I had a plane last week from Warsaw Modlin to Barcelona and I had one untypical procedure. It's my 14th flight and I never had something similar before. At the security scan right away after I crossed through metal detector the security guy came to me and scanned both my hands from both sides by some strange scanner. My hand were clear and I haven't anything on them, so I didn't get what he was searching for... Did he search for powder/radiation or something other? He didn't scan everyone there, but just a couple of persons.

So what he was searching for with that scanner?

  • 2
    Did they take a swab of your hands? If so, duplicate of travel.stackexchange.com/questions/62561/…
    – CMaster
    Jun 6, 2016 at 10:04
  • 1
    Nope, they didn't swab them. They just moved some scanner over my hands with direct contact to my hands from both sides. The scanner looked like metal/plastic device Jun 6, 2016 at 10:26
  • 1
    It's probably the same thing, but I don't know that to answer for sure. You say it was touching your hands? What did it feel like (metal surfaces, brushes, holes/solid etc?)
    – CMaster
    Jun 6, 2016 at 10:28
  • As I remember on touch it had solid plastic surface, but I might be wrong as it was fast and I might not remember all details Jun 6, 2016 at 10:36
  • 1
    @SergeyLitvinov Can you confirm whether the device looked like the pictures Joe Blow posted above? Jun 12, 2016 at 17:35

4 Answers 4


It's just a swab which tests for traces of explosives.

They are completely commonplace.

You see them in airports everywhere.

(If OP has never been "swabbed" before: that's just a strange coincidence. They're as commonplace as scanners.)

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Some are simply a plastic stick, with a throw-away swab on the end. The throw-away swab simply looks like a piece of tape.

Other devices are fixed, and can be used more than once.

US TSA explanation. CNN article.

Typical manufacturer.

Another manufacturer.

(All these systems are just profit centers, set up by companies with government lobbying power, to make sales.) (I'm not saying there isn't coincidental societal advantage, but that's the reason the systems exist: lobbying from military-industrial industries.)

In answer to one of your questions, these things search for molecules:

There is utterly no connection, in any way, to "radiation".

Again, they literally just "smell" for explosives - things like "dynamite", "TNT", "gunpowder" and so on.

(No connection whatsoever to "radiation" - with "radiation" you're thinking of like "nuclear weapons". Totally unrelated.)

  • 1
    Aren't those images of a plastic wand that holds a small piece of material that is used for the "swabbing", which is then put inside a much larger machine (maybe a cubic foot in size) that performs the actual detection process? This is certainly what I've experienced at various airports when my hands (and recently at Dubai airport, my electrical items) have been checked like this. I have verified that this was the case on a few occasions by asking (politely!) the officer who was doing the swabbing.
    – Richard Ev
    Jun 14, 2016 at 12:33
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    Hi Richard, sure, that's exactly correct. (I posted an image of that happening - it's not clear?! :) ) But note, there are nowadays many major varieties... (a) swab on stick of plastic, swab goes in incredibly expensive machine. (b) swab, on, extremely expensive hand-held machine. (c) staggeringly expensive hand-held machine which needs no swabs at all. (d) expensive needs-no-swabs handheld, which, works in conjunction with an extremely expensive central unit. You see all these varieties commonly. It's almost certain there are now also just "plein air" human-sniffers.
    – Fattie
    Jun 14, 2016 at 12:42
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    A few (5 or more I think) years ago at airport security I was also asked to stand in a large clear cylindrical chamber, with doors that closed behind me. A whoosh of air went up past me and then doors in front of me opened up and I was free to go. I was told on that occasion that this device was also sniffing for explosives.
    – Richard Ev
    Jun 14, 2016 at 13:13
  • 2
    Hi @RichardEverett, yeah those are also commonplace. No big deal.
    – Fattie
    Jul 11, 2017 at 11:20
  • I think I won't dare fly the morning after NYE for the quantity of fireworks I am used to light that night. Sep 2, 2021 at 15:52

The way these systems work is that they take a sample of particles that are in contact with your skin. The device is then inserted into a scanner, which is programmed to scan for chemical signatures for certain substances.

These substances can be either explosive material (like gunpowder, tnt, etc.) or drugs.

These same devices are also used on luggage for the same reason.

For those devices that have a tape or cloth attachment, this attachment is actually superheated in the device.

This device is a portable version of the "puffer machine" installed at some major airports where you stand in a chamber and some air is circulated. This air picks up any molecules on your person, and is then analyzed for trace residue.


The scan is looking for traces of explosives, gun powder and other incendiary chemicals.

  • 2
    Do you have any proof for that? Like a link to an official site where they explain or personal experience of someone who did those scans?
    – Willeke
    Jun 12, 2016 at 10:50

They were checking you hands for traces of residue from explosives, and it is common practice, especially in Europa, from my experience.

I have been swabbed many times, but I found that it happens more often in Europa than in the United States, at least in my experience. When I'm swabbed in the United States, they usually swab the outside of my luggage, my laptop, other electronic devices, certain personal items, my hands, and in some rare cases they also swab my shoes. In Europa, my shoes are swabbed more often, and they usually also swab my clothing and waist area. There have been cases where they swabbed my stomach and lower back at European airports. This is all just from my own experience.

  • Just pointing out that I haven't traveled to Europe since the pandemic started, and things may have changed since then.
    – nanny
    Aug 31, 2021 at 23:18
  • I have downvoted this answer as it does not add anything to the existing answers
    – ajd
    Sep 1, 2021 at 2:39
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    I was adding that it is common practice especially in Europa, where the OP's event took place, as indicated. I was responding to the OP's impression that swabbing is rare.
    – nanny
    Sep 1, 2021 at 20:54

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