Why is it that we always feel like we’ve spent a week in the desert after we get off a plane? We’re talking dry eyeballs, a parched mouth, alligator skin, the works. We talked to doctors about what the hell is up with this post-plane dryness, plus how to combat it before, during, and after your flight.
The low humidity in airplanes can cause skin dryness, along with discomfort in sensitive areas like your eyes, mouth, and nose.
Mini science lesson: Humidity is the amount of water vapor that’s in the air. The humidity you’re normally exposed to varies depending on where you live and the weather conditions, but the World Health Organization (WHO) points out that the humidity in most homes is typically over 30 percent. The humidity on airplanes is way lower than that, usually less than 20 percent.
Low humidity can mess with your skin’s ability to retain moisture, making it feel dried out after a while, Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a New York City–based board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, tells SELF.
As for your eyes, they rely on a moisturizing tear film to function properly and keep you comfortable, the National Eye Institute (NEI) explains. When you’re in a low-humidity environment, you keep on making that tear film like normal, but the dry environment makes them evaporate more quickly than they otherwise would, Alex Nixon, O.D., assistant clinical professor of optometry at The Ohio State University, tells SELF. This can lead to symptoms like the obvious dryness, plus irritation, stinging, sensitivity to light, and more. Also, if you’re spending the flight watching that teeny TV on the seatback in front of you, working on your laptop, or reading, you’re probably blinking less than you typically would. This also saps your eyeballs of moisture because blinking spreads that important tear film across your eyes.
With your mouth and nose, it really comes down to the lack of humidity and dehydration, Omid Mehdizadeh, M.D., an otolaryngologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells SELF. Like your eyes, all the lovely moisture that’s naturally in your mouth and nose can evaporate more quickly in a low-humidity environment, he says. Couple that with the fact that you may not be drinking as much on the flight (either because you only drink when the beverage cart comes around or to avoid constant trips to the bathroom), and you’re just setting yourself up for a case of dry mouth and nose, Michael Zimring, M.D., director of the Center for Wilderness and Travel Medicine at Mercy Medical Center and co-author of the book Healthy Travel, tells SELF.
There are a few things you can do to avoid feeling like a living, breathing piece of beef jerky after every flight.
Obviously, everyone has different areas that tend to feel dried out after a flight, and you may not need to do all of these. Still, experts say they can really, really help.
1. Slather on a ton of thick moisturizer. Thick ointments and creams are more effective than thinner lotions at adding moisture to your skin, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). If you want to get even more specific, look for something that contains mineral, olive, or jojoba oil to lock in moisture, the AAD says. Lactic acid, urea, hyaluronic acid, dimethicone, glycerin, lanolin, and shea butter are also good options.
While you can start applying your cream mid-flight, it’s actually better to get started before that. “The more hydrated your skin is before boarding the plane, the better foundation you have to start off with when you are flying,” Dr. Zeichner says. Continue moisturizing as necessary post-flight until your skin feels normal again.
2. Swap your contacts for glasses. “It is best to avoid contact lens wear if possible on the airplane,” Dr. Nixon says. Even in a normal, perfectly humid environment, contact lenses can mess with your tear film and make your eyes feel dry, the Mayo Clinic says. (Contact lenses block the amount of nourishing oxygen your eyes can receive, plus they’re foreign objects, which can be irritating all on its own.) When you’re in a low-humidity zone like a plane, that drying effect can be even worse.
Also keep in mind that many people sleep on flights, and sleeping in your contacts is just going to dry out your eyeballs even more, Dr. Nixon says. (And potentially compromise your eye health by making you more vulnerable to infection.) “Glasses are the way to go for comfort and safety on board,” he says.
If wearing glasses is just not an option, definitely pack some rewetting drops in your bag and use them liberally during the flight, Dr. Nixon says. Make sure to get drops that don’t promise to relieve redness, since those can cause an aggravating rebound effect that just makes your eyes redder.
3. Use a salt spray in your nose. Saline nasal sprays can help add moisture to your nasal passages when you’re in a low-humidity place like an airplane cabin, Dr. Mehdizadeh says. Just use a few squirts in each nostril to keep your nose feeling OK, and keep on doing it if you start drying out.
4. Hydrate before your flight, and keep it up when you’re on board. In a perfect world, you’d consume about 11.5 cups of fluid a day, per the Mayo Clinic. (That includes liquids you get from drinks like coffee and foods you eat.) But life happens, and sometimes it’s hard to meet that goal. Still, it’s especially important to make sure you’re well-hydrated before you get on a plane, Dr. Zimring says. One easy way to tell? When you’re hydrated, your pee is clear or pale yellow.
The work doesn’t stop once you board: Dr. Zimring recommends trying to have a small bottle of water every hour or two during your flight, depending on what you (and your bladder) can handle.
5. Drink mainly water instead of caffeinated or alcoholic beverages. The plane’s low humidity itself won’t dehydrate you, but what you drink can certainly contribute. That’s why the WHO recommends that you don’t go overboard with caffeine and alcohol when you fly (especially on long hauls). These substances have a diuretic effect (meaning they make you pee more), and that can eventually make you dehydrated if you’re not replacing those fluids.
That doesn’t mean you have to completely shun the good stuff on the beverage cart. If you want to have a cocktail, that’s OK. “Just follow it with plenty of water,” Dr. Zimring says.
6. Whip out a sheet mask midflight. OK, sure, this may look a little silly, but…sheet masks can be really hydrating for your skin, Dr. Zeichner says. “A sheet mask is a great option for the airplane because it is at the same time effective, easy to use, and portable,” he points out. Every sheet mask is different, but you can simply clean your face in the bathroom, follow the mask’s directions, and then chuck it in the trash when you’re done. Voilà.