This guide to travelling with beauty products is going to cover every different type of travel, including taking cosmetics on airplanes (carry on only and checked luggage, domestic and international), high altitude travel with cosmetics, including mountaineering, and protecting cosmetics from extremes of temperature, especially during overland travel with beauty products or flights to/from hot countries.
My cosmetics go nearly everywhere I go, and you’d expect nothing less since I’m a travel and beauty blogger. I’ve had to make up my own solutions to some of my travel-with-cosmetics problems because the hacks most people came up with only work for very specific situations. I’m in the process of writing a separate article on how to decant literally every cosmetic, and will update this article with links when that one is done.
This article contains:
Carry-on beauty hacks for travelling light.
Checked luggage beauty hacks to protect your cosmetics (and your other stuff).
How temperature and altitude affect cosmetics: Read before going ANYWHERE (especially overland)!
Carry-on beauty travel hacks:
When you’re travelling with only a carry-on, your cosmetics need to be as pared down as possible. I know when I pack for a longer getaway, I’m always in a dilemma because I want to travel light but my cosmetics case could easily fill half a normal-sized suitcase, never mind a little carry-on bag.
All airlines worldwide have limits on how much liquid you can take onto planes these days, which makes it even more complicated for women to travel and look their best.
Here’s how to pack cosmetics for 7 days with a carry-on:
- Shampoo: Instead of a bottle of shampoo, take a shampoo bar. You could make your own, using one of my recipes such as my green tea shampoo bar, or buy a ready-made one. When you only have one sandwich bag at the airport in which to put all your liquid cosmetics, a bar makes sense.
- Conditioner: Another unnecessary liquid. The way I see it, there are three ways to solve the conditioner issue. Either buy some when you land (potluck as to whether you’ll find any as soon as you need it, so not great if you’re going long-haul), make your own conditioner bar such as my easy natural hair conditioner bar recipe, or forego the conditioner completely and use coconut oil instead.
- Deodorant: Take a deodorant bar. The only good one I’ve found (ever) is the Lush Aromaco bar which is unisex and actually works as advertised, unlike most natural deodorants. Unfortunately, I don’t have a homemade alternative yet.
- Toothpaste: If you can get to a dentist before you travel, they almost always have free samples from toothpaste companies, and these are perfect for travel. If not, a full-size tube will use up your liquids allowance, but you may have to suck it up or buy a new tube when you land. No one wants dirty teeth.
- Lotion: If you’re staying in a hotel, you’ll usually get a new tube of this every day. If not, my conditioner bar, above, doubles up as an intensive on-the-spot treatment for very dry skin (use sparingly).
- Face cream: If you’re going to South Korea, absolutely under no circumstances take face cream. They have face cream. And it’s better than anything you have at home. Otherwise, decant your face cream into a smaller pot such as a mayonnaise pot (these tend to leak less than the cheaper “travel cosmetics bottles”) or a miniature jam jar. Remember to label it.
- Sunscreen: Take a travel mini if your face cream doesn’t contain an SPF. You can also make powder sunscreen using zinc oxide but it’s not suitable for dry skin like mine.
- Foundation: Take a cushion or a powder foundation, or boldly go natural with no foundation. A cushion with a high SPF is great for hotter countries.
- Eyeshadow: An eyeshadow pencil is your best option so you don’t have to worry about powder breakage on the flight or use up that precious liquid allowance!
- Eyeliner: Is very small, so unless you’re seriously pressed for space, just take liquid eyeliner if that’s your go-to, and put it in the baggie at security. Otherwise, an eye pencil can double up as a brow pencil if you choose your shade wisely and take a makeup pencil sharpener.
- Highlighter and contouring kit: Ditch. Not worth the extra space in your makeup bag. If you want to contour, very lightly apply your brown eyeliner or eyeshadow pencil to the areas you need to contour and blend, blend, blend until it’s looking natural. White eyeshadow or concealer doubles up as highlighter if needed.
- Lipstick: These are often classed as liquids. I prefer a tinting balm with an SPF unless I have a very formal occasion or a cosplay to attend.
- Mascara: Get a miniature sample of your favorite mascara either from a store like Bloomingdale’s or from Amazon. It takes up way less space than a big chunky plastic mascara tube. I prefer waterproof brown mascara for travel, and I pair it with Mascara Melt-Off by Too Faced.
- Perfume: If you can’t get a travel miniature, just leave it at home. It will only attract unwanted stray men.
- Blusher: I use the Benefit Do the Hoola miniature.
- Pore strips: If you’re prone to blackheads, especially if you’re traveling to a hot country, take some Bioré pore strips.
