Nail professionals--particularly well-traveled educators and competitors--have learned the hard way that airlines are taking tougher stands on transporting flammable liquids and sharp instruments, both on board and in checked luggage. 

Nancy King, an independent educator and director of the Association of Electric File Manufacturers (AEFM), usually packs the hand-piece of her electric drill into her checked luggage. But on a recent trip, the metal hand-piece got thrown into her carry-on at the last minute. 

At the security checkpoint, "It x-rayed solid and it triggered a search," recalls King, of Glendale, Ariz. "It wouldn't work without electricity, but the security agent was going to throw it in the trash. You can't raise a stink, because if you create a ruckus, they could arrest you or throw your suitcase away."

King persuaded the agent to call her supervisor. "He said, 'Oh, it's a hand drill, a cosmetic item,'" and waved her through. 

"That could have been a $500 mistake," King muses.

On another trip, an agent removed $1,000 in drill bits from her checked luggage and threw them away without even consulting her, King says. Though the bits shouldn't have been a problem, she had no redress for their loss. Fears following the September 2001 terrorist attacks have given jittery security agents broad discretion to deal with seemingly suspicious items.

At least King got the rest of her bag back. Some techs have arrived at shows or competitions to discover that their entire suitcase had been thrown away because a security agent in an airport back room thought something inside was suspicious. 

Flammable liquids such as acetone and acrylic monomer are the biggest troublemakers. Implements with sharp points and cutting edges--even a brush with a metal cap--can cause your bag to be searched and delay your travel or your bag's arrival.

Even if you plan ahead, you may be unpleasantly surprised by inconsistent or ill-informed security enforcement. But techs who do a lot of traveling improve the chances of most of their gear arriving by packing wisely, carrying small amounts of product, and packaging it protectively to avoid spills and smells.

When OPI account exec Renee Meyers flies for work, such as for this trainign session on Long Island, she ships her product by land ahead of time to avoid the inspections and delays that could be caused by packing flammable material in her luggage.

When OPI account exec Renee Meyers flies for work, such as for this trainign session on Long Island, she ships her product by land ahead of time to avoid the inspections and delays that could be caused by packing flammable material in her luggage.

Check Ahead

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), even flammable materials may be carried onboard with you in small amounts. The brochure "These Fly," available from the DOT's Hazardous Materials Information Center, says passengers may carry onboard up to 75 total ounces of flammable "personal care items" such as perfume or hairspray, so long as no single container holds more than 16 ounces.

However, individual airlines may have their own policies regarding limitations to materials and weight for carry-on and checked luggage.

Renee Meyers, an OPI educator based in Hazelton, Penn., has flown about 74,000 miles and has become familiar with her usual airline's procedures. But, she adds, "If I'm flying on a different airline, I'll call them because I'm not familiar with what they'll do to me. That's the best way to save time at the airport."

She recommends asking specific questions about what you may carry on, what must be checked, and how to handle unusual items.

"Get the person's name that you talked to, so when you get to the airport and they say no, you can say, 'This person told me on this date it was okay to take two ounces of flammable liquid," Meyers advises.

Federal law allows prosecution for taking "hazardous materials" aboard an aircraft. Such materials that exceed the allowable limits or that are not properly packaged could fetch fines starting at $400 and ranging into the thousands, says DOT spokesman Joe Delcambe.

When in Doubt, Don't Carry It On

Experienced travelers say stay on the safe side. However, Lysa Comfort, education director for INM in Anaheim, Calif., pushes the limits of the regulations. She carries her aluminum tool kits on board, loaded with new, two-ounce bottles of product with the shrink-wrap and safety rings intact. 

"I do not check it because the aluminum cases will get destroyed in baggage. Whenever possible, I carry mine. I take my electric file, top coat, polish, monomer, powders, and soft files," She says. She double-bags product in self-sealing plastic bags to guard against spills and alarming chemical odors.

As Comfort closes in on one million air miles traveled, she reports little difficulty with that approach. A handful of times, an agent has removed a bag of monomer bottles and pitched it, she reports. 

"It's usually at the small airports where they have the most time on their hands. I haven't had any problems internationally," Comfort says. "When I went to Chicago this year, my implements were in my carry-on case by accident and they made it all the way to the show. The security agents didn't even notice them."

MaeLing Parrish, an educator for EZ Flow based in Columbus, Ohio, flies on average 200,000 miles yearly. She gives demonstrations at shows, teaches classes, and participates in sales meetings around the world.

"If we know the product is going to be there, we don't carry monomer, but we do carry all the other stuff," Parrish says. "We don't carry anything that's flammable onto the plane itself (except for clear polish and top coat). All our powders, files, brushes, dappen dishes, antiseptic dehydrating prep and acetone, we put in our suitcase. Legally, you're allowed a certain amount of flammable goods on you, but we never try to take that onto the plane."

Into her checked luggage, Parrish packs four-ounce bottles she fills with product, leaving room at the top to avoid leaks. Then she packs the bottles into sturdy plastic containers with secure, tight-fitting lids.

Parrish has more trouble with an electric hot-pot she uses in her hotel room. "You wouldn't believe how many times they've opened my suitcase and looked at that," she laughs.

Consultant King has also aroused suspicion by packing odd items into her checked luggage, such as a collapsible table and disinfecting trays. Whenever she travels, she plans extra time to accommodate the delays caused by frequent security checks that these items trigger.

Parrish has learned to protect her bags from scrutiny by minimizing chemical smells that could alarm security agents. For example, she uses cotton towels that absorb the monomer smell, so she wraps them in plastic before packing them into her checked luggage.

Safest Route: Ship It

OPI's Meyers sees the security issue from the inspection agents' viewpoint: strong-smelling chemicals, white powders, flammable materials. "To somebody who has no idea what that is, I can imagine that would look suspicious," she muses.

Some companies now are making odorless or low-odor monomer. It's still flammable, but it doesn't produce a strong chemical smell.

Nevertheless, Meyers stays on the cautious side, following OPI recommendations that were issued after the 2001 attacks. 

"If I'm traveling somewhere where I'm going to have to use lacquer, polish remover, monomers, or glue accelerators--anything like that--I ship it to the hotel or the venue ahead of time," Meyers says. "Anything else I might need--lotion, sanitation products--I will put in my checked luggage."


Though more time-consuming, Meyers' approach removes much of the worry from her travels. "They've gone through my bags time and time again, and I've never had anything thrown away."

Most major air and land freight companies are registered with the Department of Transportation for hazardous materials. Call to find out their size and weight limitations, and ask about their requirements for labeling and packaging before you take your package to the counter.


Airline Travel Rules of Thumb

Always check with your airline for their specific policy about what can go in your carry-on bag, what must be checked, and what cannot fly at all. Here are some guidelines for staying on the safe side.


  • Lotions, creams, soft files, buffers


  • Small bottles of monomer (up to four ounces)
  • Metal instruments, including nippers, pushers, files, scissors
  • Drill hand-piece, drill bits
  • Polish, top coat
  • small amounts of prepping liquid, acetone

Get Your Information

For questions on flying with specific products, spokesman Joe Delcambre of the U.S. Department of Transportation recommends that nail technicians consult the manufacturer's Material Safety Data Sheet (some have theirs posted online), then call the Hazardous Material Information Center at (800) 467-4922 to ask how much of that material you may carry onboard, check in with your luggage, or ship by air freight.

In addition, always consult with your airline or freight carrier. They may have their own, stricter regulations regarding quantities and containers. Ask specific questions about what you may carry on, what must be checked, limits to individual container size and total quantity, and how to handle unusual items.

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