How to Pack Toiletries into a Carry-On Bag

by wheretheroadforks

After picking out the perfect backpack, clothes, and travel gear for your trip, it’s easy to forget one of your most important travel items: your toiletry kit. After all, you must access your toiletries multiple times per day. This guide explains how to pack toiletries into a compact, organized, and carry-on friendly kit.

a toiletries kit

A basic toiletries kit

Carry-on Toiletry Bag Rules for Air Travel

When packing a carry-on acceptable toiletries kit, you must follow the 3-1-1 rule. This way, wherever you travel, your kit will be compliant with most airline and security rules around the world. The 3-1-1 rule means that you are permitted to carry-on liquids, gels, aerosols, creams, or pastes as long as you pack them to meet the following criteria:

  • 3.4 ounce (100 milliliters) or smaller containers- All liquids, gels, aerosols, creams, and pastes must be bottled in containers that are no larger than 3.4 ounces in volume.
  • 1-quart sized toiletries bag- All bottles containing liquids, gels, aerosols, creams, or pastes must fit into a bag that is no larger than one quart in volume.
  • 1 toiletries bag per person- You can’t pack multiple quart-sized bags. Everything must fit in one.

The 3-1-1 rule is fairly standard around the world. Of course, the rules vary slightly by country and security agency. An item that makes it through security in one airport may be confiscated in another.

TSA airport security

In my experience, security agents don’t seem to care too much about the quart-sized bag. Security agents do take bottle size seriously. All of your liquid, cream, gel, paste, or aerosol bottles must be smaller than 3.4 (100 ml) ounces or they will be confiscated. Some countries allow aerosols and some don’t. I’ve had my bottle of aerosol spray deodorant confiscated a number of times.

For more info on the 3-1-1 rule, check out this guide from the TSA.

How to Pack Toiletries

To stay within the above-listed rules, I recommend you separate your toiletries into 2 separate bags.

Toiletries Bag 1: Wet Items

The first bag should contain all liquids, gels, pastes, aerosols, and creams that are is limited in volume by security regulations. This is your 3-1-1 quart-sized bag that you will remove from your pack as you pass through security.

Whatever type of bag you choose to use, remember that it needs to be clear so that the security agent can see the contents through the bag. Specialty see-through toiletries bags are available but I think they are a waste of money. I recommend you just use a plastic Ziploc style bag for your wet items bag.

Toiletries Bag 2: Dry Items

The second bag should contain all toiletries that aren’t regulated by airport security. This means dry items. This bag should be large enough to accommodate your 1-quart wet bag plus everything else in your toiletries kit.

When you reach security, simply remove the one-quart wet toiletries bag from your larger toiletry bag and place it into the bin to go through security.

The benefit of packing your toiletries kit this way is that your wet items are double bagged. If a bottle of shampoo opens or breaks, it won’t leak all over your clothes or electronics. It will hopefully be contained by your dry toiletries bag.

For toiletry bags, I like the Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Quick Trip. It’s one of the lightest on the market at around 1.5 ounces. It’s also made out of a durable synthetic material which is water-resistant.

 If you’re on a tighter budget, you can just use a 1-gallon Ziploc style bag. This is what I use while backpacking as it’s the lightest possible option. The drawback is that a plastic bag doesn’t last nearly as long as a purpose-made toiletry bag. For a longer trip, a purpose-built toiletries bag is best.

What Should I Pack in my Carry-on Toiletries Bag?

Your toiletry bag is pretty personal. Exactly what you pack depends on the length of your trip and personal preference. If you’re traveling for a month or less, I recommend you pack all of the toiletries that you need for the duration of your trip. If you’re traveling for longer than a month, pack a one month supply of everything. You can buy replacements as things run out.

Below, I’ll list all of the possible items that you may want to put in your toiletries pack. This section is divided into wet and dry items.

Wet Carry-on Toiletry Items

Pack the below items in your clear one-quart sized toiletry bag.

