Toiletry kits

Mary C. recently wrote to me with the following:

I am so glad that you have started up your Web site again. I have checked it consistently for years hoping to see something new. You have always had the most wonderful suggestions for traveling light. My husband and I have been traveling with carry on bags since the Denver International Airport started up its new baggage system which tore up or lost bags consistently. We never check anymore and I am always looking for ways to reduce what I carry.

Can you please do an article on small toiletry kits? Since we cannot put our liquids into the kits any longer, we really don’t need to tote much on our trips. All the kits I see online are so large that they take up most of your carry on bag. I cannot be the only person that wants a kit that is small, has a hanger for convenience, and easy to access. It would be very interesting to find out what type you would use on your travels.

Boy, I sure remember all those horror stories about that baggage system when Denver’s new airport first opened. Although I’m sure they’ve ironed out those wrinkles, I’m glad that gave you the opportunity to start packing lightly.

Travelon Independence Bag Toiletry KitLewis & Clark's Hanging Toiletry KitThe Body Shop Hanging Wash Bag
From left to right, some examples of typical toiletry kits:
Travelon Independence Bag Toiletry Kit, Lewis & Clark’s Hanging Toiletry Kit, and The Body Shop Hanging Wash Bag.

As for small toiletry kits, you ask a great question. You wanna know a little secret? I don’t use toiletry kits!

The problem with products sold as “toiletry kits” is that they tend to include the whole kit and caboodle. Most of them have extra pockets, a built-in hanger, a mirror, and many more features. On top of that, because toiletries are designed to hold bottles and tubes, they are by nature crafted to be able to stand up on its own. A good toiletry kit should be sturdy enough for you to let sit on your hotel’s bathroom counter, like a box of facial tissue.

The problem, as you’ve already encountered, is that they’re simply way too big for traveling with lightly.

I know what you’re thinking. “Lani, if I have to stuff all the liquid items into tiny bottles in a quart-sized plastic bag, I have so much else that can’t fit, that’s not liquid, that has to go somewhere. I need a toiletry kit!”

Not so fast. Let’s take a look at what you can do to pare down the contents of your toiletry kit.

Minimize what you need to pack in a toiletry kit

Blow dryer/curling iron/hair straightener – How important are these for your hairstyle? Is there a way you can wear your hair so that it doesn’t need to be blow-dried, curled, or straightened? Better still, can you talk to your hair stylist about getting a wash-and-wear style for your trip? If you are traveling for business, your hotel room will likely have a blow dryer. If not, a quick call to the front desk will patch you through to someone who can bring up a blow dryer for you, usually at no charge.

If you absolutely refuse to go without a blow dryer, you can do two things: A) Get a very small travel-sized blow dryer, and B) Pack it in a (clean) sock so you don’t need to take up precious room in your toiletry kit.

Electric razor/beard trimmer – My suggestion is to just buy a disposable razor at your destination. If you wear a beard or mustache that needs trimming, you can either take care of that before your trip (trimming everything shorter than you normally would, and letting it grow out during your trip), or just purchasing a small pair of scissors at your destination. Remember that you can also take a blunt pair of scissors with you, and that round-tipped trimming scissors designed for babies will do the trick for most beards and mustaches.

Hairspray aerosol can – I really discourage travelers from using aerosol cans. Even the smallest ones designed for travel are still pretty bulky. While the finer mist from an aerosol can provides a nicer finish, consider if the hassle of carrying one beats the convenience of using a very small travel-sized pump spray bottle (or an even smaller hand-sanitizer pen-sized mister filled with hairspray liquid).

Shaving cream – If you’re used to your can of shaving cream or gel, you might be surprised to learn that there are a lot of great alternatives, not the least of which is ordinary soap!

Anti-perspirant/deodorant – In addition to smaller travel-sized versions of these, you can also use “deodorant crystals.” Brands like Crystal Body Deodorant are often found in health food stores, and are basically mineral salts that inhibit bacterial growth in your armpits. These are neither liquid nor gel, and need not be packed in your transparent plastic baggie.

