Modern airport scanners, with their extremely sophisticated technology, can see everything in your luggage, including any items a passenger attempts to conceal or hide.

This includes both metallic and non-metallic objects, as well as organic and inorganic materials, including items such as illegal drugs.

Airport scanners are able to detect practically any item in a passenger’s bag by creating detailed images that security personnel, who are fully trained to easily identify all forbidden items, will then take a closer look at.

Even items that are hidden inside layers of clothing or aluminum foil can be detected.

Carry On Bags

Airport scanners can detect both metallic and non-metallic objects, including organic materials like food or toothpaste, to ensure a passenger is following regulations and isn’t travelling with anything illegal.

Airport scanners use X-rays to see through your carry on bag’s surface and construct detailed images of its content. Security officers use these images to check the density of items in your luggage.

They use object density to determine whether you’re carrying any illegal substances. 

Security officers cannot determine what each item in your bag is, but they will search your bag if they notice anything suspicious. 

Checked Baggage

As part of the TSA’s security screening procedures, your checked baggage is also screened by an X-Ray machine when it passes through the conveyor belt.

The contents of your checked bags are checked the same way as your carry on bags.

Security personnel will seize and examine the content of your bag if they suspect any illegal items. If they do not have access to the keys of your baggage, they will open it by other means if necessary.

How Airport Scanners Work

Non-ionizing Radiation Scanning Equipment

  • Airport Metal Detectors

Airport metal detectors use magnetic fields for identifying metal objects.

The magnetic fields are generated by flowing current through wires or electrical devices.

To generate these magnetic fields, airport metal detectors use low energy non-ionizing radiation to send energy across a scanned surface. 

  • Millimeter Wave Machines

Millimeter wave machines also use low-energy non-ionizing radiofrequency waves to detect threats.

These machines bounce waves off people and back into the machine to detect any unusual objects, like concealed knives or guns

Ionizing Radiation Scanning Equipment

  • Ionizing Radiation Machines

Ionizing radiation machines use a large amount of energy that can knock out electrons from atoms.

This process is known as ionization, and ionization is frequently used to scan both passengers and their luggage.

Depending on the machine, ionizing radiation could be used to detect concealed objects on passengers and create images of concealed objects in passengers’ luggage. 

  • Backscatter Passenger Scanners

Backscatter passenger scanners are used to detect threats like weapons or explosives.

Backscatter machines use low energy x-rays that reflect the x-rays back to the machine.

The amount of radiation from a backscatter machine is equivalent to two minutes of cosmic radiation during flight, so the health risk is extremely low.

  • Cabinet X-Ray Scanners

These machines prevent any radiation from escaping, as the x-ray system is installed in an enclosure.

Like other airport scanners, they work by creating images of the inside of luggage and then transmitting this x-ray image to a monitor.

How Airport Scanners Detect Drugs In Luggage

Technically, airport scanners like modern Millimeter-Wave and Backscatter scanners cannot actually detect drugs. Instead, these scanners make it extremely easy to identify drugs in people’s luggage.

What this means is that these scanners can detect an organic mass with a large density, which airport security personnel will then have a closer look at to determine whether the detected item is a drug or not.

The density of the most commonly used drugs is well-known to airport security officials.

Once the airport security personnel are made aware of the presence of a suspicious item, they will open your luggage to investigate. 

Airport Scanners Can’t See Inside Your Body?

While airport scanners can see through clothes, they are not unable to see inside your body.

This means that an airport scanner is not able to detect health issues, or see pads and tampons.

How Airport Scanners Detect Other Forbidden Items

The scanning and detection method may depend on the type of scanner being used, but most scanners with the help of TSA agents are able to detect illegal items with ease.

Baggage scanners use X-rays to see through your luggage’s surface and build detailed images of the items inside. Those images are usually sufficient for security personnel to recognize illegal items.

Note that these scanners do not explicitly detect any types of illegal items, they only inform security personnel of your luggage’s contents, and the security personnel will then take a closer at the items to determine if they are illegal or not

The only type of illegal item that an airport scanner potentially cannot detect is if it is stored inside a human body, unless it is made of metal.

Airport Scanners Can See Through Clothes

Yes, airport body scanners can see through your clothes. For example, backscatter scanners can even create exact outlines of a human body without clothes.

Due to privacy reasons, legally a filter has to be applied to the images of scanned bodies.

Illegal or concealed items underneath a person’s clothes can be detected, though. 

Illegal items wrapped by clothing inside luggage can also be detected.

Airport scanners can detect the item’s shape regardless of how densely wrapped it is, and security personnel are trained to look out for such items. 

How to Hide Things From Airport Scanners

Modern X-ray airport scanners can detect most items easily due to the way they function by contrasting items to surrounding materials.

What this means is that if someone wanted to hide an item from an airport scanner, they would have to store the item inside their body, as an X-ray machine cannot detect items inside a human body if they’re made of the same general chemical composition as the rest of the body. 

Contrary to popular belief, aluminum foil cannot hide objects from airport scanners, either.

Checked Bags Don’t Get Searched for Drugs

A checked bag will not get searched for drugs, but it can be searched for other reasons.

For example, airport security officials may search a checked bag for flammable materials like lithium batteries. They might also search a checked bag if they see any suspicious-shaped items.

On average, only 1 out of every 10 checked bags are searched by airport personnel.

If a security personnel finds drugs in a checked bag, they will simply report the bag’s owner to the police.

In conclusion, airport scanners can see everything that’s not inside your body. They can see what’s in your luggage and detect any concealed items underneath your clothing.

Robert is an expert in commercial air travel with decades of experience in the travel industry, and has spent countless hours in airports and on planes for work.
Robert therefore has an unrivaled understanding of everything related to commercial air travel, and has been quoted or mentioned in major publications, such as Insider, Trip Savvy, ZDNet, and Bored Panda, showcasing his extensive knowledge and expertise in the field.