  • Toothpaste- Make sure the tube is less than 3.4 ounce (100ml). You can buy a new tube anywhere when you run out.
  • Multi-use soap*- This is a great space-saving item. I like Sierra Dawn Campsuds Outdoor Soap. A bottle of this stuff can replace your body wash, shampoo, shaving cream, dish soap, and laundry detergent. It’s biodegradable as well so it’s safe to use near rivers and streams.
  • Antiperspirant Deodorant- Avoid aerosol spray style deodorants. Some security agencies don’t allow them as a carry-on and will confiscate them. I usually pack a stick-style deodorant.
  • Sunblock- Make sure the bottle is less than 3.4 ounces (100ml). Avoid packing aerosol spry style sunblock as it may be confiscated as you pass through security.
  • Insect repellent- If you’re traveling in a buggy environment, you’ll want something to keep the insects away. I like Sawyer Products Premium Insect Repellent. It contains 20% picaridin and remains effective for up to 12 hours.
  • Antibiotic ointment- Pack a small tube of Neosporin, bacitracin, or a similar product. These help to prevent minor cuts and scrapes from becoming infected.
  • Lotion- If you’re not a lotion person, you can skip this. It’s nice to have in cold climates where your skin can get dry.
  • Eye drops- If you never use eye drops, you can skip these. These come in handy while flying or traveling in dry or dusty areas. A small bottle lasts a long time.
  • Contact lens solution- Buy a travel-sized bottle that is smaller than 3.4 ounces or 100ml. You can always buy more at your destination.
  • Lip balm- If you never use this stuff, you can skip it. Lip balm is nice to have while traveling in a cold climate where chapped lips are common.
  • Hand sanitizer- Many travelers like to carry this stuff to use before meals or when a sink and soap are not available. It also comes in handy for starting a fire while camping.
  • Makeup- I don’t know anything about this but I believe that there are some wet makeup products that you’ll want to pack in your wet toiletry bag.
  • Liquid medications- If you take any.

*If you don’t want to use multi-use soap, you’ll also want to pack:

  • Shampoo
  • Body wash
  • Shaving cream

Make sure that each bottle is carry-on friendly.

Toothpaste, toothbrush, and floss

In my opinion, your toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss are the most important items in your toiletry kit.

Dry Carry-on Toiletry Items

  • Toothbrush- Some hardcore ultralight travelers like to cut off the handle to save weight. I find this ridiculous. I like to pack an electric toothbrush that is operated with a replaceable AA battery. That way, I don’t have to pack a charger and I can get a new battery anywhere.
  • Dental floss- I pack those individual plastic flossers rather than a roll of floss. I find them easier to use.
  • Q-tips- Pack a travel-sized bag with at least a one month’s supply.
  • Bar soap- If you don’t have space in your wet toiletry bag for body wash, you can pack bar soap instead. Some travelers prefer it. If you choose to use bar soap, use a plastic soap holder to keep your wet bar of soap away from other items.
  • Razors– I recommend you pack disposables. You might not be able to find the proper cartridges if you use a replaceable head razor. You could also use an electric shaver if you prefer.
  • Pain relievers/ headache medication- Pack a mild pain reliever like ibuprofen, aspirin, Tylenol, etc. Whatever works best for you.
  • Anti-diarrhea medication- Food poisoning and travelers diarrhea are common. Imodium works well.
  • Malaria prophylaxis- If you’re traveling in a malaria zone, you’ll want some malaria pills. For more info, check out my traveler’s guide to malaria prevention, treatment, and tablets.
  • Laundry detergent- You can save money by washing your own clothes in the sink. If you’re not packing multi-use soap, I recommend these Travelon Laundry Soap Sheets. You could also just pack a small baggie of powdered laundry detergent.
  • Throat lozenges- These come in handy if you get a cold or sore throat. Even though they’re available everywhere, I like to have them so I’m prepared if I wake up sick.
  • Tweezers- To remove splinters and pluck stay hairs.
  • Nail clippers- Make sure you choose a pair without any large file or knife attached. It needs to be carry-on acceptable.
  • A small mirror- This comes in handy while in transit or when you want to check out your hair t the back of your head. I use mine while I’m cutting my own hair.
  • Contact lenses- If you wear them. Make sure you pack enough for your trip. For more tips, check out my guide tor travel with glasses and contacts.
  • Condoms- You never know.

