"But what about all your skincare and makeup?!"

Wed Apr 11, 2018 · 8 min read


The question I most frequently get from other women who are interested in a one-bag trip or lifestyle goes something like, “How do you pack all your toiletries/makeup/skincare/creams/lotions/etc?!”

Some months ago I was in a Slack conversation with several other traveling women (though not necessarily one-baggers) who were sharing photos of their travel toiletries collections. They averaged ten to fifteen tiny bottles of various gunk meticulously lined up along hotel bathroom counters. If your idea of necessary skincare amounts to roughly the same, I’m sorry, but you’re not going to like this post very much, and you should probably just try another one.

Here’s a photo of every single skincare and makeup item I insist on flying with:

The bathroom counter in my hotel with a tiny tub of Vaseline and a stick of liquid eyeliner.

I mentioned you might not like this post very much.

But what about your ____?

Possibly the most empowering realization I came to in regards to the whole “beauty supplies” area of my life occurred to me during a stay in Thailand. For several months I lived in a remote-ish part of Phuket where the most international and well-stocked supplies outlet available was a tiny Family Mart. I remember being able to count about three brand names that I recognized from any North American health and beauty aisle: they were Head & Shoulders, Dove, and Vaseline. Not exactly your Shoppers Drug Mart or CVS Beauty Boutique assortment.

At the time I still traveled with my 1-quart plastic baggie allowance packed full as I could get it with various creams and my favorite lip balm brand in triplet. I will admit that I at first experienced some anxiety over not having my preferred brands or products available. Once my supplies ran out, however, and I was forced to use whatever was available… nothing in particular changed, aside from my lessening anxiety level.

Since then I’ve come to realize that thriving in any such situation comes down to two important points:

  1. Nobody but you cares if you’re wearing makeup and,
  2. The health of your hair and skin comes down to what you put in your body more than what you put on it.

No, I’m not some genetic anomaly with always-perfect hair and complexion. I’m prone to eczema, have dry skin and scalp, have sensitive skin and a nickel allergy. In the grand scale of skin types I’m pretty smack in the middle of average when it comes to “issues” to deal with. And yet, more days than not, none of those issues require any sort of dealing with. It’s not magic. It just comes down to being informed and realistic about your own attitude and body.

Nobody but you cares if you’re wearing makeup

This is even more true if you’re traveling anywhere with an average temperature over 25 degrees Celsius - honestly it’s just too hot for makeup most of the time. You’d spend more time applying, checking, re-applying and touching up than you would spend actually having fun. And isn’t that the point of travel?

Of course I’m not denouncing the benefits of a little eyeliner and lip gloss, just saying that it’s important to realize that you’re truly the only one who minds whether or not you’re wearing any. When I’m out with the goal of having a good time, I want to surround myself with people who smile genuinely, participate wholeheartedly, and laugh with abandon. I don’t care if they put on lipstick or not, and I’ve no reason to believe the people I’m with feel differently. In two weeks I’ll remember that girl I met from Russia and how awesome she was singing Journey at karaoke (hi Lucy!) - not whether or not she was wearing foundation, or if she had a zit.

Health and beauty starts with what you put in, not on

I used to get severe eczema breakouts so bad that I was mercilessly teased for it in school. While my childhood doctor told me I’d grow out of it (the eczema, not the teasing - har har) it’s never entirely gone away. From long-term experience I knew some of the things that triggered a flare-up - things like stress, wacky hormones, lack of sleep, and dry skin. The one event that made the biggest difference in my ability to take care of my skin, however, only occurred a couple of years ago. I saw a proper dermatologist.

I didn’t walk away with a miracle cream or anything. I just learned that in addition to external environmental factors, eczema breakouts of the type I had occur very often in response to food allergies. Not necessarily any particular type of food, but possibly smaller elements present in various foods like nickel, and most likely my own body’s reaction to various greater quantities or deficiencies in macronutrients. The dermatologist couldn’t tell me exactly what to be wary of or avoid, but that was exactly the point. No one would be able to figure it out but me (save an unlikely well funded and continuous research study with myself as the sole subject).

