How to Pack Your Travel Skincare Routine in a Carry On

By Taylor Coil

Traveling with your skincare routine in a carry on takes planning, but it’s possible. Plan ahead and make some compromises.

In the past year, I’ve become a fully-fledged aficionado of skincare. Previously a skeptic, Reddit, Into the Gloss, and the general zeitgeist have collectively convinced me to perform DIY science experiments on my face.

What I’ve noticed, however, is that my newfound love of serums and face washes doesn’t necessarily play nice with my insistence on traveling with only a carry on backpack. I’m sure I’m not alone in trying to conquer the challenge.

Reminder: to abide by the TSA rules for what can be packed in carry on luggage, each passenger may pack 3 ounce bottles or less of liquids and gels, into 1 quart sized ziploc bag, and 1 bag is allowed per passenger. This is affectionately referred to as the 3-1-1 rule.

When your skincare routine consists of many liquids and gels, it can be tough to fit everything into a TSA-approved 3-1-1 bag. Not to worry – I’ve figured out how to to pack in a carry on without sacrificing my vitamin C serum (or my chemical exfoliant, or my hyaluronic acid).

Though it takes a fair amount of planning, it is possible.

Substitute Skincare Essentials for TSA-Friendly Wipes

Let’s get this out of the way: most things are better in non-wipe form. Micellar water, for example. Micellar wipes are far from ideal… but they do work in a pinch. Carry on packing definitely counts as a “pinch.” Micellar water and a cotton ball might be ideal, but the wipes work, too. If you need to make room in your 3-1-1 bag, substitute some of your favorite skincare items for a wipe.

Travel-Friendly Alternatives to Liquid Skincare Products

  • Instead of cleanser, pack makeup remover wipes
  • Instead of acne spot treatment, pack salicylic acid pads (like Stridex)
  • Instead of a jarred mask, pack a sheet mask

Can You Bring Face Masks in a Carry On?

Yes, you can bring face or sheet masks in your carry on. They are TSA-approved and totally fine to bring on an airplane.

Plus, a sheet mask is a great way to take a self care moment on a long haul flight or thing to add to your in-flight skincare routine. Airplane air can dry out your skin and a sheet mask can help. Plus, they’re a great way to wind down before attempting to fall asleep in a tiny airplane seat.

Make Room in Your 3-1-1 Bag by Buying Items at Your Destination

When choosing what to leave at home and buy at your destination, consider:

  • Price of purchasing a replacement
  • How picky you are about the specific replacement
  • Scarcity / availability of a replacement

Skincare can get expensive, so think more broadly than serum. It doesn’t make sense to buy a $50 serum at your destination in order to make room for a $2 canister of travel-sized dry shampoo in your 3-1-1 bag. 

Commodities like shampoo, toothpaste, and body wash are both inexpensive and easily available in most parts of the world. Though you might not be able to find your favorite salon shampoo in South America, you’ll find something that will work for a week.

Spending half of your vacation trying to hunt down something is no fun. If you consider a specific and niche product essential to your routine (like a certain percentage AHA), find room in your clear plastic 3-1-1 bag for it.

How to Pack Face Wash, Lotion, and Skincare Products for a Carry-On

To pack face wash, lotion, serum, and anything else that falls in the liquids, creams, and gels category so that you can bring it safely on a plane:

  1. Invest in travel-sized, reusable bottles. The tiny 10-15 mL bottles allow you to bring multiple products in smaller amounts. To pack products you’ll need more of, like lotion or face wash, decant it into a 1.25 oz GoToob. The 1.25 oz options are the smallest versions and will create extra space in your 3-1-1 bag.
  2. Decant it into smaller bottles. For most skincare, a little goes a long way. To make your travel skincare routine carry on friendly, bring the amount you need, not an entire bottle. Instead, decant liquid serums into small dropper bottles, or bottles typically used for essential oils.
  3. Pack everything in a leak-proof, see-through bag. This is both TSA-compliant, and will keep the rest of your luggage safe if anything leaks or breaks in-transit.
  4. Place it in the top of your bag. This will make it easy to take out during TSA screenings.

The Best Travel Bottles for Skincare Products

I love my serums, but if I packed more than one in my 3-1-1 bag, I wouldn’t have room for anything else. They just aren’t packaged in compact containers. For decanting, these travel-friendly containers are great:

Dropper Bottles ($10 for 4)

Essential Oil Bottles ($13 for 12)

Use GoToob for face wash and lotion

GoToob ($22 for 3)

Keep Your Travel Skincare Packing List to The Essentials

Because you’ll have limited space, you won’t be able to bring your entire skincare routine AND every other liquid you might need. For instance, you might not have room for shampoo and conditioner. But you can buy those at your destination.

The rule of thumb: think about what you’re unwilling to sacrifice and pack those things first. As an example, below are my travel skincare must-haves.

My travel skincare packing list includes:

  • Chemical exfoliant (AHA / BHA)
  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Moisturizer
  • Vitamin C serum
  • Tinted sunscreen (in lieu of foundation)
  • Toothpaste for a long-haul flight, otherwise I’ll buy it there

Write your own “non-negotiable” list, then commit to buying the rest at your destination (or going without).

To figure out your travel skincare packing list, ask:

  • Will your skin be a wreck if you stop using your AHA for a week? (If yes, that makes the cut)
  • Is there only one moisturizer in existence that doesn’t cause you to break out? (If yes, that makes the cut)
  • Do you swap out your cleanser with regularity or skip your witch hazel toner with no noticeable difference? (If yes, leave those behind and pick up a cheap cleanser when you land)

Packing Prescriptions in a Carry-On

If you’re a topical prescription user, there’s good news: prescriptions, even liquids and gels, don’t need to go in your quart-sized bag. Those can be packed separately in your carry on – you just have to declare them to a TSA agent when going through security.

According to the TSA blog, “Medication in liquid form is allowed in carry-on bags in excess of 3.4 ounces in reasonable quantities for the flight. It is not necessary to place medically required liquids in a zip-top bag. However, you must tell the officer that you have medically necessary liquids at the start of the screening checkpoint process. Medically required liquids will be subjected to additional screening that could include being asked to open the container.”


Traveling with your skincare routine in a carry on takes planning, but it’s possible.

  • Bring the essentials
  • Buy the negotiables your destination
  • Be prepared to decant lotions, face wash, and other skincare essentials into smaller bottles