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If you’ve ever gone on a flight, then you know the drill Smartphone & Laptop Searches: Know Your Rights Smartphone & Laptop Searches: Know Your Rights Do you know what your rights are when travelling overseas with a laptop, smartphone or hard drive? Read More : you have to go through security where you’re asked to place all your personal belongings Your Chromebook As The Ultimate Travel Device Your Chromebook As The Ultimate Travel Device If you're deciding which device to get for your next trip, you may consider checking out Chromebooks. But why choose a Chromebook for travel? Because, when it comes to travel, they are spot on. Read More in a tray, which goes through a scanner while you yourself pass through a metal detector — or more recently, a whole body scanner.


Have you ever wondered how they can see the contents of your bag without opening it? Perhaps you’ve wondered if what they’re doing is harmful for the electronics in your bag. In this article, we’ll explain what X-rays are, how they work, and how they might affect your electronic devices.

What Are X-Rays?

X-rays are a type of electromagnetic radiation Is Electromagnetic Radiation Dangerous? How To Protect Yourself? Is Electromagnetic Radiation Dangerous? How To Protect Yourself? Can cell phones cause cancer after all? The media certainly knows how to screw with facts. How does radiation emitted by electronics really affect your body? Well, calm down! It's not all that bad. Read More , similar to visible light except they have a much shorter wavelength and a much higher frequency. An “individual X-ray” is just a photon, and it has more energy than a photon of visible light. This increased energy is what allows an X-ray to travel through objects while visible light is simply absorbed or reflected.


It’s important to note that while X-rays are a form of radiation, they are not radioactive or created by radioactive substances. Any effects that happen are a result of an X-ray interacting with a material as it passes through it — there is no “lingering X-ray residue” to worry about.

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How Do X-Rays Make Images?

X-rays can be used to create static images (like a photograph), “live” images (like an overhead projector), or even 3D images (i.e. a CT scanner). In all cases, the X-rays are generated in the same way and they interact with objects in the same way, but airport scanners only use the “live” variety.

To create an X-ray, you need an X-ray tube. This tube fires electrons from a copper cathode to an anode typically made of tungsten, molybdenum, or copper. As the electrons hit the anode, they slow down and generate both X-rays and heat. The anode is angled so that the X-rays are emitted in a specific direction.

To create an image, you need a way to measure the amount of X-rays that travel through an object, which is why X-ray image receptors are placed behind the subject. Denser materials, like bone and metal, prevent X-rays from passing through while other materials, like skin, allow them to pass through fine.


In an airport scanner, the image receptor is equipped with a material that lights up when exposed to X-rays. So objects that block X-rays — such as your phone or laptop — will show up as dark on the image while everything else will be bright. An image intensifier is used to make the contrast even clearer.

Of course, the image doesn’t have to be plain black-and-white, which is probably what you’d expect from an X-ray image. In fact, most modern scanners have the ability to colorize the image based on density ranges to make certain objects easier to identify.

As for checked luggage, they actually go through a CT scanner instead, which is a whole different kettle of fish. X-rays are still involved, but they’re emitted from multiple points in a continuously rotating ring, which are then used to generate a 3D image that shows all of the contents from any angle without having to open it.

Can X-Rays Damage Electronics?

X-rays are a type of ionizing radiation, which means that the photons have enough energy to knock electrons out of the atoms they come into contact with, creating positively charged ions in the process.

In large doses, ionizing radiation can harm biological tissue by damaging cell DNA faster than it can be repaired. But electronics aren’t made of biological tissue and they don’t have any DNA to worry about. So can X-rays cause them damage? Not in any significant way, no.

Magnetic Data Storage

Magnetic data storage devices How Does A Hard Drive Work? [Technology Explained] How Does A Hard Drive Work? [Technology Explained] Read More , such as hard drives and floppy disks, work by using mechanical arms that read and write to magnetic regions of rotating platters. The polarity of each region represents either a one or a zero, which are the binary values used to store data electronically.

While these devices are delicate around and sensitive to magnets, they’re impervious to all forms of light, including X-rays. You probably wouldn’t want to take a portable hard drive through a metal detector — and definitely nowhere near an MRI machine! — but it’s perfectly fine going through an airport scanner.