Tip: To minimize body odor, consider trimming your body hairs before your trip. Guys, you might feel awkward imagining trimmed armpit hairs, but taking them down to a short length (for example, half an inch) will make it harder for bacteria to thrive. You can do the same with your… other regions! Left-handers with no family member willing to help trim the left armpit (or the right for right-handers) might consider actually shaving the area before the trip. Just do so a week or so before the trip to give it time to grow back. Make sure to use a new razor and wet the area well to avoid painful snags or ingrown hairs. An electric beard or hair trimmer would be easiest here.

Hair brush – If you have too much hair that you cannot use a small comb, consider getting a travel brush that folds in half. There are a couple of popular styles (this one, from Magellans, being one of the most popular), but the common feature is that they usually fold in half. Getting a hair brush with a handle that folds away or collapses is a great way to save space in your toiletry bag.

Folding travel brush from Magellan's.
Folding travel brush from Magellans.

Manicure set – Instead of taking a large grooming set with you, pare it down to the minimum: Nail clippers with a built-in nail file, and a small pair of tweezers. I don’t like to cheap out on tweezers. I prefer the more expensive ones from Sephora or Tweezerman (with the slanted head), because they are so exact as to make removing slivers and eyebrows easy. They don’t lose the grip on what you’re tweezing, and they pull cleanly so you it doesn’t hurt anymore than it should. Everything else related to manicures, I suggest leaving at home. If you’re worried about chipping your nail polish, simply go au naturale but get a nice glossy buff instead.

Make-up – If you removed your electric gadgets and bottles of liquid, most likely what you will be left with is your make-up. Although this one probably deserves its own entry, for now my suggestion is to go with minimal make-up and using smaller containers.

Now that you’ve pared your toiletry kit packing list down to the minimum, half your battle is over, and you no longer need a large bag! Now let’s take a look at some options for a smaller toiletry kit.

Sample toiletry kits

My favorite is the Eagle Creek Pack-It system, because they have so many sizes and variations that you’re sure to find one that fits your needs. A couple of their items stand out:

Eagle Creek Pack-It Cosmo Pouch – Designed specifically to hold cosmetics, this very simple pouch is what I use. It’s lined with polyurethane so I don’t have to worry if I spill a bit of eyeshadow powder. This pouch is pleated and you can get a surprising amount into it. Its only drawback is that if you have a lot of tiny items (lip balm, eye drops, tweezers), you might have to hunt around for them at the bottom of the bag.

Eagle Creek Pack-It Cosmo Pouch
Eagle Creek Pack-It Cosmo Pouch is a simple elegant solution for your non-liquid toiletries.

Eagle Creek Pack-It Sac – A very similar item is their Pack-It Sacs in small or medium. The main difference is that the pleating isn’t as wide, the material on the outside is a laminated mesh (so still leakproof), and the sac comes with a little keyring clip on the side, which can be convenient if you want to hang it off of anything (although since the clip is small, you will need something else, like a carabiner, to clip it on anything substantial, like your camp site’s public shower stalls.

Other manufacturers have similar products, including Jansport (with its Spillproof Sak Set). If you’re looking for one Web site with a lot of affordable options, take a look at MEC out of Canada. They have a lot of items, including their On Sight Universal Pouch, On Sight Mesh Organizer, or their truly simple Cactus Creek Ditty Bag.

Cactus Creek Ditty Bag
The Cactus Creek Ditty Bag from MEC is probably the simplest toiletry kit you can own. And at $3.75 (Canadian), it’s cheaper than a Grande Mocha from Starbucks!

In a true pinch, consider using a gallon-sized Ziploc baggie. You can see everything, and you can’t beat its price!

But I want to be able to hang my toiletry kit…

Here are two tips if you want to be able to hang your toiletry kit:

  • Loop a carabiner keyring off of the your zipper
  • Carry a folding travel hanger from which to hang the kit off of

Depending on the sac/pouch you get, some of them will allow you to hang them and still keep the zippers open. Give each one a look to see which work best for you.

Cheap carabiner keychains
Cheap carabiner keychains will let you hang your toiletry kit.

Just remember, regular toiletry kits have too many bells and whistles, like hangers, mirrors, etc. since their goal is to give you “more bang for your buck” when all you need is a small case.