- Concealer, if you use it. The Urban Decay ultimate holy grail concealer travels REALLY well and covers up tattoos (ideal for travel to Japan).
And here’s what you don’t need when travelling with a carry-on:
Spray Deodorant: Buy this when you land. A big spray bottle will use up your liquids allowance with carry-on luggage.
Dry shampoo: It’s actually really bad for your hair and unless you’re going for an interview when you land you could just shower, instead.
Setting spray: Seems useful, but if you’re in a situation where your makeup won’t stay put, consider whether you need it on your face or not. In the sort of heat that makes makeup migrate down your face, your pores are open, leaving you undefended against blackheads and spots.
Lip plumper/lash growth serum/false lashes: I love all of these, but unless you’re travelling for a big event, you can live without them for a week.
Hair spray/mousse: Use coconut oil (or a small amount of my homemade conditioner bar applied to dry hair) instead to fix flyaways.
Checked baggage beauty hacks
The first time I travelled with a checked bag, we were moving to China. I stared at my open suitcase thinking I could take anything at all and it would all fit in this ginormous case.
Unfortunately, I soon learned that wasn’t true. I also didn’t know about excess baggage, so I thought I could only take this one case and a carry-on. In case anyone else has never been on a long-haul flight, you just pay for more suitcases and it’s not an abominable amount (about $80-ish with the US airlines; about half that in China).
On the plus side, I’m not a huge fan of traveling with tons of bags and, if you’re a solo female traveller (or a lone female heavily-pregnant traveller, as I was on one infamous long-haul flight from China to Helsinki to Heathrow), you will absolutely want as little crap to carry as possible because you will have to lift your bags at various points.
- Take all cosmetics out of their boxes/packaging. If you’re Youtubing, film the unboxing video before you pack! Remember to keep any applicators/spare parts and photograph any instructions in case you need them later.
- Decant unwieldy products into smaller, lighter containers.
- To avoid leaks, wrap any cosmetics in cling film/saran wrap and put them in a waterproof cosmetics bag before putting them in a checked bag. Especially ampoule type sleeping packs!
- To minimize damage, keep powder cosmetics and any container that won’t easily wipe clean in a separate waterproof cosmetics bag to your liquid cosmetics! Store these in another part of your case.
- Put anything like books, electricals, clothes that may stain, etc, in packing cubes or supermarket bags to protect from cosmetics or food leaks. The supermarket bags can then be used to go food shopping when you reach your destination! I had a carton of wine explode in my suitcase once because I packed it wrong on a 17 hour flight, and the mess was not pretty! I was gutted because it was the nicest wine I ever tasted, too (a Californian Pinot Noir, if you’re curious).
- Protect your cosmetics from damage in checked luggage by wrapping them in (bagged) clothes, so if your bags are dropped or crushed, your cosmetics are safe.
How heat affects cosmetics during travel
The issue with taking cosmetics in checked bags isn’t so much space, but whether the conditions your bag will be in are safe for cosmetics. For example, at Dubai Airport, temperatures can regularly hit 45 degrees celsius, sometimes reaching higher, and while your bag is on the tarmac waiting to be loaded onto a plane, things could melt.
Most cosmetics are intended to be kept between 10-25 degrees celsius, so any major divergence from this could cause the active ingredients in anti-ageing creams to become… well… inactive. Essential oils also have problems when they get too warm.
Collagen in our bodies degrades even in average room temperature, although in cosmetics it’s safe to about 45 degrees celsius (120F to be precise) when collagen breakdown’s reaction rate increases [reference] to the point where it can be broken down within about 6 hours.
Hyaluronic acid is even more susceptible to heat damage – just 30 minutes at 50 degrees celsius causes 81% of the hyaluronic acid in a product to break down [reference – PDF download of research paper]. This actually happened to me when I took my By Nature New Zealand eye cream on a long round the world trip including Kathmandu, Dubai, Istanbul and Athens in the August heat during the 2018 European wildfires. By the time I got back to China, the creams were no longer effective and when I looked into the science, I found out it must have been all the airports where my bag sat waiting to be loaded onto/unloaded from planes. Anything with hyaluronic acid should say home or go in your carry on.
Peptides like Matrixyl are the most resilient to heat exposure. Even at temperatures of 100 degrees C, they won’t break down! [reference]. Peptide creams with no other active ingredients can go in your checked bags with no problems!
Vitamins fare even worse! Vitamin C breaks down from 30 degrees C (86F) [reference]. That same reference states pro-vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), found in many haircare products, is also very heat sensitive.
