June 8th 2021
Sense and Sensitivity
The 10 sensitive skin travel commandments: what to do (and not to do) on holiday
June 1st 2018 / 0 comment
With no access to your entire skincare collection or local GP a holiday can be stressful rather than relaxing for those of us with over-sensitive, problem skin. Stick to your comfort zone and avoid holiday nightmares with these 10 dos and don’ts
I live for holidays; I book as many as I can without having to declare myself bankrupt, seeing them as mini goal posts throughout the year that I look forward to - until a few days before I’m due to leave, and then I panic. How is my skin feeling? Has that recent reaction gone down? Why didn’t I start the antihistamines sooner in preparation? Why on earth did I agree to hand luggage only? Which products can I afford to leave behind? Is this pre-holiday stress causing my skin to itch or is it something else? How hot is it over there, how humid? Cue hourly checking of the weather app, endless lists, and fretting over whether I can take everything I need without exceeding my luggage allowance.
The airport security rules on liquids are a real sticking point; until a few years ago I would always take hold luggage without question in order to take my hoard of beauty, but as prices rise (and rise, and rise) it’s far more sensible to go for hand luggage only if you can - but that leaves me facing my ultimate enemy: the 20x20cms liquids bag. I know, I know, safety first - I’m genuinely pleased that the security staff are keeping us safe. Really I am. But… does it really matter if I have 12 bottles of sub-100ml liquids instead of five?
You're allowed a litre in total, but I'm not sure I've ever fit that many into one of those bags. What's more, would it not be a bit fairer for makeup wearers to have two bags, seeing as they have to make room for daily essentials such as mascara? (Yes, essentials.) Is it really any different if I bring an unopened roll-on deodorant from home, which I’ve desperately tried to squeeze into this godforsaken bag, to not bringing it and then having to buy one - which will likely be unsuitable for my skin - in the airport about five minutes later? The rules baffle me, so answers on a postcard if you have them; I’d love to better understand the logic. Talking of which, in this era of the war against plastic, I hope someday there’s a standardised reusable bag on offer at the gates instead, as even prepping beforehand with my own correct-sized zip bag has been rejected on occasion.
Perhaps I would mind less if everything my sensitive skin needed could be bought in the airport - if I knew my preferred sun cream, my steroid cream, my trusty calamine cream and other reaction-fixing heroes were available, I’d maybe be willing to spend precious pre-flight eating time to shop for what I need. But scour the aisles of Gatwick’s Boots store and you’ll find the most mainstream of beauty brands and products, and very few of the more niche, sensitive brands - not good if you’re looking for anything that’ll help you avoid a holiday-ruining rash. Though it's worth knowing that so long as you have supporting documents from your doctor, you can take medicines of over 100ml with you.
All that stress before you’ve even taken off is bad enough, but then you have the destination: heat, sun, chlorine, layer upon layer of sun cream, aftersun, bites, sand, hotel toiletries that look oh-so tempting... it’s hard to find those relaxed holiday vibes when you’re worrying about what your biggest organ is doing. I spend an excessive amount of time on my breaks away studying my skin closely, on the lookout for the tell-tale signs of prickly heat or any other irritation, so that if it does crop up I can act fast - but rather than endure this paranoia, it’s better to be prepared and, unfortunately, sensible.
So here are a few commandments to make your getaway as stress-free as possible - because all you should be worrying about is what to see, do or drink next…
Thou shalt stay away from the free hotel toiletries
Unless you recognise them as brands you love and get along with, of course. They are so tempting - handy little body washes, shampoos and conditioners that would give you extra space in the aforementioned hand luggage, but trust me, now is not the time for change. Make your travelling companion’s day by declaring them all theirs and stick to your tried and trusted formulas to avoid any surprises.
Thou shalt take your rescue remedies for reactions
I always advocate taking antihistamines daily for a couple of weeks pre-sun if you’re prickly heat prone like I am, but more importantly I won’t travel without them as they’re the fastest defence if any reactions or rashes do occur - plus, the extra strong ones I like aren’t always available in the airport’s mini pharmacy counters. Better safe than itchy.
Skincare-wise, my prescribed steroid cream (given to me on my last bad reaction), my calamine and aqueous cream, my basic gentle cleanser - they’re non-negotiables when I travel. No matter what you have to leave behind if you’re lacking space, make sure it’s not your sensitive skin first aid kit.
