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As a frequent solo traveler, I’ve racked up my fair share of survival techniques: Avoid dark secluded areas, always have an emergency granola bar on hand, and check every five seconds to see if anything leaked in my toiletry bag. After all, a trip is only as good as the quality of your packing job.
From rolling our clothes into tiny burritos to wrapping fragile items in soft wool sweaters, we’ve all mastered the art of packing a suitcase. But unlike each item of clothing, we use our toiletries—think medication and personal hygiene products—up to several times a day. The pressure is then on that one tiny toiletry bag to simultaneously keep us clean, healthy and looking and feeling our best, so it's important to stock it smartly.
Here are the top 10 mistakes travelers make when packing toiletries, according to flight attendants, and the things you can do instead:
1. Don't: Pack your toiletry bag in your checked luggage
It can be tempting to store the weight of your toiletries in checked baggage, but here’s why that’s a problem: “Flights get cancelled or delayed and baggage gets lost. You need to always have the essentials with you [in your carry-on bag] in my opinion,” says flight attendant Tal Zonshein.
Pack your carry-on with what you’d need with you if you were stranded on a deserted island: medication, contact lens solution and something of the likes of floss so you feel somewhat put together. Zonshein says the extraneous stuff like body creams and makeup remover can go into your checked baggage. Feel free to pop a single makeup remover wipe in your toiletry bag to use on the plane before falling asleep.
What you pack in your toiletries in is almost as important as how you pack them. If you use a porous material like canvas, it’s bound to absorb all kinds of shampoo and makeup drippings, and that’s when weird smells and residue begin to permeate the rest of your carry-on. Instead, always opt for a waterproof toiletry bag in case of spills, says flight attendant Haley Grumet. “It has a removable quart-sized plastic bag, it’s stain- and water-resistant, washer-safe, and has a mirror and a hook. It’s what dreams are made of,” she says.
3. Do: Make sure you keep liquids properly protected
Gone are the days of haphazardly shoving everything into your toiletry bag and calling it a day. With the inevitable sprinting to your gate, you need to ensure sure each liquid item is hermetically sealed. According to Grumet, quart-sized plastic bags aren’t only a must for going through security in some countries like the UK and US, but they prevent spills inside your toiletry bag.
She recommends sliding lock Ziploc baggies since the slider function adds an extra layer of protection, but we love TSA-approved reusable sandwich bags that cut down on waste. Word to the wise: Always bring more plastic bags than you think you’ll need. “Things will explode and get messy and you’ll need fresh ones for the way home,” Grumet says.
4. Don't: Pack sharp items like tweezers and nail scissors
I always play a game of Russian Roulette when I pack tweezers and nail scissors in my carry-on toiletries—sometimes TSA confiscates them, and sometimes they don’t. And when they don’t, I end up accidentally performing acupuncture on myself when something sharp juts out of my carry-on. As per Zonshein, those sharp items are “always a no-go” in your toiletry bag. Oops.
“The smartest thing to do is have a mini toiletry [bag] for your carry-on with the absolute essentials you’d need in case of an emergency,” says Zonshein. “The rest goes in separate toiletry [bags] that you put in your checked bag.” Instead of nail scissors, try bringing a pair of nail clippers since Zonshein says they’re always allowed on board.
5. Do: Make sure you bring cleaning products and disinfectants
When packing toiletries, we often focus on products that promote personal hygiene, but it’s usually what’s on us that gets filthiest—namely, the clothes we wear on the plane. “A lot of flight attendants bring one or two travel-sized detergents so you can wash anything in the hotel overnight and reuse it,” Zonshein says. Sink-ready laundry detergent works perfectly for hand-washing a few items in the sink, which is especially beneficial for delicate fabrics you’d hesitate to throw into a foreign washing machine. Don't forget disinfectant wipes to clean the area around your seat, either: A recent study by TravelMath found over eight times more bacteria on tray tables than lavatory flush buttons.
6. Do: Only pack must-have and multitasking products
At home, you have the luxury of choice—does your skin need a little moisture today? Maybe some exfoliation? You likely have a product for every need. But on the road, it’s important to opt for products that work double-duty to tackle all your skincare woes at once. Products like StarSkin 7-Second Morning Mask are great for travel. It features an exfoliator and toner on one side, and moisturizer, mask and primer on the other. Bonus: Since it’s not a liquid, you don’t have to worry about TSA stealing it for themselves. And if you use up the entire container on your trip, you lighten your carry-on on the way home.
Think about all the items you pack for your trips and never end up using—it’s time to learn from those mistakes. Before packing, find out what kind of personal care products the hotel will be offering. “Most hotels have most things you’ll need,” says Grumet. Typically, that means you can leave the basics like shampoo, conditioner, body wash, hand soap, cotton swabs and a shower cap at home.
8. Do: Limit the amount of liquids you pack
All that running around from gate to gate to can shake loose even the tightest of lids, leading to a passport covered in mouthwash. Not a good look at customs. Zonshein says that when possible, always opt for solid versions of your favorite necessities. She carries toothpaste tablets instead of tubes. “It looks like candy, but once you put it in your mouth and start to brush, it works like toothpaste,” she says.
Instead of roll-on liquids and gel deodorant, she suggests all-natural deodorant towelettes. “Most [travel deodorants] are all-natural. To use them, just wet as you go. Put a touch of water on it from the tap and it works perfectly,” she says.
9. Do: Make sure you protect your toothbrush from germs
You have to be especially careful about avoid cross-contamination when packing your toothbrush, so I totally get the appeal of sealing it in that coffin-like container. But you’re wasting precious real estate. “That takes up too much space. Even the smallest things add up. So now I have toothbrush head covers, which are little boxes that you put over the brush part of the toothbrush,” Zonshein says.
Those Barbie-sized toiletries sure look space-efficient and cute, but they’re going to cost you. As reported by The Telegraph, buying travel-sized products can cost up to 750% more per milliliter than their family-sized counterparts, according to a study from travel booking company Travelsupermarket.com.
Now, here’s how to beat the system: Grumet suggests buying travel-sized containers to store creams, like these leak-proof TSA-approved reusable containers. If you’re a Sephora buff like Zonshein, you probably have little canisters on-hand from the samples in their beauty subscription box. Plus, reusing plastic you already have instead of accumulating more cuts down on waste. And that’s always a good thing.