Vitamin A (a retinoid that converts to retinol) is partly affected, too – after 3 months at 45 degrees C it degrades by about 30% [reference], which isn’t an issue for anyone in transit, but will be a consideration for archaeologists and aid workers, and anyone else camping out in warm climates for prolonged periods who uses retinol cream. On your return to a cooler country, you may need to replace retinol-containing cosmetics. The same reference shows Vitamin A also loses 10% of its potency when stored at 13.5 degrees C for 3 months, up to 34% loss of potency after 9 months.
On the other hand, most other cosmetics can stand to be frozen – in fact, they will often reach freezing temperatures during transport. When I worked for Avon (cosmetics company) my deliveries would regularly arrive frozen.
The main exception to this is Coenzyme Q10, aka Q10, a well-known anti-ageing ingredient which is actually very difficult for your body to absorb. It won’t absorb properly if it’s anything other than body temperature and at low temperatures, it forms crystals and becomes ineffective. In fact, it’s less effective at any temperature below 48 celsius (10 degrees hotter than body temperature), although this is likely to be a temporary effect that will go away when the cream is warmer [reference].
So using this science, we can see that most anti-ageing creams need to be carefully packed in a stable temperature to protect them. For this reason, I reiterate they must be taken to hot countries as carry-on luggage to maintain their effectiveness.
Anything containing Q10 or retinol also needs to be in your carry on when travelling to or from very cold countries. Anti-ageing creams are usually expensive and packaged in bulky or heavy containers so I recommend leaving the container at home and decanting your product into a smaller jar with enough for your trip.
How does altitude affect cosmetics?
There was very little published research about the effect of temperature, I had to cross apply studies on food or other biological applications of certain ingredients, and there’s even less work done on altitude.
Kinetic theory tells us you can increase the effectiveness of any chemical reaction by increasing temperature or pressure (or both) of a reactant. This is why products break down in heat.
But this means they will also break down under very high pressure (e.g. when diving, but who takes their cosmetics SCUBA diving?) and that low pressure (e.g. at high altitude, on mountains or high cities like Lhasa, Kathmandu, or most parts of Peru and other areas in South America) will usually make things less reactive. Except for one issue…
The boiling point of water is lower at altitude. All other liquids are affected in a similar way. This means the temperature at which ingredients will denature will also be lower at altitude (the pressurised cabin of an aircraft doesn’t count here).
Most high-altitude areas are quite cold, but some, such as Kathmandu, can get hot at certain times of the year, so don’t leave your cosmetics on windowledges or anywhere without air con. This is especially true of Lhasa, which is over 3600m above sea level (that’s 11,800 feet).
Cosmetics also have a bad habit (due to the low-pressure environment) of working their way out of jars at high altitude. This is more likely in the low pressure cargo hold of some planes rather than on land but if you’re doing Everest, the last thing you need is to faff with cosmetics (my recommendation for cosmetics to take up a big mountain like Everest or K2? Just SPF 50 sunscreen, chapstick with an SPF or coconut oil, and some soap for hygiene).
If you’re overlanding, you might not even know you’ve reached high altitude, so pack your cosmetics well and don’t take any big expensive ones, just in case they get ruined.
Humidity is another consideration for travelling with cosmetics. Powder cosmetics suffer most from this. They can go hard and difficult to get onto an applicator or brush, or they can even dissolve. You could keep powder cosmetics in a makeup bag with a sachet or two of silica gel to protect them. Keep silica gel away from babies and pets.
Humidity will also affect electricals. Beauty devices are more robust than a lot of devices, however, so are unlikely to stop working unless they actually get wet (aka 100% humidity).
If your bags are likely to get wet, e.g. travelling in a rainstorm or typhoon, put beauty devices in a plastic bag and surround them with clothes to absorb any potential liquid. Also keep them well away from any part of the zippers as these are the weak point in most bags and suitcases, where water is most likely to get in.
In a campervan or other long overland adventure, humidity is the biggest danger to your cosmetics because you’re breathing in your vehicle and causing the air to become saturated with water vapour. This becomes very problematic at night (you’ll see the windows steam up from it).
You can get a non-electric dehumidifier which uses crystals, they’re available at most bargain stores like Home Bargains (UK) or Dollar Tree (US). It could be worth taking one of these with you and putting it somewhere where it won’t get knocked over (they get messy and then they cause more issues than they solve because the crystals are toxic). Keep these well away from children or pets.
So there you have it, the science behind exactly how to pack to take the best care of your cosmetics while travelling, which cosmetics travel well and which ones you can do without! Some cosmetics are seriously expensive, so if in doubt about whether you can safely pack them, leave them at home (especially if they’ve been discontinued and are therefore irreplaceable).