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After one too many long-haul flights, waking up and looking like death — sallow, parched skin, dark circles under eyes, that kind of thing — I decided it was time to upgrade my travel skincare routine. Sadly, altitude and dehydrated skin are a thing — a thing that happens to everyone. Women and men. Those reclining, legs stretched out for days on flatbed seats in biz class, and those stuffed like sardines into economy. But there must be a way to walk off a 14-hour flight looking fresh as a daisy, right?

I began by reaching out to my New York City-based dermatologist to get some intel on the effects flying and altitude have on one’s skin.

The Details

Dr. Julie Russak heads up Russak Dermatology Clinic in midtown Manhattan, and when I explained to her my predicament, here’s what she had to say:

“On the plane, you are located at the equivalent of high altitude, and moisture evaporates from the skin much faster, leaving one feeling dry and irritated. Also, air tends to recirculate on the plane, and therefore is higher in bacteria, viruses and allergens that it picks [up] on the way. It’s a double insult: Your skin barrier is compromised due to dehydration, and the air is dirtier, leading to more irritation and inflammation after a long flight. It is extremely important to hydrate, from the inside and out, during the fight. Clean your skin and apply a good barrier cream to maintain moisture and protect from the outside irritants getting in.”

Dr. Julie Russak of Russak Dermatology Clinic in New York City

The Test

My intent was to find a bevy of products targeting normal skin and fit for both men and women. I began researching serums, creams, toners and more geared toward refreshing, moisturizing, soothing and helping to, overall, make one’s face look the opposite of tired. I am a believer in both natural food and natural skincare; therefore, when considering products for this piece, I looked to brands that, as much as possible, sidestepped chemicals like fragrance, which can further dry out and irritate one’s skin. I also made sure to only consider products 3.4 ounces or less, and those that weren’t terribly heavy and bulky.

I narrowed down the products I chose to fly with based on how well they performed on the ground. Both on myself and my boyfriend, Mike, who, by no means knew anything about skincare up until recently. Initially he was a bit apprehensive about serums and under eye creams, but after glowing results — quite literally — he has been a quick convert.

The winners made it on to a number of overnight flights including trips onboard El Al from Miami (MIA) to Tel Aviv (TLV), and from San Francisco (SFO) to Tokyo (HND) riding Asiana. I flew both economy and business class in an effort to see whether I felt differently easily sliding into the business class bathroom to refresh versus lazily slopping on a bunch of product smushed three-deep in an economy window seat. Really, though, it didn’t make a difference.

The Goods: Sky-High Skincare 

Here’s my basic routine: About an hour into the flight, I clean my face, spray on a toner, follow with a serum, then top with a lotion or oil, followed by an eye cream. Repeat a few hours before deplaning, or as needed. I get it if and you may not want to go through that whole process; many of the below products are strong enough to fare well on their own — like The Blue Cocoon, which was Mike’s favorite. He also loved the Rose + Neroli mist. I mean, applying that is as easy as spraying a breath mint, right?

Regardless, the first product in my sky-high skincare routine is RMS’ coconut wipes ($16 for a 20-pack). I’ve been using these cleansing face wipes for the past year and they’re just as amazing in the air as they are on the ground. The wipes themselves come packed individually and are made of a slightly abrasive cloth that’s been soaked in coconut oil, and that rough texture helps to lightly exfoliate one’s skin while the coconut oil both cleanses and hydrates.

I love face mists. They’re a totally low-lift way for a quick refresh, no bathroom trip necessary. After trying a handful of different brands, I realized the importance of a soft mist versus a stronger, more direct spray, which is less pleasing and feels more like getting shot in the face with a water gun. My favorite product for a quick pick-me-up that’s still calming is Odacité’s Rose + Neroli treatment mist ($39). The super-fine spray smells of rose water and it contains ingredients like aloe vera to boost hydration.

While SkinCeuticals is well-known for its Vitamin C serum, it’s the antioxidant-packed Phloretin CF ($165) that I love (which also contains Vitamin C). I learned about this one from Dr. Russak, and I like to use it both on the ground and in the air. This elixir is rich in antioxidants and combats atmospheric aging. Because it’s so light, it’s great for layering under another cream.

If there’s one product that I am most taken with, it’s May Lindstrom’s The Blue Cocoon ($180). Beyond its awesome ocean-blue hue, this all-purpose balm — which is a solid at room temp but immediately melts into your skin — snags its zippy blue stain from an essential oil called blue tansy that’s derived from a plant native to Morocco. Blue tansy is lauded for its ability to hydrate and soothe irritated skin, and it’s a godsend on flights. Just a bit of this balm leaves your face moisturized and glowy for hours.

The one downside I’ve found to using oily products on your face, is that almost inevitably, they make your hair look greasy. (Unless you have a shaved head, and in that case you’re all set.) I urge you to seek out Honey Girl Organics’ thick and creamy face and eye cream ($32); I’ve used this product as an overall moisturizer and it hydrates amazingly well, especially 35,000 feet up. Honey is a natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and that plus several oils from plants like rose and lime, yield a silky skin milkshake that leaves your skin both hydrated and luminescent.

On the subject of eyes, I am not going to tell you that I’ve found some miraculous cure that will banish those dark circles. But I have found a product that’s cooling and helps brighten tired skin. In Fiore, a brand I love through and through, makes a product called Source d’Éclat Eye Serum Concentré ($125). It’s a small vial that’s super light and easy to store in a bag, and the applicator has a cold metal ball that feels refreshing when rolled on. While In Fiore says that ingredients like acerola fruit reduce puffiness, I mainly love this for how soothing it feels, plus it does add a bit of under-eye radiance, which helps to reflect dark circles.

My favorite cream to slosh on before hopping off a plane is KYPRIS Pot of Shade: Heliotropic ($68). What I love about this product is that it gives your skin that fresh and dewy look, as if you’ve just stepped out of the shower. Plus, it contains SPF 30, which is an extra bonus. When I was in Tahiti several months back, I learned of a locally made oil derived from the tamanu plant, praised for its ability to soothe irritated skin. Heliotropic contains tamanu, which is partially why the product feels so good going on, and it also accounts for that dewy effect.

Other one-off items I’ve found to be great while traveling are Butter Elixir’s cardamom-scented lip balm ($28), and Nucifera’s buttery all-over skin balm ($15) that smells like palo santo (this is amazing for any dry skin from hands to elbows to lips). I’ve also found a new appreciation for aromatherapy while flying, and Tata Harper’s pocket-sized roll on oils (try the herbal-smelling Bedtime and lavender-scented Stress treatments, $80) are amazingly rich and deeply perfumed. There’s something about a calming smell while packed onboard an uncomfortable plane that’s kind of a game changer.

The Takeaway

If you’re willing to shell out cash money for some high-quality skincare products (admittedly, some — but not all — of the products mentioned above are a bit pricey) and devote minimal effort onboard a plane to applying them, then it’s pretty easy to finish a flight looking fresh to death. Just do like me and turn your flight into a spa day.

Featured photo by @nina_p_v via Twenty20

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