In-Flight Skincare Routines for Normal People

Joanna Rutter

A travel skincare mindset is improv, not routine. Bring a basic kit, add extra products depending on weather, time of day, and length of flight. Drink a lot of water and do recovery care once you land.

Let’s start with some honesty, in case you came here expecting any jet-setting-beauty-editor glamour. I’m writing to you from a poorly-lit corner of Logan Airport, distracting myself from a delayed flight that’s scheduled to get me home at 3 a.m., while I strategize around a puffy forehead, bags under my eyes, an emerging pimple on my nose, and a presentation due tomorrow. I’m not so much a skincare guru in this moment as I am barely a survivor of the cruelties of Basic Economy.

This evening is going to get much, much worse: I’m headed for seat 28B, where my back will be against the bathroom, in the middle seat, the recycled AC blowing on my forehead as I dodge sneezes from 27B, trying not to touch my tired, dry face with gross airplane-water-washed hands.

The cards are stacked against me. But, not all hope is lost.

To combat this complimentary cocktail of skin stressors, I’ve developed my own skincare response kit. Call it airplane skincare for improvisers. It’s what to do before, during, and after a flight to prevent breaking out and shriveling up, along with emergency items for when those things (inevitably), do happen. The best part: you can get all of it affordably at your favorite drugstore.

Here’s how to build your own in-flight skincare routine.

What to Pack in Your Personal Item

Whether you’re a one-bagger or two-bagger, we’re all constrained to the 3-1-1 rule, so I’m not here to recommend bringing along your whole medicine cabinet. A one-quart bag can only hold so much.

Your packing directive is simple: Give ziploc real estate to a good toner (more on that later), some hand cream, lip balm, your favorite cleanser if you can’t part with it, and a good face moisturizer.

Bring everything else in wipe and sheet mask form to create luxurious cleanliness and healthy skin without checking a bag full of liquids — or having a serum-off with a TSA agent. Not that I’ve ever done that.

If this feels extravagant or silly, hear me out for a moment. The feeling of a refreshing mask on your clean face on hour five of a cross-country flight is truly the most delightful escape. Drugstore masks cost $3 and first class costs $200. The choice is clear.

Face Wipes

Keep it simple. I prefer a dermatologist-approved grocery store brand like Cetaphil or CeraVe for basic face wipes without a lot of ingredients. Bring enough for morning and evening face cleansing, plus one for each of your flights. (There and back plus 3 days equals 8 wipes.) If you wear makeup, you may want to bring micellar wipes or a solid cleansing balm for removing makeup.

PS: Skincare isn’t just for your face. Baby wipes can help you feel clean in between deodorant applications on layovers.

Sheet Masks

Sheet masks are your in-flight heroes. They pack super flat and can do the extra heavy lifting you need when you’re leaving the rest of your bathroom at home. What matters most is bringing masks that address the right problems based on how your skin usually acts when you travel.

On any given trip, I bring along at least two sheet masks, making sure to check that no rinsing is needed. The number one ingredient I look for is hyaluronic acid, which sounds dangerous, but it just helps your body retain moisture. I need this because I dry out on flights. You can usually find masks with this ingredient listed at any drugstore for $2-5.

Though my informal research reveals that most of us get parched on flights, your skin might behave differently.

  • Get oily in the air, or super red? You might do well with a blemish-clearing mask, which you can spot with the words “calming” or “soothing.”
  • Hopping off the plane and immediately meeting up with your coworkers for breakfast? Look for brightening masks that will help you look awake and refreshed.

Test before you go:  If you can, always test out a new wipe or mask at home first. Don’t throw your skin extra curveballs! The more you travel with masks and wipes you know you can trust, the better your skin will behave.

Misting, Masking, and Moisturizing In-Flight

Drink Plenty of Water

If you follow all these other skincare tips, but don’t drink enough water, you will still dry up and break out. If you can, get an aisle seat, because you need drink an embarrassing amount of water. In my completely unscientific opinion, at least 8 oz. of water per hour you’re up in the air feels about right to me. 

Pro Tip: Get creative with drinking water. One of my favorite long-flight hacks is bringing along a packet of miso soup mix, getting a cup of hot water and stirrer from the flight attendant, and enjoying a peaceful, not-boring snack along with my four complimentary pretzels.

Wash Your Hands In-Flight

Always wash and/or sanitize your hands before touching your face. This reduces your chances of catching an illness or breaking out your face. Flat-pack hand sanitizer sprays and moist towelettes from fast food establishments can help you stay clean without taking up too much bag room.

Rest Your Eyes In-Flight

Rest your eyes, especially on red-eye or early morning flights, where you don’t want to look red-rimmed for the rest of the day. Itchy, tired eyes make you want to rub them, and that’s how you get sick! Take a break from working or watching movies, put on a podcast and an eye mask, and force your eyes to rest for at least 20 minutes. Sheet masks are great opportunities to close your eyes too. You’ll thank yourself later in the day.

Moisturize Tactically

Your forehead receives the brunt of the overhead AC blowing onto your skin, so apply more up there, along with a healthy thick layer everywhere else. My preferred go-to here is Embryolisse Lait-Crème Concentré, a celebrated French moisturizer that can double as a mask or a cleanser in a pinch.

