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Decoding The TSA’s Liquid Travel Rules

No traveler wants to end up stopped at the security line. While you cannot do much about random screenings and airport security, you can do your best to ensure your carry-on bags are fully compliant. The TSA has several rules about what can and cannot be carried on board the cabin of an aircraft. Some of the most confusing of those rules are the rules applying to liquids. Before planning your next trip, you may find yourself looking at your bottle of lotion and wondering whether or not it qualifies as a liquid. Here’s a closer look at the TSA’s rules for liquids and how they apply to you when you are ready to travel.

Decoding The TSA 3-1-1 Rule

In 2006, the TSA introduced a new rule regarding liquids in carry-on baggage in response to increased threats of liquid explosives on board airplanes. The TSA liquid rule is known as the 3-1-1 rule and regulates how liquids are transported in carry-on baggage. Under the current rule, travelers are limited to:

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  • 3: Carrying liquids that are no larger than 3.4 ounces
  • 1: That fit into 1-quart clear, resealable bags
  • 1: With a limit of 1 bag per traveler

There are very few exceptions to this rule, and the TSA will check bags for liquids that do not fit within these criteria. If you are unsure about whether or not you can take an item, you may be better off checking it in your checked baggage.


Converting Milliliters To Ounces

Sometimes, especially when you are traveling overseas where the metric system is the measurement system of choice, your items will be measured in milliliters instead of ounces. To fit within the guidelines of the 3-1-1 you will need to convert the milliliters into ounces. This is fairly simple to do. Simply multiply the number of milliliters by 0.0338 to find the number of ounces. In general, 100 milliliters equals 3.38 ounces, so an item that is 100 milliliters or less would fit within the guidelines.

What Is A “Liquid”?

The rule seems self-explanatory, but sometimes travelers are confused about what is considered a liquid. According to the TSA, anything that is liquid, aerosol or gel-like is considered a liquid. Anything that you can squirt out of a bottle or spread onto something, including your skin, is considered a liquid. It also means something that is liquid but not intended for use or consumption, like a snow globe or even a glow stick, for example, is considered subject to the TSA 3-1-1 rule. Applesauce and toothpaste even count. However, hard spreadable items, like stick deodorant, do not. A roll-on or gel deodorant, on the other hand, would count. This is part of what makes the rule confusing. You cannot say that all deodorant is considered a liquid. You must consider the actual form of the item in order to decide. You can read the full TSA deodorant rules here.

Many travelers are confused about the TSA 3-1-1 rule. They think that the rule only applies to toiletries and food. However, it applies to anything deemed a liquid. This means medications and vitamins, e-cigarettes, vaping devices, filled ink cartridges and even gel ice packs that are not frozen solid can be subject to seizure.

Makeup And The 3-1-1 TSA Rule

Makeup is one area that can be confusing because many types of makeup are liquid-like in nature. Liquids, like foundation, nail polish and moisturizer, are subject to the 3-1-1 rule. Items like powder blush or foundation, do not. Sometimes that are a bit more confusing are mascara and lip gloss. These are considered liquids. However, wipes, like makeup removal wipes and baby wipes, are not.

One way to get around this confusion without stuffing your 3-1-1 bag full of nothing but makeup is to get samples of your favorite shades from your makeup supplier. Put these in the 3-1-1 bag so you can easily freshen up when you get to your destination, all while knowing that you have enough room for other items.

Food And The 3-1-1 TSA Rule

Food and beverages are all subject to the 3-1-1. If you come to the airport with a bottle of water, you will need to finish it or toss it before getting in the security line. If your children have a sippy cup or water bottle they like to travel with, it must be empty when they go through security. You can refill it once you get to the gate area. Applesauce, yogurt and similar liquid-type foods are also subject to the 3-1-1.

