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Skin Science

How to avoid "airplane skin" while traveling

Diana Kelley Levey
Diana Kelly Levey January, 27, 2020

Runner, dancer, baker, adopted dog mom, wisecracker (or jokester)

If you've ever traveled by air, you probably noticed that it can take a toll on your body! Upon landing at your destination, there's a good chance you felt dehydrated and had dry skin to boot. Even if you applied face and body moisturizer before boarding, spending time in a pressurized cabin thousands of feet high can leave you with what's commonly known as "airplane skin."

Thankfully, you can protect your skin with just a few precautions. Here's a rundown of what causes skin to become dry and rough when flying, as well as strategies for keeping your skin healthy and happy until you arrive at your final destination.

Why you get dry skin during air travel

In addition to feeling dehydrated after a flight, you might notice your hands and feet feel rough, and that even your nose and eyes are dry. Blame the airplane cabin! The mucous membranes in your eyes and airways tend to dry out in the cabin's low humidity levels, which typically hover at about 20 percent.

In a small study published in Skin Research and Technology, researchers observed the changes in skin's hydration levels during a long-distance flight where the cabin had dropped to 10 percent humidity levels. They found that subjects rapidly lost hydration in the outer layer of their skin on their faces and forearms, with the most pronounced change occurring on the cheeks.

Woman tourist passager getting in to airplane at airport, walking from the terminal to the plane.

How to keep skin healthy before you depart

It's a good idea to apply moisturizer all over your body before heading to the airport. Consider grabbing a thicker product to hold in more moisture. And don't forget to bring some along in a travel-size container!

After moisturizing, apply a sunscreen with a high SPF on your hands, arms, ears and face. Melanoma cases are twice as common among airline pilots and cabin crew members due to their exposure to UV rays at high altitudes.

To maximize your body's hydration levels, make a point to drink plenty of water on your way to the airport and while you wait to board the plane. Consider bringing an empty water bottle along so you can avoid having to buy the expensive stuff! While you may be tempted to treat yourself to a savory coffee or sweet soda instead, go easy on the caffeinated beverages. Caffeine has a mild diuretic effect that some experts believe can be dehydrating.

When you board the plane and take your seat, slather on a lip balm with SPF that contains hydrating and moisturizing ingredients like beeswax, mango seed butter, coconut oil or shea butter. It's also smart to keep a couple of skincare products within reach, so pack an easily accessible bag in your carry-on that's filled with travel-size hand lotion, moisturizer, lip balm, eye drops, nasal saline spray and a water bottle. That way, you'll be prepared for anything!

Strategies for avoiding airplane skin while in transit

After takeoff, apply some moisturizer to keep skin hydrated. Depending on the length of the flight and your how quickly your skin tends to lose moisture, you might want to add a light layer to your face, arms, hands and feet every few hours.

Many travelers wear long sleeves and pants because of the temperature aboard the plane, but it also helps them avoid contact with surfaces that may harbor bacteria. During the flight, try not to let exposed skin touch areas that are known for being particularly unsterilized.

If you're offered an adult beverage during the flight, consider politely declining. Alcohol can cause dehydration, and your skin may end up feeling it! Stick to drinking water. And if you normally wear contacts, you might find it more comfortable to switch to glasses for the flight to minimize dry eye fatigue and discomfort.

Maintaining beautiful, happy skin after landing

Once you arrive at your destination and deplane, visit the terminal's restroom to cleanse your skin and layer on a gentle moisturizer. This soothes dry skin and reduces any bacteria you may have come into contact with during the flight. Use a cleanser that's mild to avoid stripping the skin's natural oils, and follow it up with lightweight SPF protection if you're planning to step out into the sunshine. Or, if you're going to sleep soon after you land, slather on a night cream.

Back at your home or hotel room, turn on a humidifier, if there's one handy. This will keep the environment in your room at a more comfortable humidity and restore some moisture that was lost during transit. Whether you're tucking in for the night or just doing some light unpacking before heading out, the moisture boost will help your skin recover in time for your next adventure.

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