Tone Religiously

When your body is out of rhythm, you’re more prone to breakouts. Decant witch hazel, rose water, or bring along a spray toner of your choice to spritz on your face on bathroom trips in between cleansing and moisturizing.

Watch out for toners that have alcohol or perfumes added; unless recommended by your doctor, they are more likely to upset the pH balance of your skin and irritate you when you’re at your most volatile!

Use Hand Cream In-Flight

Rub hand cream into your knuckles and cuticles. I’ve had awful luck breaking dry, brittle nails in airports recently, so I’ve become more vigilant about my cuticles. I swear by either Weleda Skin Food (heavy, oily, can double as a moisturizer in the winter) or my new fave Herbalind Glycerin Hand Cream (light, absorbs quickly). Don’t forget balm on your lips!

 

Long-Haul Flight Skincare

If you’re feeling luxe, longer-wear hydrating cream masks like Summer Fridays Jet Lag are heavy-duty enough to carry you through a long flight. You can also just wipe, tone, and moisturize again halfway through your flight as usual. Mix it up with a hydrating mask near the end of your flight. On red-eyes when you plan to sleep, you might want to use a night cream or serum, if it’s what you usually wear at night.

Pro-Tip: Though not technically a skincare product, compression socks can be the difference between feeling exhausted or refreshed when you land. What you’re feeling in your body shows up on your face.

What Not to Do 

Or, how to be your flight attendant’s favorite passenger

  • Avoid sprays: Never, ever spray anything in the main cabin, since many people are sensitive to scent or aerosol. You could trigger allergic responses or asthma attacks! Spray in the bathroom only.
  • Don’t be nosy: Your scents should never be smell-able beyond your own personal space. See reasons above. Planes already make folks queasy; save anything perfumed for after you land.
  • Don’t hog the bathroom: especially during turbulence or descent. Spritz away quickly so you can free up the bathroom for someone else. As much as you can, time how much water you’re chugging so that you use the bathroom when it’s least disruptive. We’re all trying to survive economy back here.

Warm Weather Travel

Remember that, even when it’s balmy outside, your plane will still be very cold, with the air conditioning blasting and drying out your skin. I still opt for a thick winter-type of moisturizer here, but if that’s not what your skin needs, you may find you prefer a light facial oil like rose-hip or Argan oil. Skin that’s been out in the sun soaks it up well. For oil-prone skin, reach for a gel-based moisturizer for protection that doesn’t sit heavy on your face.

Cold Weather Travel

Listen well: Drown your skin in thick layers of thick moisturizer. Just cover it. Thick products work harder and go further. If you’re new to thick moisturizers, start somewhere simple. Also, bring a big blanket scarf and mummify yourself in it on the plane. It’s one more shielding layer against dryness for your (already moisturized) neck, arms and hands.

Returning to Earth: Skin Care for Landing

Beginning Your Descent: Time to Look Alive

As you prepare for arrival, wipe off any monster amounts of moisturizer, finish up with your mask, and if you have a de-puffing eye cream you love, this is when to use it.

Spritz some toner before the seatbelt light turns on, apply a regular layer of moisturizer, put on makeup if you want to, and drink the last of your water.

Congratulate yourself: You are an unstoppable, glowing skincare wizard!

First Night at Your Destination

What you do on the ground is just as important as what you do in the air. This is time to correct everything that awful flight did to your poor skin. Showering is a must, always. Don’t let those sneezes stay on you a second longer than they have to! After, I usually have a store-brand mask with hyaluronic acid in it for my first night somewhere for a reset.

Unless you’re superhuman, there’s a good chance that travel will cause a breakout. If I think I might break out the day after a flight, I’ll apply a treatment serum, anti-blemish mask, or get even more strategic with the oddly satisfying magic of pimple patches. Bring at least one emergency pimple treatment for peace of mind.

Home at Last

Returning home is your opportunity to reset your skin in the comfort of your own shower. Apply another thick layer of body lotion to restore whatever horrors your skin went through, and use something exfoliating to remove dead skin and grime from your face. Relax, moisturize, and let your skin get back to normal… until you have to do this all over again!

What Did Your Skin Tell You?

Your skin during travel is like a petri dish in a lab. Are you paying attention to the experiment? Here are some good things to note as you travel with a skincare improviser mindset:

  • Did you feel thirsty on the flight, or were you hydrated enough?
  • Did you break out? Where? When during your trip?
  • Did you develop any dry patches of skin?
  • How did your skin respond to different masks?
  • How did the weather and duration of the flight affect your skin? 

Take mental notes or jot down a shopping list for your next flight. As you play around with building your kit, you may find that some approaches just don’t work for you. Keep testing different products and understand how your skin reacts with different variables at play, and each time you travel, you’ll get better at anticipating your skin’s needs.

Neither jet-setting nor skincare is actually glamorous in itself; it’s a part of life that requires more grace and flexibility than usual. Your philosophy can be to treat your skin the same way.

TL;DR

Your travel skincare mindset is improv, not routine.

Bring a basic kit:

  • Toner
  • Moisturizer
  • Hand cream
  • Lip balm
  • Cleansing wipes

Add on other products depending on the weather, time of day, and length of flight:

  • Lighter gel moisturizers for warm weather
  • Hydrating masks for long-hauls
  • Blemish treatments in case you break out

Your water bottle is the greatest skincare product you have. Do recovery care after you touch down. Take notes on how your skin acts during travel to prep better for next time.

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