Carry-on First Aid Kit

In addition to the above, you’ll also want to pack a small first aid kit. I usually pack this separately from my toiletry kit because I don’t have to access it often. Make sure you know how to treat minor cuts and wounds. This can save you from having to make a trip to a clinic. Look for a kit with:

  • Bandages- in various sizes.
  • Gauze- to cover larger wounds.
  • Moleskin- to cover blisters from walking and hiking.
  • Tape- to hold gauze.
  • Antiseptic wipes- for disinfecting wounds.

I like the First Aid Only 299 Piece All-Purpose First Aid Kit. It’s a bit bulky but it contains a good amount of gear for treating minor wounds, burns, and blisters. It also includes tools and common medications. 

Space-saving tip: Go through your first aid kit and toiletry kit and remove any duplicate items. For example, many first aid kits include tweezers, pain medication, throat lozenges, antacid, etc. You can remove whichever ones you don’t like. There’s no need to carry two of the same thing.

How to Pack Toiletries: Tips and Tricks

The above list is pretty extensive. It may seem like a lot to pack and it is. You probably won’t need everything on the list. Here are a few tips to improve the usability of your toiletry kit and make it more compact and carry-on friendly.

Choose Multi-Use Products Wherever Possible

This helps greatly to cut down on weight and bulk. For example, by packing a multi-use soap, you can eliminate the need to carry shampoo, body wash, shaving cream, and laundry detergent. That alone can save you 9 ounces from your pack weight.

A good first aid kit can achieve similar weight savings. You can fit all medications as well as tweezers, burn cream, and antibiotic ointment. You can skip these when putting together your toiletry kit.

Don’t Overpack your Toiletries Bag

There’s really no need to ever carry more than a month’s supply of anything in your toiletry kit. You can always restock with the basics wherever you are. Even small villages have pharmacies and grocery stores where you can buy all of the personal hygiene products and basic medications that you may need.

If you’re only traveling for a few days, you may not even need the entire 3.4 ounces of a particular item. For example, for a week-long trip, you could get away with just carrying a 1.5-ounce tube of toothpaste.

There are a couple of exception to this. One is prescription medications. In some parts of the world, you may not be able to restock. Maybe you need a local prescription, or maybe the medication that you require simply isn’t sold there. Do your research before your trip.

The other exception is if you are traveling through a rural or developing area. In small villages, you may not be able to find even basic items. For example, while volunteering in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia a buddy of mine had to take a multi-hour bus journey to visit a larger city in order to buy a tube of toothpaste. It just wasn’t available in the village shops.

Don’t Use the Same Toiletry Kit for Each Trip

Your toiletry kit will vary depending on where you’re traveling, for how long, and your style of travel. For example, your toiletry needs will be completely different for a weekend camping trip and an expedition from Cairo to Cape Town. If you pack the same kit every time, you’ll end up overpacking.

If you’re just going for a short trip of a week or less, you can probably leave out luxury items like tweezers, nail clippers, mirror, laundry detergent, lip balm, etc. This lightens your load and makes packing less complicated.

For longer trips, you may be happy you packed a few luxury items even though you don’t use them every day.

Use Refillable Bottles to Save Money

While travel-sized bottles are convenient, they aren’t very economical. You can save money by buying some refillable travel-sized bottles and simply filling them from larger bottles of shampoo, soap, sunblock, etc. that you have at home. This way, you avoid paying a premium for travel sizes. This is also better for the environment because you keep some disposable plastic bottles out of the landfill.

I like Oursunshine Travel Bottles. They have a large opening which makes them easy to fill. These bottles are also made of a squeezable silicon material which allows you to use every bit of the contents. This helps to reduce waste.

