If you’ve ever stepped off a plane with stained and rumpled clothes, a pore-clogged face, a jet lag-induced headache, and a mouth that still tastes like hours-old airplane food, you know how tricky it can be to stay clean and rested while traveling. And that’s just the first leg of your trip. Where do you turn when access to basic facilities—like a shower and sink—becomes a distant memory?
Travel Hygiene Tips
If you’re properly prepared, you’ll be ready for whatever travel trial comes your way: to use an apple or lemon to improve your breath, to take a shower without water, or to fall asleep in even the most cramped, cacophonous of airline seats.
Enter the holy sextet of travel freshness: hands, mouth, face, body, clothes … and mind. Whether you’re on a trek through the Amazon jungle or a bus tour through Germany, keeping fresh and clean on the road can improve your spirits, maintain health, and assure that fellow travelers and locals aren’t scared off by your haggard appearance and penetrating odor. Check out our travel hygiene tips below.
Those travelers devoted to hand sanitization are religious about the act—and for good reason. As we report in Avoiding the Airplane Cold, you may be more than 100 times likelier to catch a cold while flying than you would on the ground, thanks mostly to low cabin humidity. One important way to protect yourself is by keeping your hands clean.
While doctors mostly agree that washing hands with hot, soapy water is best for preventing the spread of germs, there are times when this simply isn’t an option for travelers. In these cases, your best bet is an alcohol-based sanitizer (in cloth or liquid form) such as Purell. Squirt and rub before a restaurant meal, after using an ATM or after fondling a stone bust of Nefertiti at a souvenir shop.
A clean face can do a lot to offset dirty hands and foul breath. When considering your face on the road, there are two things to keep in mind: the climate of your destination and your skin type. Leaving for Egypt’s desert sands? Pack plenty of lip balm and moisturizer. Hiking the rain forests in Costa Rica? Nature will help you out a little. But no matter where you’re traveling, sunblock is absolutely essential if you’ll be spending any time outdoors. Save room in your suitcase by packing a combination sunblock/moisturizer or sunblock/foundation.
Beyond staying hydrated, there’s the question of facial cleanliness. There are a bevy of waterless facial products that can be used on the road—say, while camping. Vichy offers a rinse-free facial cleanser and makeup remover; another option is a set of So Refreshing Facial Cleansing Cloths from Basis. These individually wrapped cloths are are alcohol- and soap-free and don’t require any water.
Is bad breath the greatest enemy to overall travel freshness? Your fellow airplane passengers apparently think so. According to a Skyscanner poll of more than 1,000 people, the largest number (19 percent) felt that “those with bad breath and BO” made the worst seatmates.
So what to do to avoid that foul, sticky taste in the mouth and that look of revulsion from your neighbor on the plane or metro? Beyond the obvious mints or gum, and avoidance of garlic and kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage being the most popular variety), there are a number of products that promote oral hygiene on the road. Colgate Wisps are disposable mini-toothbrushes that provide a quick and easy mouth-freshening option when you can’t brush your teeth for real. The brush head has a freshening bead that releases a mouth cleaning liquid when you scrub, and a pick on the opposite end provides a floss option. It requires no water to use, and the ingredients are safe to swallow (except for the brush itself, of course!).
Another product of choice is Listerine PocketMist, introduced to me as part of a hotel’s complimentary in-room toiletries. This is Binaca for the modern age—in a smaller key-chain-sized container and with a more potent punch. You can literally feel the bacteria being singed away.
There are also a number of foods that, rather than encouraging halitosis, help clean out the mouth. Granny Smith apples are one such option, their tartness sparking the mouth’s natural washing mechanism, salivation. Lemons and limes work great as well.
If the cliche rings true—”look good, feel good”—then choosing the right clothes for the trip is a keystone of successful travel … as is keeping them clean and wrinkle-free.
In-transit, try a polyester “dry-fit” T-shirt—which is light-weight, wrinkle-free and extremely quick to dry—as your first layer. I like to pack a few, as they take up almost no room in my luggage. You can find them in athletic stores like Foot Locker and adventure travel outfits like REI, or online at Amazon (Hanes offers them for women and men.) Other wrinkle-free clothing, from button-downs to women’s pants, is readily available from travel goods retailers like Orvis.com and TravelSmith.com. And if you stain your wrinkle-free duds, try Tide to Go, which looks a bit like a magic marker but does a pretty decent job of eliminating stains.
Don’t like the feel (or potential extra cost) of wrinkle-free garb? If you don’t have access to an iron, you might try Downy Wrinkle Releaser. The liquid product works by relaxing fabric fibers so that wrinkles can be smoothed out with your hand. Just spray on your crumpled top, stretch and smooth it out, and you’re done.
Along the same lines, one of the greatest fears for hikers and trekkers is getting wet, then getting cold, then getting sick. But even the casual traveler can benefit from a packable waterproof jacket. Mine’s from Eastern Mountain Sports and it fits into its own pocket, making it easy to include in your carry-on. Here are a few options for women and men.
For the body, clothing can go a long way in at least giving the impression that you’re cool and dry. But when you’re in a water-free environment and desperate for a shower, there are a number of “soap” products that can be used without water. The aptly named No Rinse Body Wash is a popular option for adventure travelers. Known in the health care field (for use with bedridden patients) and also good for campers/trekkers who don’t have the luxury of a shower, No Rinse products utilize a water-based odor neutralizer to provide a quick wash. Of course, the benefit here is that you don’t have to rinse.
I’ve also heard of some travelers using a little of Dr. Bronner’s castile liquid soap, another favorite of backpackers, without water. It’s pretty exhilarating stuff, tingly all over. Don’t use too much though, as a little—around the neck, under the armpits—goes a long way.
Beyond bad breath and body odor, “freshness” is also a state of mind. Part of it is matching your expectations (“I want to stay clean, dry and awake”) with reality (“I’m on a three-day hike through the Rockies with no access to soap”). But staying fresh and alert is about rest and relaxation, and one of the most admirable travel talents is the ability to fall asleep at will.
On the plane? Get a window seat so you have somewhere to lean, and try a neck pillow. Check out Travel Pillow Challenge: The Quest for Good Airplane Sleep to see our reviews of four popular options.
Besides medicinal products (see our Medications for Travel or talk to your doctor), I find drowning out the surrounding noise to be the most effect sleep aid. Noise-canceling headphones can replace the irritating low-level plane buzz with something more conducive to sleeping. But do your research on these before purchasing. If you’re going to invest the money—the popular Bose headphones will set you back 300 clams—make sure you get a fitting. The purpose is defeated if the phones start pinching your ears or leave indentations in your temples after 20 minutes of wear.
Another method that’s often mentioned anecdotally (but probably isn’t doctor-recommended) is depriving yourself of sleep the night before your flight. The idea is that you’ll be so exhausted, it won’t matter if you’re wrapped in a carpet and hung upside down—you’ll still be able to fall asleep.
For more ideas and tips, see Sleeping on Planes.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 8 Travel Safety Tips You Probably Ignore (But Shouldn’t)
- Why You Need to Make Your Own Family Travel First Aid Kit
- How Not to Get Sick on a Cruise
—written by Dan Askin
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.