Flash Data Storage

How about your solid state drive 101 Guide To Solid State Drives 101 Guide To Solid State Drives Solid State Drives (SSDs) have really taken the mid-range to high end computing world by storm. But what are they? Read More , SD card, or USB thumb drive? Again, nothing to worry about here. These use transistors, which either allow electrical currents to pass through (representing a one) or prevent electrical currents from passing through (representing a zero), and that’s how data is stored.

X-rays can theoretically affect flash storage by turning a stored cell (representing a one) into an erased cell (representing a zero). If this happens to enough cells, it could cause data loss, but the intensity of the X-rays used in an airport scanner is so low that this never actually happens.

Computers & Tablets

Computers and tablets don’t have any components in them that are photosensitive, either to visible light or to X-rays. You don’t have to worry about putting your laptop in the X-ray machine.

Airport security will ask you to remove any laptops from your bag, but not because it needs to be treated any differently from the rest of your luggage. Rather, laptops tend to contain dense circuitry which can obscure everything else in your bag.


TSA-approved bags, which allow you to leave your laptop inside the bag, work because they have special laptop compartments that prevent the laptops from interfering with all of the other contents in the bag.

Mobile Phones & Media Players

Like computers and tablets, mobile phones — smart or otherwise — don’t use any photosensitive materials in their construction, so they won’t be damaged by X-rays. Because they’re much smaller, you also don’t need to worry about them obscuring much of your carry-on luggage, so they can stay in your bag.

Cameras & Camcorders

So far we’ve been talking about photosensitive materials, so you might be thinking, “What about cameras and camcorders? Their sensors are photosensitive — that’s how they work What is Digital Photography? [Technology Explained] What is Digital Photography? [Technology Explained] Read More !”

While yes, these sensors are sensitive to electromagnetic radiation, they’re protected by shutters and the device enclosures. You might have some trouble trying to capture a long exposure of the inside of the X-ray machine (seriously, don’t do this), but if your device is not actively capturing light, there’s no problem.


Undeveloped film is the one thing that you might have to worry about when going through an airport scanner. The higher-energy X-rays are able to pass through the plastic film container and could ruin your images.

However, you only really need to worry about this if you’ve been shooting with very high speed film (that is, film with a very high ISO that is particularly photosensitive). Regular film most likely won’t be affected. Having said that, if you have photos on film that are absolutely critical to keep, you should probably try to have them processed before you get on a plane.

Let’s Put It All in Perspective

The main reason you shouldn’t worry about your electronics being damaged by airport scanners is that they’ll actually be exposed to more background radiation while in-flight than they’ll receive while passing through the scanner.

The Earth is constantly bathed in all kinds of radiation, most of which comes from the sun. The atmosphere does a great job of soaking most of it up, but the higher your altitude, the more radiation is around you.

So when you’re flying at 36,000 feet from New York to Los Angeles, you — and your gadgets — will receive the same amount of radiation as you would get from having two chest X-rays done. This is not a dangerous amount of radiation, but it does put things into perspective.

Have you ever had any electronics damaged in an airport security scanner? Let us know in the comments below!

Image Credit: Milkovasa via Shutterstock

  1. Tomas
    October 5, 2016 at 8:40 am

    My question is. Do I need to worry if I have to put my mobile phone or laptop or any electronic device through x-ray inspection machine every day? The company I work for follows strict security rules due to materials we are handling. X-ray inspection of all personal items is a daily security procedure. So lets say my mobile phone will be X-rayed 230x per year or 700x during 3 years. Can this cause any damage to the device? Thanks.

  2. Jaimi McEntire
    August 17, 2016 at 7:53 pm

    On a recent trip, I was browsing on my phone (A galaxy Note 3) and put it to sleep. Set it in the little "doggy dish", and let it go through the scanner. On the other side of the scanner, I picked it up, and pressed the button to bring it out of sleep mode. It came out of sleep mode, but the date now said "OCT 3" instead of the current date (which was aug 11). Strange. Cycled the power. Still Oct 3. Hmm. Set the device to pull the date from the cell signal, and it looked correct.
    Everything worked, and all my data was there.
    Except the phone started rebooting itself every few minutes. The battery level would say "83%", and then go to 16%. Then reboot. Plugging it in would show the correct level. But it would still occasionally reboot itself. It has never recovered.
    Hopefully, it's only the battery (which also contains the NFC circuitry).