Whether it’s food or environment, the most important thing you can do in caring for your own skin and overall health is to pay close attention to the things that affect you. If you eat something and observe an adverse reaction to it, then it’s probably hurting you. It sounds rudimentary and obvious, but it’s very easy to ignore these quiet signals in our busy day-to-day lives. The more you keep track of things that do and don’t work well for your body, the more you can tip the scale towards day-to-day overall health.

Personally, I experience more discomfort with my skin when I a) don’t hydrate enough and b) consume a lot of sugar. Those are the two biggies when it comes to my body, and if I drink enough fluids and mostly avoid sugar, I rarely need to do anything for my skin other than slap on any old lotion after a shower.

I frequently hear women mention that they spent some time talking with the person in the health and beauty section of their local drugstore and bought some imported something-something that came highly recommended. Please, for goodness sakes, don’t confuse this process with getting health advice. The beauty and personal care product market is a multi-billion dollar industry in the US alone (84 billion in 2016), and it hasn’t actually solved any kinds of common skin problems. The person at the counter of the beauty boutique/makeup store/organic skincare section is a salesperson, not a dermatologist. They mean well, but they’re just there to help you shop. It’s not health advice, it’s just fun.

“Necessary” skincare

I’ve now had conversations with dermatologists and doctors on this subject, and from those as well as my own experience I’ve distilled some thoughts about “necessary skincare” that comprises the rules I live by. They’re very simple and don’t require buying anything fancy, which makes them boring and not fun, but they do make life easier, which is nice.

1. Use a non-comedogenic moisturizer

“Non-comedogenic” just means it doesn’t block your pores and cause zits and generally bad complexion. An ubiquitous example of this is Vaseline (white petroleum jelly). Yes, it’s boring. It’s also non-comedogenic, scent-free, cheap, sugar-free and gluten-free like your favorite vegan hipster protein bar, and available nearly everywhere. I use it as lip balm, face moisturizer, and on any particularly dry spots.

2. Drink more fluids than you think you should

You’re not going to overdose on water, so there’s literally no downside. A well-hydrated body is a healthy body with soft skin (hydration improves elasticity and can make skin look younger), growing muscles, and a happy brain. You can drink more than just plain water, of course - tea, pop, juice, and even beer counts for hydration (just be aware of sugar and calorie intake).

3. Any old soap/shampoo/lotion/conditioner will do

Gone are the days of being picky about brands and ingredients, and I’m far less stressed out for it. My only particular preference is for items that aren’t heavily scented, but even that’s got more to do with my nose than my skin. In a pinch, I can wash my body with shampoo, or my hair with bar soap, or skip the conditioner. Really. It doesn’t anywhere near ruin my day and I’m able to get on to the things I really want to do instead of wasting time fretting over skincare products.

Just keep it basic

Proper skincare while traveling or even at home doesn’t need to consist of a dozen different bottles, and there’s really no good reason not to take advantage of supplies that your accommodation provides. If I’m not staying somewhere that offers those amenities, anything cheap and uncomplicated from the nearest convenience store will work fine. Here are some simple and cheap staple brands that, in my own travels across most of Southeast Asia and North America, I’ve found to be ubiquitous:

The items I insist on flying with are only the ones I may want to use while I’m in transit - Vaseline for the lip balm and general moisturizer, and the liquid eyeliner in case I want to apply it or touch it up (but also because that’s a bit expensive to have to buy new everywhere I go, and pretty insignificant to carry with me). If I need to buy my own supplies like those listed above and I have leftovers when I’m ready to leave, I’ll just bring them along with me to the next location. Some hotels collect half-used amenities and donate them to local shelters, so if you have leftovers you don’t want to bring with you, be sure to ask if your accommodation would take them for donation.