Skincare in the air: How to avoid the damage caused by flying

High altitudes and cabin pressure can suck the moisture from the skin, leaving it dry and dull. Here are a few tips to keep yours glowing

Flying results in a loss of about 1.5 litres of water over the course of a three-hour flight, so moisturising is crucial. Getty Images
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Air travel is largely unavoidable if you are planning to escape the UAE’s scorching heat over the summer months and before schools reopen. However, high altitudes combined with cabin pressure can suck the moisture from the skin, leaving it looking dry and dull, and feeling stretched and cracked.

Skin typically fares well at a humidity level between 40 per cent and 70 per cent. The levels of humidity in a sealed steel and aluminium capsule, hurtling along at 40,000 feet, range between 4 per cent and 20 per cent – which results in a loss of about 1.5 litres of water over the course of even a three-hour flight. It can take days for your skin to fully recover and start the regeneration process.

Make-up on a flight is an unforgivable sin against skin
Bianca Estelle, founder, Bea Skin Care

“The recycled dry air and lack of oxygen owing to the cabin pressure can leave the skin dehydrated and ­irritated, which is the last thing you want when you step off the plane, in the midst of the excitement of travelling,” says Bianca Estelle, Harley Street skin care clinician and founder of Bea Skin Care.

There are, however, steps that can be taken to help alleviate the damage caused by flying by prepping your skin before and taking extra care on the plane to fight the effects of the dry air. We ask Estelle and other skincare experts for their top tips to deal with some of the common conditions associated with flying.

Pre-flight ritual

In the days leading up to your journey, keep skin clean, primed and plumped, with a mild cleanser and hydrating cream, especially overnight.

According to the skincare experts at Himalaya: “The point to remember here is you need to be consistent. Regular cleansing and hydration will help your skin retain its moisture for the days to come. Combine your topical skincare regime with drinking sufficient amounts of water to keep your body well hydrated in the days before your flight.”

Before you board

Apply a lavish amount of moisturiser while you’re still on the ground. By definition, this is a product that needs to draw moisture from the air to work optimally; once you’re in the air, even the most hydrating cream will not be as effective because the dry air it’s surrounded by does not yield much moisture.

Face mists – refreshing as they might feel – are a complete no-no, because these tend to evaporate even faster on board, leaving your skin more dried out. Above all, eradicate all traces of make-up.

“Make-up on a flight is an unforgivable sin against skin. Wipes, while convenient, can be harsh on your skin’s pH balance,” Estelle says. Organic wipes, such as Bea’s version with vitamin E and aloe vera or Himalaya’s aloe vera wipes, are a good and gentle alternative for when you want to remove your make-up, but ideally try to fly completely cosmetics-free.

In-flight regime

A must-have ingredient for when you’re mid-air is hyaluronic acid. While a regular cream may not be able to grab much from stale, dry air, a product with “hyaluronic acid offers a juicy boost of intense hydration”, says Neutrogena brand ambassador Mariam Said.

Naturally found in the skin, this light, sugar-based molecule is capable of physically encapsulating and binding the water already present in your skin, without overloading your pores, so you don’t break out in zits, either. Apply a serum, cream or face-mask sheet immediately after wiping or washing your face.

Although dry skin is a more common condition, a feeling of greasiness will inevitably follow. According to the experts at Himalaya: “People with oily skin will notice their T-zone getting oilier. This is an indication that the skin is trying its best to fight the dry conditions, by increasing oil secretion.” This can lead to breakouts and zits, but a mild product with hyaluronic acid can help counter these, too.

If you’re flying overnight, touch up your hyaluronic serum or cream every 90 minutes, or at least each time you wake up, and avoid washing your face until it’s almost time to touch down. For long-haul flights, you can also dab your face with wipes and pat it dry to get the circulation going, instead of washing it under water.

Mid-air sun protection

An effective sun-blocking product is a must if you’re flying during the day, or will pass a time zone when the sun is up. Look for a broad-­spectrum product that counters UVA and UVB rays – protection against the former is denoted by a star rating at the back of the product (five stars being the highest), while the SPF level is indicative of blocking the latter.

“Who doesn’t love a window seat with views of cotton candy clouds and extra space to rest your head? But few people know that plane windows do not protect against UV rays, and at such a high altitude, this leaves the skin vulnerable to sun damage,” Said says. “Make sure to pack a product that contains a photostable SPF 25 filter to shield against both UVA and UVB rays.”

Land in style

Upon or just before landing, wash your face with a soothing cleanser and reapply sunscreen and a thin layer of your regular moisturiser, which should activate once you disembark or leave the airport.

“Maintaining your skincare routine is essential once you’ve landed and in the days after. This involves cleansing and moisturising as per usual, as well as using an SPF at all times, even under make-up,” Estelle says.

It’s not just your skin that requires TLC on a long flight. Because the mucus membranes dry up over time, the eyes tend to become dry and itchy; the lips and tongue develop fissures (this is also why food tastes different); and even your cuticles peel and the nail bed becomes more brittle. Eye drops, lip balm and cuticle oil – reapplied every two to three hours before, during and after a flight – can bypass the worst of the symptoms.

Skincare strategy aside, a crucial hack is to drink plenty of water. “If you can manage it, sip water constantly when you fly – staying hydrated helps your body internally and externally," says dermatologist Anita Hiranandani.

"Avoid snacks with excessive salt, say no to that second cup of coffee and don't let any number of bathroom breaks deter you from your bottle of water. And, of course, ensure your containers come in air-travel-approved sizes.”

A version of this story was first published on July 4, 2018