Thou shalt not go over your liquids limit (without risk)
I’ve managed, repeatedly, to get through security with a large clear makeup bag (about twice the size at least of the usual bags) full of under-100ml products. But once, I did not - and not only was it embarrassing but it meant I had to throw away perfectly good, perfectly full, rather expensive products, and so never again will I try it (in my defence, back then in my travelling naivety I did assume so long as it was clear it could be any size you liked. I was wrong). Choose wisely, my sensitive friends, and stick to the limit, or else part with some cash and go for hold luggage for peace of mind - it’s my ultimate holiday luxury.
Thou shalt go easy on the cocktails
I get it, you’re on holiday, sangria is probably a must. But be warned it could give you more than just a hangover, as dermatologist Dr Emma Wedgeworth from Dr Sam Bunting’s London clinic explains. "Alcohol has a number of effects on the skin. It causes opening up of small blood vessels within the skin, known as a vasodilatory effect. This exacerbates any itchy skin condition, such as eczema. It also makes conditions like rosacea worse by increasing flushing and redness. As well the immediate effects, alcohol is thought to impact on cells within the body causing oxidative stress and increasing inflammation. Both of these mechanisms will aggravate inflammatory conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.”
Thou shalt up your skincare game for your flight
"The lack of humidity in the cabin dries out the outer layer of skin (stratum corneum) significantly, by increasing transepidermal water loss,” Dr Emma explains. "This exacerbates eczema and sensitivity of skin.” Now I get why frequent flying celebrities rave about their inflight skincare - it is, after all, free time in which you could have a serious pamper session. At the very least I recommend having a face mist such as La Roche-Posay’s spring water to hand, £3.50, but layer up your most hydrating serums and moisturisers too.
Thou shalt choose your sun cream wisely
I’ve written about how to pick the right sun cream for sensitive skin before, but when going away it’s tempting to pick one up once you arrive to save on space and pre-holiday shopping. However, as someone who’s extremely picky about what’s in my SPF (mineral filters and fragrance-free as a bare minimum) I always pack my trusty Ultrasun - better yet, it saves on space as all their formulas can be used on both face and body.
Thou shalt wash your hands after applying someone else’s sun cream
On that note, you’ll no doubt be on sun cream duty at some point on the holiday and if your friends/partners are anything like mine, they’ll have their own fragrant SPF that they’ll want you to apply. If you want to avoid any potential triggers, wash it off before you start slathering your own.
Thou shalt not get in the pool without skin prep
Having recently taken up regular swimming, I have learned the hard way just how itchy it can leave my skin - so before you sink into that infinity pool, heed Dr Emma’s advice. "Chlorine is a strong irritant and even when diluted down in a swimming pool, it dries out the skin, affecting the natural acid mantle of the skin. Swimming exacerbates dry flaky skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis; I always advise putting on moisturiser before going into the pool.”
Or, do as I prefer to do and head to the beach. "Sea water doesn’t tend to dry out the skin, although it can sting particularly if there are open areas. Sea water is a weak antiseptic and may have positive benefits for some patients who suffer from eczema."
Thou shalt stand your ground in the spa
It’s awkward, I get it (isn’t everything kind of awkward in a spa?). Be it a language barrier or a lack of understanding, explaining to your spa therapist what you can and can’t have on your skin somewhat negates the soothing zen vibes they’re trying to immerse you in, but no treatment will be worth it if you’re laying there worrying that a rash is imminent. I have, based on experience, a suspicion that not all therapists pay a lot of attention to those forms you fill out carefully with all your skin woes, so it’s worth speaking up. Turn up early so you can go through the products used within your treatment and make sure your needs are clear.
Thou shalt not panic
It’s proven that stress can make skin conditions worse, but more importantly you don’t want your main holiday memories to be of crying over an angry rash or standing in the shower praying to the skin gods that it’s not as bad as it looks (just me?). In my experience, pharmacies in Europe are particularly good at dishing out advice and ointments, so if you need help, seek it - and stay calm. It's never as bad as you think... and if it is, that's what kaftans are for, right?
Any more sensitive skin holiday tips? Let me know in the comments!