As per TSA regulations, solid frozen food items like meat, seafood, fruits, and vegetables can be transported both in carry-on and checked baggage. However, liquids or gels that are frozen, such as soups or stews, must follow the TSA’s 3-1-1 rule, which means that they must be in a container of 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less and placed in a clear, quart-sized bag.

Today, passengers will be asked to remove food from their bags when they go through screening. Even if the food is not a liquid, you will get through security more quickly if you have all of your food items in a separate bag that you can grab and put through security on its own. Powders greater than 12 ounces will be inspected more thoroughly, so have these accessible and easy for the TSA agent to take a look at when you go through security.

Exceptions To The 3-1-1 Rule – Medications And Medical Equipment

The TSA is fairly strict about the 3-1-1 rule, but they do make some exceptions. The first is exceptions for people traveling with medical conditions. Someone with a medical need, such as diabetes, that requires them to travel with liquid medication or medical supplies can exceed the 3-1-1 rule. However, the medications and supplies will be screened, so those traveling with these items should announce them to the TSA agents at the security checkpoint. Medications and medical items can be screened by hand if they need protection from x-ray radiation. Pills do not have to be searched in the same way that liquid medications are.

The TSA does not require a doctor’s note in regards to medication. However, it does require that the medication is in its regular packaging, whether that is the prescription bottle or the over-the-counter bottle (eg melatonin to help you sleep on the plane). Keep in mind that you may be asked to open the container of medication for inspection, and the TSA asks that you limit medication to a reasonable amount for the duration of your trip. Pills do not have to be searched in the same way that liquid medications are.

Exceptions To The 3-1-1 – Food For Babies And Toddlers

Another exception is made for parents traveling with babies. If an infant or toddler is traveling and requires juice, baby formula or expressed breast milk, the parents are allowed to bring enough to feed the child for the trip without adhering to the 3-1-1 rule. Like medications and airplane child seats, these items are subject to inspection.

The baby food exception also applies to baby food jars and pouches. Parents can bring as many jars or pouches as they expect their child to consume on the trip. If the food or milk must be kept cold, the parents can use an ice pack without violating the 3-1-1 rule.

That said, the rules regarding liquids still apply to non-food-related baby equipment. Diaper cream, baby lotion and similar products must adhere to the 3-1-1 rule to be brought on the plan. If the baby has his or her own seat, parents are allowed another carry on for the child as a ticketed passenger, which gives you another one-quart baggie to fill with necessary supplies.

What Happens If You Bring Too Much Liquid?

So what happens if you inadvertently leave a tube of antiseptic cream in your purse and forget to add it to your 3-1-1 bag when packing your carry-on? Are you subject to intense scrutiny if you make a small mistake? While it is a good idea to make sure everything is ready before you enter the security checkpoint, most of the time you will simply be asked to throw out the item. You will be out the cost of the item and may face a small delay, but you will be on your way to your gate quickly afterward. However, TSA agents are able to take as much time as they want with any traveler, so your best option is to stick to the rule.

Tips For Traveling with Liquids

If you’re heading to the airport and want to avoid the hassle, consider placing as many liquids as possible in your checked suitcase. Make them safe by closing them tightly and packing them within tightly sealed zip-top bags, because changes in altitude make leaks more likely. Only bring those liquids in your carry on that you absolutely must have. If you aren’t planning to check any baggage, then just plan to pick up full-size bottles of your supplies once you arrive at your destination.

If you have an item that you need that does not come in a 3.4 ounce or smaller container, such as condoms, or if you do not want to spend the higher price for a travel-sized container, you can purchase travel-size liquid containers at your favorite store. Simply fill it with the item and place the smaller container in your 3-1-1 bag. These containers are already measured to fit within the 3-1-1 guidelines.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask before you go. You can download the MyTSA app and search frequently asked questions. Chances are there has been a traveler before you with the same question you have, and you can get the answer before you go. If you cannot find the answer, use the app to contact TSA customer service. Remember, the TSA wants you to get through security quickly too, so they are more than happy to answer your questions before you leave.

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