By Rebecca Jones
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2008.
Air travel can still be a brutish experience. And it’s not just the outside of your luggage that can get beat up. An extended flight in an airplane’s low-humidity, pressurized interior, followed by exposure to a climate that may be vastly different from what you’re used to, can wreak havoc on the outside of your body as well.
The moral: traveling is tough on skin, so invest in something gentle.
“Cabin air is drier than the world’s driest deserts,” says Denise Spanek, a San Francisco esthetician and beauty industry entrepreneur. “It’s like 10 percent humidity. That’s a very harsh environment, not just on your face but on your entire body. An environment like that, with no moisture, can make your skin look five to 10 years older.”
Add to that the inevitable experience of jet lag, often mixed with immodest amounts of caffeine or alcohol, pre-flight stress, high-fat meals eaten in a hurry at airport fast-food outlets, and hours of breathing the germ-laden air in the airplane cabin, and it’s no wonder travelers often deplane dehydrated, with dry, blotchy skin, puffy eyes, and swollen ankles. Complicating matters are new airline security regulations that limit the liquids passengers can carry on. Yet, despite all these gorillas waiting to pound your skin, savvy travelers can still do a lot to lessen the negative impacts.
“What you really want are products that can soothe and calm irritated skin, products that can instantly hydrate, like facial mist, which is really helpful,” Spanek says. “Also look for products that are shea butter-based, which not only adds to the protective barrier but also locks in moisture.”
Aside from carrying a supply of skin care products on board, following are some other tips for providing TLC to your skin while traveling.
Avoid putting on makeup before boarding an airplane. Makeup will act as one more barrier if you want to rehydrate your skin during flight. It also clogs pores. “At the end of the flight, your skin may already look dry and dehydrated, and makeup will just exacerbate that,” Spanek says.
Avoid alcohol, both in flight and before you board, but do drink as much water as you can—ideally, at least eight ounces for every hour of flight time. When you’re offered refreshments during the flight, water is always a good option. Remember that your skin will lose a lot of moisture in the arid conditions on the airplane, so hydrating from the inside out is just as important as applying a facial mist to work from the outside in.
Periodically head to the restroom to splash lukewarm water on your face to rehydrate and clean out clogged pores. For long flights, consider soaking a washcloth or paper towel in hot water and placing it on your face to rehydrate your facial skin and nasal passages.
Apply moisturizer or mist whenever you feel skin beginning to tighten. Every hour is not too often, experts say.
Gel eye masks are inexpensive and you can ask a flight attendant to keep one in the galley refrigerator for you during the flight. Retrieve the eye mask shortly before landing to give your eyes a soothing boost and relieve puffiness.
Once you reach your destination, indulge in a long, hot bath as soon as possible. The key is to immerse yourself in water and restore moisture to your dried out skin, lips, and mucous membranes. In addition, a long bath or shower will help humidify the air, which can also be dreadfully dry in hotel rooms. Spanek also recommends exfoliating to remove all the dead skin cells, followed by a rehydrating mask.
Slip. Slop. Slap.
Don’t stop protecting your skin just because you’ve completed the marathon of getting from Point A to Point B—especially if Point B has a dramatically different climate than Point A. Look out for sunburn.
Sunburn is, of course, the bugbear of beach lovers. But those headed to higher altitudes also need to be wary. Skiers and mountain climbers are especially vulnerable, since for each 1,000 foot gain in elevation, the sun’s intensity increases by about 4 percent.
And for those at sea level, remember that being in the water is no protection. Damaging rays can penetrate the water and can, in fact, be magnified. You just don’t realize you’re burning because the water keeps you cool. That’s why snorkelers should always wear a T-shirt to protect their back.
“In Australia, they have a saying: ‘Slip. Slop. Slap.’ That’s slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, and slap on a hat,” says John Morrison, a Denver physician who specializes in travel medicine. “Down Under it’s easy to get a nasty sunburn. But that’s good advice anywhere.”
Morrison recommends always carrying—and wearing—sunblock with at least a sun protection factor (SPF) rating of 30. “You’re better off getting it in a tube than a bottle because it’s easier to pack that way,” he says.
The SPF is important because the number helps you judge how long you can safely stay in the sun. The higher the SPF, the longer you can stay in the sun without burning. Fair-skinned people can begin to burn in just 10 minutes with no sunscreen protection at all. A sunscreen with SPF 15 would allow them to safely remain in the sun fifteen times longer than that. An SPF 30 can provide thirty times as much protection. Sunscreens typically come in SPF ratings of 2–50.
Particularly at risk of sunburn are fair-skinned people, those taking certain medications such as tetracyclines or diuretics, people with skin conditions such as psoriasis or eczema, and the elderly and very young.
For those who hate the goopy feel of sunblock on their skin, clothing can also do the trick. New standards for sun-protective clothing were unveiled in the United States in 2001. Clothing protection is measured not in SPF, but in ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). A white T-shirt, for example, has an average UPF of 7, while a long-sleeved dark shirt may have a UPF of 1,000 or more. Some new fabrics have been specially treated with chemical ultraviolet absorbers to raise their UPF. The Skin Cancer Foundation advises shoppers to look for clothing marketed with a UPF of 50 or above.