Travel Toiletries Part One: The Most Basic Basics 19

Travel Toiletries, Sarah Murdoch,

Every time I leave for the airport, I have that sudden panic–what did I forget? There must be something. It always used to be my watch, so I’ve solved that problem by not owning a watch. These days, it is occasionally something small in my travel toiletries kit. Travel toiletries are a key component of any bag, and often a point of packing stress. But no worries, I’ve got you covered.

Travel toiletries can be basic or extensive, depending on who you are and where you’re going. Vagabonds need only a toothbrush and princesses need a steamer trunk of lotions and potions. I’m not very good at being a girl, so I will err on the side of less-is-more.

Of all of the things you will pack, the most concentrated weight will come from travel toiletries and you know how I feel about weight! Cutting down in this category will keep you light on your feet, making some sacrifices will pay off.

I don’t think any two people will ever agree on what the perfect travel toiletries kit contains, so I’m going to split this into several posts. I’ll write today about the most basic of travel toiletries kits, with suggestions for some of my favorite products. I’ll follow that up with more specific suggestions for men and women, and some cool travel toiletries hacks.

Sarah’s Absolutely Most Basic Travel Toiletries Kit

Case and Bottles

In my previous article on toiletries, I talked about my Tom Bihn toiletries bag which I have used for years. I limit myself to a quart sized 3-1-1 size bag, the maximum liquid carry on the airlines require. I know that’s pretty small, but I am talking minimalism here.

I am always on the lookout for better bottles for shampoo and conditioner. In my search, I have looked for flat bottles that can fit more efficiently in the tiny bag. I struck gold recently with the Lewis N Clark Flat Bottle set.

The bottles are a little like toothpaste tubes with wide necks for easy filling. They are super light and allow you to squeeze every last drop out. So far they have survived about 2 months on the road and are still doing well. Sadly, I left one in a shower so I’ll be buying more. I’m calling it, these are my favorite travel toiletries tubes yet.

Big bonus, the tube set comes with a big plastic toiletries bag that is clear and apparently meets the airline rules for a 3-1-1, although I can’t see how. It is so much bigger than my other case! It has a zippered top and a carabiner clip for hanging, which is ok, but not ideal. I prefer the hook in the center of the bag. It’s not a well made as the Tom Bihn bag, but it has survived the normal beating I give my travel gear, so I give it a thumbs up. And, hey, it came free with the awesome bottles. Score!


This may seem basic but there are multiple options depending on your dental situation. The most basic travel toothbrush should fold up to be compact and to stay sanitary. I like GUM Travel Toothbrushes because the handle snaps shut and makes a sealed case. A super light and clever design for basic needs.

Unfortunately, my teeth are like swiss cheese. I get cavities just from looking at sweets, so I really need to bring an electric toothbrush. I have a Sonicare that I use at home, which works beautifully. I tested it last trip, one charge kept it running for two weeks, so the charger could be left at home on a short trip. While this newer version is lighter than previous ones, it’s still heavy.

Sonicare also makes a travel version that runs on batteries, but it weighs a ton. The vibration motion was so rough, like a jackhammer, I thought my fillings would fall out of my teeth. I was reminded of those Bugs Bunny cartoons where he masquerades as a dentist…my head was about to vibrate off my shoulders.

My favorite travel toothbrush is not the best sonic toothbrush, but it’s small, light, well designed and better than a standard brush. Violife Sonic Toothbrush has been in my bag for more than a year, still using the same tiny battery. I like that they sell replacement brush heads. There are lots of cute patterns too. This is my top choice for weight and functionality.


We all have our favorite toothpaste. Trouble is, toothpaste often comes in tiny tubes for travel, not enough to last. Filling up your own tubes with your favorite toothpaste is cheaper and reduces wasteful packaging. The tubes I mentioned above work very well for toothpaste…just remember which is which. Toothpaste doesn’t make good conditioner, as I’ve learned.

As for brands of toothpaste, I like Arm n Hammer baking soda/peroxide toothpaste or Marvis. Baking soda toothpaste is multi-use, for putting on bug bites or pimples, it will dry them right up. Marvis is fancy-schmacy toothpaste, but I like it because it has Xylitol, an ingredient that fights cavities well, and it comes in neat-o flavors like spicy cinnamon!


Travel deodorant, travel toiletries,, I have struggled for years with finding the right deodorant. I’m not particularly stinky, but I do sweat. I hate when deodorant yellows the armpits of my shirts. I’m also irritated that deodorant bottles are so heavy and bulky, or that the travel size ones have too little in them.

I tried the clinical strength deodorants and found them effective. Over time, however, I got weird rashes and huge, painful pimples under my arms. Sorry for the TMI, but it’s a lesson learned. That stuff is toxic.

I am happy to report that, after much trial and error, I have found the perfect solution. I bought a bunch of paste deodorants with small containers. The most effective was also a product without chemicals.

Milk & Honey deodorant comes in a small jar and costs a small fortune, but it lasts forever. If you’ve never used a paste before, you take a pea sized amount and warm it between your fingers, then rub it in your armpits. One jar will last a couple of months. It keeps me from being stinky, although it’s not an antiperspirant. Compact, effective and natural. No more welts under my arms! Yay!

Shampoo and Conditioner

I have very long, thin hair. You probably don’t, so I doubt we would use the same shampoo or conditioner, but I’ll tell you what I do. I will usually bring some mainstream shampoo like Pantene, but typically I’ll use the hotel shampoo.

I’ve recently found a great conditioner at the hair salon. