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How To Prevent A Long Flight From Destroying Your Skin

Skin Care
Illustration by Lindsay Hattrick

Everything to know about your pre-, in-, and post-flight skin-care regimen

Preparing your face for a long flight is like preparing to go into battle. Even if you don't know the true science behind it, if you've ever been on a plane, you know that flying equals absolute mayhem for your complexion. However, there are a number of steps you can take before, during, and immediately after your flight that can help ensure you land at your destination—whether your dream beach vacation or back home—with your skin as glowy and fresh as it was when you hit the airport.


We chatted with the experts in skin care to get the lowdown on how our skin can successfully survive an extended flight.

What does flying do to our skin?

According to celebrity physician Dr. Natasha Sandy, there are four main culprits for skin issues following a flight. The first—and probably the most immediately noticeable—effect is dehydration. "Typical commercial lights have humidity of less than 20 percent, which means decreased amounts of H2O on the skin's surface and volume that can cross the epidermal barrier," she says. "This leaves skin dry, flaky, dull, limp, and itchy at times. This dryness can also exacerbate skin conditions like eczema and rosacea."

Even worse, when your skin gets excessively dry due to the outside environment, our sebaceous glands (aka oil producers) become more active, producing more oil as a result. "Already oily skin becomes more oily, and these natural oils combined with the buildup of dead cells and debris can lead to clogged pores and breakouts," says Sandy.

Additionally, flying at great heights causes fluid retention, leaving the skin puffy or swollen, especially around your eyes, hands, and feet. And, what many people don't realize, is just how much stronger the sun is when you're tens of thousands of feet in the air. "High up in the clouds with the sun beaming through the windows of the aircraft leaves people directly exposed to both UVA and UVB rays, which increases the risk of photodamage and skin cancer," says Sandy.

Pre-flight tips

The good news is, there are a couple of ways you can preemptively save your skin before you even pull up to the terminal.

As stated earlier, skin tends to get oilier as we travel—even though it can feel super dry. To prevent post-flight breakouts due to excessive oil production, Sandy suggests beginning to exfoliate and purify the skin with exfoliating cleansers and deep-cleansing masks in the weeks leading up to your flight. "Treatment with AHA helps in increasing skin turnover and removing debris, while deep pore-cleaning masks will keep skin free of sebum and minimize buildup," she says.

The best way to prepare your skin for a flight is to make sure it's hydrated going into it. Leading up to a flight, Sandy suggests ramping up your moisturizer application volume and frequency. However, the state of your skin is a direct reflection of how you're doing internally, so it's important to make sure hydration comes from within, too. So drink all of the water you can before your flight, being sure to avoid any known dehydrating drinks, too: Sandy recommends avoiding any coffee or alcohol prior to travel (so skip the $18 airport gin and soda).

Dermatologist Dr. Shereene Idriss stresses to board your flight sans makeup. "Flying with a full face of makeup can make matters worse for you in the longer term," she says. "In addition to the cabin air drying out your skin, a full face of makeup leads to further buildup within your pores, which might result in an acne breakout post-flight. I usually recommend wiping makeup off before a flight, and reapplying right before landing—your face will thank you later."

In addition to leaving your makeup behind, you should also make sure you're boarding your flight with clean skin. "You should always bring a cleanser to use before boarding the flight, as skin should always be clean before starting your regimen," says Sarah Lee, co-CEO and co-founder of Glow Recipe. She suggests her brand's Blueberry Bounce Gentle Cleanser.

In-flight regimen

Okay, so you've made it through security, fresh-faced and moisturized, you've avoided the airport bar, and you not-so-secretly cleansed your skin in the bathroom before boarding. Now what? Which TSA-friendly products should we bring on board with us, and how should we be pampering ourselves while we're miles above the Earth's surface?

Before you begin your in-flight skin-care regimen, both Lee and her co-CEO and co-founder Christine Chang stress that sanitizing your seat area and your hands is important in order to avoid passing any bacteria onto your face. "Keeping your surrounding environment sanitary is a big must, so be sure to wipe down your seat with antibacterial wipes and always keep a hand sanitizer nearby to avoid and eliminate any bacteria," says Chang. Keep in mind, this step will also help you avoid picking up any colds or bugs while in the air.

But, back to products. According to Sandy, stock up on serums that contain ceramides and hyaluronic acids, since they help maintain and restore moisture, as well as vitamin C, which soothes and has antioxidant properties that fight photodamage. Also bring rich moisturizing creams and ointments (versus lotions, which contain drying alcohol) that are non-comedogenic to layer with serums to increase skin moisture and improve texture.

Idriss suggests applying your thicker creams or ointments every two to three hours that you're in the air and bringing hydrating thermal water sprays into the mix (such as classic Evian Mineral Water Spray) if your flight is longer than four hours (just don't forget to lock it in with a moisturizer).

Have a window seat (or find that your seatmate keeps the window shade open the entire flight)? Don't forget to reapply your SPF 30 sunscreen every two hours—and to apply to the back of your hands in addition to your face, "a place that everyone forgets!" says Jessica Richards, founder of Shen Beauty.

In addition to the various products we can slather on your face, there are a few skin- and complexion-saving tips to keep in mind. Again, you'll want to stay as hydrated as possible. Idriss recommends you drink one eight-ounce glass of water for every hour you are on the flight. Want to make your water more interesting—and beneficial? Richards suggests bringing a skin supplement to add to your water bottle, such as powdered collagen or a hydration supplement; she recommends products from Beauty Chef: "It makes me drink more water because it tastes fantastic, but it also helps out my skin—it's a win, win."

If you can find some in the airport or on-flight, Sandy suggests consuming pineapples, or even pineapple juice. "They contain bromelain, which prevents swelling and puffiness," she says.

Post-flight revival

Once you're out of the airplane and at your destination, be it your hotel or back home, Idriss says there's one thing she always does right away: "The first thing I do is wash my face with lukewarm water followed by a chemical exfoliants, such as glycolic acid, to rid my skin of all the impurities and buildup throughout the flight," she says. She then follows that up with a vitamin C serum to bring back skin luminosity, sealing it in with a thicker moisturizer.

Richards suggests turning to toner: "I'm not a huge toner fan as I don't like to strip my skin, but I always feel a bit cleaner after taking this step after traveling."

According to Sandy, hydrating serums and masks with hyaluronic acid will also help revive skin—but don't forget to continue nourishing from within by drinking loads of water and getting a good night's sleep. If you fear that jetlag will be inevitable, look into alternative options to help you fall asleep.

While maintaining good skin takes a lot of work, maintaining good skin after a long flight takes a lot more. But by putting in that extra effort before, during, and immediately following a long flight, you can maintain the same levels of Glossier-level glow you have on the ground. And your face will thank you for it.

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