    But in short - I suppose in a perfect world, that the X-Ray machines can't harm cell phones. And they've never harmed mine before.
    But we don't live in a perfect world. Who knows what happens when the devices turn on and off, do they get a surge? Is there, for just a short moment something else going on?

    All I know is the point of failure for my phone happened in that machine.

  3. S clarke
    June 22, 2016 at 3:12 am

    I have to agree with the other comments left on this site and say that I too experienced problems with a relatively unused 1Tb external hard drive; an older ext hard drive and an iPad! All were put through an airport scanner, not once but twice in quick succession! As a result, I was unable to access the data on the hard drives - in fact, my PC would not recognise either drives when plugged in. To make matters worse, my IPad speakers suddenly decided not to work!!! Despite, trouble shooting exercises, I have not been able to get the speakers to function again and Have endeavoured to retrieve information from the drives, without success but found myself with a huge data retrieval bill! I regret putting them in my hand luggage but the alternative of getting them stolen from my checked luggage doesn't appeal to me either! if anyone has an suggestions I would be interested to hear from you. ?

  4. Wayne McDougall
    March 9, 2016 at 9:45 am

    It is easy to prove that Lachlan Roy is wrong.

    1. Take two flash drives. One one write all 1s. On the other write all 0s. Go through airport scanner. Check contents of drives. Voila - 1s have changed to 0s and vice versa. A change in a critical area (say the directory) will mean you lose all your files.

    2. You can duplicate this with your hard drives (laptop internal and portable drives).

    3. This also affects your camera memory card, SD cards and such like. Mostly it will just result in undetectable changes - changing a single bit in a JPEG won't do anything. But if on a critical area it can make a photo unreasable or the directory corrupted. If unnoticed, you can lose photos you take subsequently. So reformat your memory cards as soon as you can after going through an airport scanner - after safely making copies of the photos.

    4. RAM and firmware (eg BIOS settings) can also be affected, making PCs (and cameras) unusable in some cases.

    5. Anything with storage can be damaged in this way - phones, iPods and other music players.

    6. Ideally have a backup before going through an airport scanner.

    7. Even exposed film will still be washed out - it will be overexposed - colours lose their vibrancy. But no one uses film any more.

    8. More powerful (and newer) scanners, especially at larger airports, usually have a stronger effect.

    9. The fact that there are blatant lies about the effects of airport scanners - these trivial tests are easy to do and anyone can verify the truth of what I say - makes me very worried about the other lies we are told about the safety of scanning.

  5. Heinz
    March 8, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    This sounds all so wonderful - I just wish it was true. I had a HP Notebook fried beyond repair by an Airport scanner on a trip to Switzerland. Unfortunately it was about a week out of guarantee, so HP assured us that it is not their problem. However they told us, that this happens quite regularly, although we are assured all the time how safe those scanners are. A friend who traveled with me, had his Toshiba Notebook fried as well - the same way.

  6. David
    March 8, 2016 at 8:29 am

    hmm.. so why do dentists and hospital staff leave the room while they take an X-ray of you?..

    • Lachlan Roy
      March 8, 2016 at 10:37 am

      Radiography training includes from the very start the concept of keeping radiation dose as low as reasonably achievable (known as the ALARA principle). That's not just for the patient, that includes the staff and anyone else in the vicinity.

      Radiation dosage follows the inverse square law: doubling the distance from the source reduces the dose by a factor of four; tripling the distance reduces the dose by a factor of nine. By leaving the room, it ensures that what little dose the staff might receive is reduced to zero. While any dose received would be minuscule, repeating those processes would mean many doses that would add up to be something potentially problematic.

      The security scanners at the airport are different because they are heavily shielded, so being in close proximity isn't an issue because no radiation is able to escape.

      • jojov
        March 9, 2016 at 12:39 am

        I appreciate the response you provided to David's question, but I find it unintentionally incomplete.

