How to Travel With Your Skincare Routine in a Carry On

Taylor Coil

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 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.

If You Can Substitute Something for a Wipe, Do It

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.

Consider the following alternatives:

  • 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

Protip: A sheet mask is a great way to take a self care moment on a long haul flight. 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.

If You Can Buy it There, Do It

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.

Decant, Decant, Decant

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.

The great news is that, for most skincare, a little goes a long way. Bring the amount you need, not an entire bottle.

I recommend decanting liquid serums into small dropper bottles, or bottles typically used for essential oils. The tiny 10-15 mL bottles allow you to bring multiple products in smaller amounts.

For products you’ll need more of, like moisturizer, decant 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.

Know You’ll Need to Make Some Sacrifices

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, my list of must-haves 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).

Ask yourself questions like:

  • 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)

A Note on Prescriptions

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.

From 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


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