The female backpacker’s guide to hygiene

Updated 7/2/19

Welcome to your living list of travel hygiene tips for sensitive skin and other weirdly-specific and not-much-talked-about needs!

After months’ worth of trip planning and hopping from one how-to/what-to list after another–many of which were wonderfully helpful–I began to become frustrated at the lack of advice and products for women with very specific needs and routines that they’ve spent years curating (so, all women??).

While there are some truly awesome guides out there by and for women on what to pack, none had any solutions about what the heck I’m going to do about all my painfully vetted fragrance-free/dye-free/fatty alcohol-free/coconut derivative-free products that keep my face and body just on the other side of total chaos.

There’s a certain understanding when one travels extensively that some comfort will be lost and compromises will have to be made, but women should not have to decide between looking nice and feeling good and living a full, adventurous life. And I suspect that this worry about maintaining hygiene normalcy actually keeps a fair amount of women from taking the long-term travel plunge. It did for me for a long time, and it’s a valid concern.

So until we can raze the patriarchy to the ground and dance on the corpse of societal expectations, this will be our space for all the niche, weird, sometimes kind-of gross hacks to the female travel experience. I’m getting the list started below with a couple of ideas, but please, please add your own tips in the comments below, and I’ll continue to add more tips as I run across them. Let’s figure this out together.

(Also, please note that while we drop a lot of product names and links, we are not being paid to endorse anything, unfortunately for us.)

Skincare routines

Photo by MIchael Pepper on Unsplash

I don’t know about you, but my skincare routine is the one area of my backpack I have a hard time paring down. For a while I would decant all my actives and cleansers and moisturizers into these leakproof bottles, and still do sometimes, but I became a little paranoid about contamination. Also, if you’re gone for more than a month or so, you’re going to run out of product eventually.

A better solution for me was to start eliminating products from my routine ahead of time and buy everything that wasn’t available at my destination in travel sizes, which a lot of my actives and moisturizers already met. I used Reddit’s skincare addiction subgroup to find a lot of information about what would be available where and did backup research by googling the country-specific pages of the products’ brands. I also made a list of possible alternatives in places (I’ve gone from having one safe moisturizer to three!) and tried them out when I got there.

Once I arrive in a continent, I try to be a good eco traveler and not use plane travel as much as possible, so I also buy full-size volumes of everything that’s available as soon as I run out of travel size. It’s better for the environment, better for my face, and better for my budget. But it’s not better for my backpack. There’s always a compromise, and this is the one I choose.

On the other hand, I definitely found that I was need less face stuff while traveling and dropped my routine down significantly. Most days/nights I just used one active, a cleanser, a moisturizer, a powder sunscreen, and a powder foundation.

In case you have a needy skincare routine and this scares you, don’t get too disheartened yet. I traveled for six months with just a 40L backpack and fold-up Longchamp tote (which I got on sale, lest you think I’m fancy), so it’s possible to compromise less on your routine and still be a smart packer. Here’s the toiletry organizer I use, which keeps everything well in place and is one of my travel MVPs.

Dry Shampoo

Photo by Drew Coffman on Unsplash

Find me a non-aerosol dry shampoo for dark hair without fragrance or dyes, I dare you.

For a traveling woman, dry shampoo can be such a godsend, saving you time, uncomfortable showers, and precious 3-1-1 space. After taking risks on a few different brands, both aerosol and powder, and ending up with small armies of scalp zits and dandruff, I gave up. Then my dear friend sent me a link to this DIY recipe from Wellness Mama, and that’s when I had the epiphany to repurpose some old bareMinerals Mineral Veil* that I no longer needed for my face. After all, Mineral Veil is basically just well-marketed cornstarch, right?

I was nervous that the powder wouldn’t blend into my dark hair, but after applying with the brush as suggested in Wellness Mama’s article and giving my locks a good toss around, all traces of both oil and powder had disappeared. Bingo.

Mineral veil is pretty pricey to buy just as a dry shampoo, so if you don’t already have some lying around, my suggestion would be to buy cornstarch or arrowroot powder and put it in a travel-friendly jar like this one from the Container Store. The DIY instructions call for adding a few drops of essential oil, but it will work just fine for its main purpose without the oils.

*Update – I’ve since learned that Bare Minerals Mineral Veil contains Magnesium Stearate, an ester derived from a fatty acid that can aggravate dandruff. You can read more about esters, fatty acids, and fungal skin issues at Simple Skincare Science.

Menstrual cups

Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

Who is the woman who invented the menstrual cup and where can I send her yearly Valentine’s Day cards? Menstrual cups are the perfect travel companion–earth-friendly, vag friendly, easy to pack, and they happily support your decision to spend hours at the museum.

However, for all of their advantages, they are admittedly not always the easiest to sanitize when staying in hostels or sharing bathrooms/kitchens with friends. They do make sanitizing wipes for menstrual cups, but for eco reasons, I prefer to boil mine after every period, which is where trouble can come in.

My solution? Most places will have tea kettles and mugs, so I pop my cup in the mug, boil some water, and then let steep for 2-3 minutes. Delicious. Just kidding. But it is really easy and inconspicuous, and you can carry the mug to the shower without anyone being the wiser.