Repackage Items to Save Weight and Space

Remove any unnecessary packaging like cardboard or plastic from new items. If you don’t need a whole package of something, divide it up and only take what you need. For example, there’s no need to pack 100 q-tips for a week-long trip. Just put what you need in a plastic bag or refillable bottle.

The only exception to this is medications. You want to keep pills in their original packaging to show what they are. For example, if you have an unmarked bottle of pills, a security agent may assume that they are illegal drugs when they are simply aspirin. Some countries are ridiculously strict with their drug policies. You don’t want to end up being wrongly detained by some power-tripping immigration official until a drug test comes back.

Organize Your Toiletries Bag to Make Your Daily Routine Faster and Easier

When I’m going to fly, I divide my toiletries kit into wet and dry items as outlined above. After I land, I like to reorganize my toiletries kit to make it more convenient for daily use. I divide it into two categories:

  1. Thins I use every day- These are the items that I need to bring to the bathroom with me every morning and evening. Things like toothpaste, toothbrush, floss, soap, razors, deodorant, contacts and solution, etc. Everything that I use on a daily basis goes in this bag.
  2. Things I don’t use often- This bag contains all of the items that I only need on occasion like medications, for example.

I divide my toiletries this way because I find it makes getting ready each morning much easier. I don’t have to dig through a bag of stuff every time I want to find a particular bottle.

When I need to catch a flight, I reorganize my toiletries back into the wet/dry bags so I’m ready to pass through airline security.

Wait Until You Reach Your Destination to Buy Some of Your Toiletries

If you’re planning to stay in one destination long term, you may as well just buy your consumable toiletries when you arrive. That way, you can buy full-sized bottles and not have to worry about airline restrictions. You’ll also save money. Of course, you’ll want to pack some items from home like any non-consumable items.

Toiletries aisle in a grocery store

Pretty much every city has a pharmacy, grocery store, or convenience store where you can buy any toiletry item that you may need.

Use the Toiletries Provided by your Hotel or Host

If you’re staying in a hotel, chances are they at least provide soap and shampoo. Many Airbnb hosts do the same. If this is the case, you can leave those items at home to lighten your load a bit.

This tip can even come in handy for budget travelers like myself. Whenever I stay in a hotel, I take the remaining toiletry bottles with me to use during the rest of my trip. They would have been thrown out anyway so I might as well use them.

This tip is becoming less useful. Many hotels are moving away from supplying individual bottles and moving toward using wall-mounted dispensers for soap and shampoo.

Replace Liquids with Solids or Powders

Packing all of your wet toiletries into a one-quart size bag is pretty limiting. Luckily, some of your toiletry items come in both liquid, solid, and powder forms. By choosing a solid or powder option, you get around the 3.1 ounce of 100ml rule.

Examples of solid alternatives include:

  • Bar soap instead of liquid body wash.
  • Powdered or sheet laundry detergent instead of liquid-liquid.
  • Glasses cleaning sheets instead of a solution.
  • Dry shampoo instead of liquid.
  • Solid toothpaste instead of gel.

Even though the solid or powder versions of these products may not be as pleasant or convenient to use, they make the process of flying easier. Another benefit to packing dry alternatives is the fact that they reduce the likelihood of leaks and spills.

Pack your Toiletries in Your Checked Bag

If you don’t care about traveling ultralight or packing a carry-on bag only, you can always just pack your toiletries in your checked bag. This way, you don’t need to worry about the volume or weight of each individual item that you pack. If you were planning to check a bag anyway, this is probably the best way to go.

Final Thoughts: How to Pack Toiletries into a Carry-on Acceptable Bag

You access your toiletries bag at least twice per day while traveling. You might as well take some time to pack it as organized and conveniently as possible. Hopefully, this guide gives you some ideas to save space and make your morning and nightly routine just a bit easier.

How do you pack toiletries for travel? Share your tips and experience in the comments below to help fellow travelers!

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