around body odor. If you forgot to swipe a stick or roll-on before your flight and want to avoid offending neighbors with your stench, take your toiletry bag to the lavatory and apply in there.
Just like brushing your hair, engaging in nail care gets into the caution zone when DNA leaves your body and gets on other things or people. Do not file your nails in your seat, particularly during meal services. When Swann was a flight attendant, she had to step in when a passenger was concerned that dust from a nail-filing passenger was getting into their in-flight meal. Because there’s no rule against filing nails on planes, Swann had to be delicate when intervening.
“Instead of telling them, ‘You can’t do that on the plane,’ you just ask, ‘Can you wait until after our meal service and then you can continue on?’ ” Swann advises. “Yeah, people are gross.”
A much more common occurrence than nail filing is nail clipping. Maybe you have a hangnail that’s killing you, maybe your toe nails look more like toe talons. Whatever the case, don’t solve those problems while you’re in your seat. Even if you’re being super careful, you can’t always control those clippings. Imagine having someone’s toe clippings fly onto your lap. If your nail problem is urgent, take your nail clippers to the bathroom. Then make sure to clean up the scraps when you’re done.
Painting one’s nails isn’t gross in itself, but the scent that comes with the activity is what will bother passengers around you. (Not to mention, you run the risk of spilling polish on furniture that’s not yours, or on other peoples’ belongings.) Polish is a potent product. Cracking open a bottle of lacquer for even a moment is going to send very strong aromas into the plane’s atmosphere.
“There’s no official rule that says that they aren’t allowed” to paint their nails, Smallwood says. “However, if it’s affecting other passengers around them — for instance, the smell is really strong, and so it’s causing other people to not be able to breathe very easily — then we would definitely have to say something.”
You’re trapping other passengers in the prison of your strong scent when you paint your nails onboard. Save the chore for later.
Ultimately, the guidelines regarding self-care on a plane come down to respect for others and their space. A simple scan of the environment can often provide all the cues a groomer may need.
“Sometimes, we’re just too far too deep in our own world that we don’t even look up and look around,” Swann says. “What we have to do as a society is really put forth an effort to be more sensitive to folks who are around us and pay attention to those nonverbal cues. Look at people’s body language just to be sure that we are not doing anything that’s going to offend our fellow passenger.”