This seems obvious, but do make sure to pour out the water and let your cup cool before using.

Here‘s the cup I use. Please note that there are two different sizes, so make sure you read the descriptions and choose the right size for your body!

Soaps

Liquid dish soap

Did you know that you can use liquid dish soap (the kind for the sink, NOT the dishwasher) to clean your retainers and toothbrushes? My friend Caro taught me that. Thanks, Caro! Makes sense, though, right?

Liquid dish soap also works great on greasy stains in a pinch.

Laundry bar soap

I picked up an unscented bar of laundry soap in an Italian grocery store, and it became one of my favorite travel items of all times! Perfect for that quick washcloth/underwear/t-shirt armpit refresher. You can find scented versions in the US and Central America.

Birth control and medications

Photo by Simone van der Koelen on Unsplash

OK, here’s what I know. If you are an American and won’t have health insurance leading up to, during, or after your trip (or all the time, really), you’re just kind of fucked? Slight exaggeration, but it has been a real pain in the ass trying to figure out what my options will be while I’m abroad. There’s a lot of conflicting information about what pharmacists will and will not make exceptions for, how much you’re allowed to take with you, what you can find over the counter, etc.

On my doctor’s advice before my first trip, I ended up refilling six months’ worth of all my meds, which I had to do over a couple of visits to the pharmacy because they won’t give that much to you all at once. I requested paper copies of my prescriptions because I’ve been told (hard rumor) that pharmacies in Europe may make an exception to filling foreign prescriptions, which they are not legally supposed to do, if you have your signed paper copy. This will vary by country and pharmacist, so don’t rely on this method if you think you might run out.

I’ve also been told that you can only legally carry three months’ worth of medications but had no trouble going through security into Europe or back into the US with six months’ worth of birth control. YMMV.

The good news is, if you’re going to Europe at least, you’re going to a region of the world that’s less fucked, so even without insurance, seeing a doctor and filling your prescription will likely be a reasonably-priced process. When my expat friend checked for me, seeing her doctor in France was going to cost almost the same as my copay under my workplace PPO. Check around with locals or on regional expat forums, and I’m sure you can find someone who can tell you how to make an appointment–and may even have a recommendation for a physician who is fluent in English.

I saw physicians in France, Serbia, and Bulgaria for various reasons, and can verify that care in Europe is much more accessible than in the United States. However, do be sure that you’re traveling with travel insurance in case anything major happens. This won’t cover pre-existing conditions, but it does generally cover emergency care (check individual policies for coverage).

For when you’re in the states and between insurance plans, there are numerous apps for virtual care for birth control and dermatology, and services are available in most states. I have not tried any, so I can’t make recommendations, but they tend to be subscription-based, so keep that in mind when evaluating the cost-benefit to you.

This could be its own post, and probably will be someday, but if you have advice or experience navigating this system, please share your wisdom in the comments, especially if it’s outside of the US or Europe!

Have a specific question that we haven’t covered? Post in the comments section, and I’ll add it to the running list below. As requests are answered, they’ll be added to the body of the article.

2 thoughts on “The female backpacker’s guide to hygiene

  1. Dishsoap-loving Caro here. 👋(I also use dish soap for sink laundry! It can even be used as a body wash in a pinch.)

    A couple of other tricks that I use for carry on travel:

    1) Olive oil bar soap. This has the dual-effect of being nice to skin (I use it on my face too) and also not being a liquid, so it doesn’t hurt your 3-1-1 space. The one I buy lasts a long time, too! (Not sure if they all do.)

    2) IUD. This has been a game-changer for me. It also often results in lighter periods, which is a perk during travel and, well, always. The only downside is that, unlike with The Pill, periods are not as predictable on an IUD, so that’s a sacrifice to weigh.

    3) Toothpaste tablets. I always carry these in my carry on along with a toothbrush. There’s nothing like brushing your teeth to feel human again after a long flight. These can also be found online. There are several brands like Lush that people like. I prefer the mintier, arguably less-natural, version.

    4) Sunscreen powder. I personally can’t use a face moisturizer with SPF because it makes me break out immediately, but sunscreen powder doesn’t have that effect. More importantly, it doesn’t feel icky, so I’m happy to put it on my face, neck and chest before a day out. This is purse-worthy in my opinion.

    I think that’s it! Hope one or some of these are useful.

    Links:
    Olive Oil bar soap:
    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00BAWZPFM

    Toothpaste tablets:
    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003UY1NMW

    Sunscreen powder:
    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00K1LQXWC/ref=oh_aui_search_detailpage?ie=UTF8&psc=1

    Happy travels, y’all!

    Like

    1. Love these–thank you for sharing! Very interested in the sunscreen powder 😀

      Totally agree on the convenience of bar soap. Olive oil (and coconut oil and shea butter) break me out, so I use the Trader Joe’s brand Oatmeal & Honey Soap, which also comes in packs of two.

      Edited to add link to article with powder sunscreen recommendations 🙂

      Like

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