Are You Making This Skin-Care Mistake When You Travel?

Photo: Thomas Jensen/EyeEm
Confession: I always fly in a full face of makeup. Why do I feel guilty? Because I've been made to believe that wearing makeup on an airplane is an unforgivable crime against skin.
From celebrities to facialists, everyone I know (or read about in a magazine) is dead against the practice, opting instead for a slathering of antioxidant serum, an entire bottle of hydrating mist, or a Hannibal Lecter-esque sheet mask in place of their usual foundation. But what's so different about wearing makeup in the air compared to wearing it on the ground? Does it really cause that much damage — and could there even be some less-publicized benefits?
"One of the biggest differences between cabin air and the air that we are used to is the humidity," explains cosmetic doctor Natalie Blakely, founder of the Light Touch Clinic. "Cabin air is often less than 20% humidity, whereas at home, humidity is 30% or more." That mostly means that skin will lack moisture and dry out faster — and makeup can actually come in handy here. According to dermatologist and skin-care expert Justine Kluk, tinted moisturizers and BB creams, like the antioxidant-rich It Cosmetics Your Skin But Better CC Cream SPF 50+ or imperfection-blurring NARS Pure Radiant Tinted Moisturizer SPF 30, can make dry cabin conditions a little more comfortable for skin... while making it look better, too.
But that still doesn't answer the question of why — and how — you can arrive to your departing flight with perfectly clear skin and find yourself mid-breakout by the time you deplane. If your makeup doesn't usually give you issues, then what accounts for those post-flight acne clusters? "The obvious reason for getting spots after flying is failure to remove makeup thoroughly," Dr. Kluk says. "Grease, dirt, and dead skin cells can build up and block your pores, but this is more of an issue for long-haul travel than for shorter flights."
If you're too jet-lagged — or just plain tired — to cleanse, Dr. Kluk says that the next best way to avoid breakouts and irritation is by choosing mineral or non-comedogenic makeup that won't occlude the skin. As dermatologist Sam Bunting says, "If it's a short-haul flight, it's fine to leave your makeup in place, but make smart choices."
Believe it or not, makeup might not be the sole cause of those blemishes — the pressure of packing and flying can also contribute, with or without makeup. "Passengers are not only exposed to the physical stress of flying, but also social and emotional distress before departure," says Dr. Kluk. "The combination of these factors, along with the disruption to your normal skincare routine, may lower your threshold for breakouts."
Frequent flyers have another set of worries entirely: Can exposure to harsh cabin air cause irreversible damage like wrinkles and fine lines? Experts say no, not necessarily. "Low humidity levels in the cabin over long distances can lead to a decrease in hydration in the outer layer of the skin, which can account for the tightness, dry eyes, and peeling some people experience," Dr. Kluk explains. "I wouldn't, however, expect that wearing makeup on a plane should increase the risk of long-term skin damage such as wrinkles, especially if attention is paid to good skincare, like following a routine and covering up in the sun."
Your first port of call, as always, should be SPF. According to Justine Hextall, dermatologist at the Harley Medical Group, UV exposure increases significantly at 30,000 feet, and if you're a SkyMiles regular, Dr. Kluk explains that it could impact your skin health if repeated over many years, especially alongside a disrupted skin-care routine and disturbed sleep. So if your foundation or tinted moisturizer boasts SPF 30 or higher, it's another win for your skin.
The only major con of wearing makeup, mainly when flying long-haul, is not getting the benefits of hydrating moisturizers, masks, or retinoids if you’ve brought them on board. Dr. Bunting suggests that removing makeup with a micellar water, like Bioderma Sensibio H2O, is better than nothing, especially if you're going to sleep; that way, your skin gets a chance to drink up lost moisture while you catch some much-needed Z's.
There's one thing all experts agree on: To counteract post-flight acne, dullness, and dehydration, you need to nail your skin-care routine once you land. A luxurious facial cleansing balm, like Farmacy Green Clean Makeup Meltaway Cleansing Balm, will leave skin purified without any uncomfortable tightness. Follow it up with a gentle exfoliant like The Ordinary's Lactic Acid 10% + HA, which will cut through oil, improve skin texture, and act as a moisture magnet for dehydrated skin. Add a high-powered moisturizer, like Drunk Elephant Protini Peptide Cream, to deliver major nutrients without clogging pores, and your vacation will already be off to a very, very good start.
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