When you’re away from home, it’s easy for your skin-care routine to go out the window. But traveling is one of the times when your skin needs attention the most. “Traveling can wreak havoc on the skin,” says Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD, the president and a cofounder of Modern Dermatology in Westport, Connecticut, and an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Yale New Haven Hospital.
Not only are you away from the bathroom counter that’s lined with your holy-grail products, but the experience of travel itself can take a toll. “All travel methods, especially planes and trains, involve large commercial vehicles with artificial air circulation systems,” says Scott Flugman, MD, a dermatologist at Huntington Hospital in Huntington, New York. “This results in prolonged exposure to dry heating and cooling methods, which can result in a significant loss of moisture in the skin.”
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Air travel in particular can be dehydrating. One small study found humidity levels on an airplane dropped to 10 percent, which dehydrated the skin of study participants — particularly on their cheeks. (For comparison, the Mayo Clinic says humidity levels between 30 and 50 percent are best.) Dehydration of the air doesn’t lend itself to healthy-looking skin. “It makes fine lines and wrinkles appear more prominently and can leave skin looking dull,” Dr. Robinson says.
There’s also a good chance you’ll encounter some stress along the way, whether you hit an unexpected traffic jam in the car or are in a rush to board your flight. This can trigger an inflammatory response in the body, which can exacerbate conditions such as acne, rosacea, and psoriasis, Robinson says. Extra stress might also cause breakouts, says Marisa Garshick, MD, a New York City–based board-certified dermatologist.
A study published in June 2015 in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venerology found that participants who had stressful jobs and higher daily stress levels were more likely to have acne around the jaw area than less-stressed peers.
Finally, you may not sleep as well when you’re away from home, and that can disrupt the skin’s repair process, Robinson says. A study published in May 2017 in Royal Society Open Science found even just two days of poor sleep made skin look pale and less attractive.
Luckily, all this can be avoided if you plan ahead. We asked several dermatologists for tips on what they do to keep their skin healthy during travel. Here’s what they recommend.
1. Stay Hydrated Internally to Retain Moisture Externally
The best way to counter the drying humidity levels you’ll experience in flight? Drink water. A study published in Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology in 2015 found that increasing water intake by two liters a day for one month led to increased skin hydration, which has been linked to younger, healthier-looking skin. Robinson says to start prepping early. “Drink half your body weight in ounces of water for the days leading up to your travel and during your travels,” she says.
2. Keep Your Lips Hydrated With an Ointment
It’s easy to overlook your lips when you’re in the midst of a long travel day, but that’s a mistake, Dr. Garshick says. “Long days of travel can dry out the skin but also the lips, so it’s extra important to keep the lips well hydrated,” she says. She recommends Vaseline or Aquaphor, which are two ointments (aka ultra-moisturizing products), for use en route.
3. Wear Sunscreen Even on Travel Days
If you’re headed to a tropical locale, you’ve likely got your sunscreen and beach hat all packed. It may not occur to you to slather on sunscreen when you’ll be spending most of the day in the airport or on a plane, but it’s a good habit to get into. “Although sunscreen should be applied every day, it is essential on travel days, especially on a plane when you’re even closer to the sun’s ultraviolet rays,” Garshick says. A meta-analysis from January 2015 in JAMA Dermatology found that pilots and flight attendants have twice the incidence of melanoma, a potentially deadly type of skin cancer, compared with the general population. Protect your skin by putting on sunscreen before takeoff. Garshick likes EltaMD UV Daily Broad-Spectrum SPF 40 ($32.50, Dermstore.com), which is lightweight and hydrating. “The tint helps to camouflage any blemishes that may occur as a result of the long day of travel,” she says. No matter which type you choose (chemical or mineral, tinted or untinted) aim for at least SPF 30 and reapply every couple of hours, as the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends.
4. Try to Bring Your Usual Products With You
That way, you won’t be asking your skin to adjust to all-new products on top of the other stressors associated with travel. “If you know your skin-care routine works, you should stick with it, even when traveling,” Garshick says. Robinson says to seek out sample-size versions of your essentials (which include cleanser, moisturizer, sunscreen, and an antioxidant serum). That’s a better option than simply pouring your oils and serums into plastic containers. “Most skin care needs to be stored in a specific way to preserve its effectiveness, so don’t pour it into a travel-sized bottle without doing your homework first,” she says. Most vitamin C serums, for instance, are best kept in a cool, dark place away from extreme heat (which is why serums are often sold in dark bottles). Basics, like cleansers, usually do just fine in a travel-size bottle, though, Garshick says.
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5. Avoid Using Potentially Irritating Hotel Skin-Care Products
“In this day and age of restrictions on bringing creams and lotions on planes, many people will leave their usual products at home and use whatever is provided to them at a hotel or resort,” Dr. Flugman says. But it’s best to skip those little lotions and soaps stocked in your hotel bathroom. “These products frequently contain fragrances and preservatives that may further compound the usual travel-related dry skin problems,” Flugman says. This is especially crucial if you have sensitive skin, Garshick says.
6. Prepare for Acne Breakouts
Even if you follow all the advice above, there’s still a chance your skin will act up while you’re away, so you’ll want to be prepared to treat breakouts. In particular, stress, different water pH and hardness, and the surfaces our head and face touch can cause even the most perfect skin to break out, as an article published in January 2019 in Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology notes. Tanya Nino, MD, a dermatologist with St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, carries a small tube of 10 percent benzoyl peroxide to deal with breakouts. You can find this over the counter, such as with AcneFree Terminator 10 Acne Spot Treatment with 10 Percent Benzoyl Peroxide ($12.98, Walmart.com).
7. Treat Yourself to a Sheet Mask or Facial Mist While en Route
There’s no shame in giving your skin some love while you’re on the road. “I love to treat my skin to a hydrating mask on a long flight,” Robinson says. She recommends SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Mask ($55, SkinCeuticals.com). Patricia Farris, MD, a New Orleans–based board-certified dermatologist with Sanova Dermatology, recommends packing a hydrating facial mist and spraying it periodically throughout your trip to keep skin moisturized. She recommends Evian Brumisateur Natural Mineral Water Facial Spray ($16, Sephora.com) or Avène Thermal Spring Water ($18.50, AveneUSA.com). You may get a few questioning looks from fellow passengers, but the joke’s on them when your skin is hydrated and smooth when the plane touches down.