        You described the training protocol, and then compared it to the security scanners. But what about David's (and my) interpretation of your article? You state the medical x-rays don't use anything radioactive. You compare this to light, but of a different wavelength.

        So why do x-ray technicians have to step away from the allegedly harmless "light"?

        In fairness, I realize your article is focused on the security scanners. But we're calling upon your expertise (or resources) to clarify this question. Let's face it! We've all been taught that x-rays are dangerous. Thanks!

        • Lachlan Roy
          March 9, 2016 at 1:30 am

          I'll preface this by saying that I am by no means an expert on radiation. I hold a degree in diagnostic radiography, so I have an understanding of how it works but I am not an expert in the physics of it, nor in the biological response. As such, the knowledge I have is oversimplified and incomplete.

          X-rays are a form of light with a different wavelength to visible light. The difference is that each X-ray photon holds much more energy than a photon of visible light. The reason why X-rays are dangerous is because this increased energy is capable of damaging the DNA of cells in the affected region. UV light also contains increased energy to cause damage, which is why you'll get sunburnt if you stay out in the sun for too long.

          This usually isn't a problem because your cells are capable of detecting any errors caused by damage to the DNA and are able to repair it. However, the higher the dose, the more damage that is done all in one go. This increases the chance that an error might be missed during repair.

          X-rays have so much energy, in fact, that they are able to reflect off objects and still retain enough energy to cause damage out side of the area of interest. This is known as scatter radiation. To bring up security scanners again for a moment, this scatter radiation is not an issue because any scatter radiation is blocked by the heavy shielding of the scanner's enclosure.

          As well as the danger of a large dose delivered all at once (called an acute dose), lots of smaller doses (known as chronic exposure) can do damage as well because the DNA repair mechanisms may not be able to keep up with repeated damage.

          This is why technicians must step away from the X-ray exposure - while each patient is receiving a non-harmful dose, a technician which did not leave the room would be receiving a (reduced) dose for every exposure. As a radiographer I have often worked with 15 to 20 patients a day, with each patient receiving at least two exposures for different images; receiving scatter radiation for every single one of these images would add up very quickly to harmful levels.

          Hopefully this answers your question!

  7. Traveler
    March 8, 2016 at 7:44 am

    I understand that DHS does not allow the radiation safety inspections of the inspection equipment at US airports. Requests to date have gone unanswered.

    • Lachlan Roy
      March 8, 2016 at 10:11 am

      I didn't know that! That seems a little off. Thanks for the information!

  8. Chris Jacobson
    March 8, 2016 at 4:24 am

    On two consecutive flights interstate I was carrying flash drives in my laptop bag & both times they became useless after going thru the scanner at airport security,losing all files, I have learned not to carry flash drives on planes.

    • Lachlan Roy
      March 8, 2016 at 10:08 am

      That's not good! Did you try to use them immediately after security and before your interstate flight? It really is unlikely that the radiation from the security scanner would be enough to render your flash drives unusable.

  9. Lee Hamilton
    March 8, 2016 at 2:30 am

    So if my electronics receive an amount similar to two chest x-rays, I will too.

    • Lachlan Roy
      March 8, 2016 at 4:03 am

      You'll receive background radiation while in the air, just like your gadgets. The airport security scanners emit a much, much lower amount of radiation, and on top of that they're very well shielded to make sure that no radiation can escape outside of the casing.

      So yes, you'll receive similar radiation to your gadgets in the air, but you don't need to worry about the radiation used in security scanners.

  10. Davin Peterson
    March 7, 2016 at 11:58 pm

    Thanks for the explanation. Now I know why they ask you take your phone, tablet or laptop out of your bag when you put in the x ray machine.

    At the Library of Congress, no one has ever complained about their USB or other electronics being damaged by the x ray machine

    • Lachlan Roy
      March 8, 2016 at 4:06 am

      Yep, the X-ray machines used for scanning carried bags uses such a low dosage that it won't damage electronics even mildly sensitive to ionising radiation.

      Thanks for reading!

  11. RB
    March 7, 2016 at 11:18 pm

    Thank you for finally giving me peace of mind.

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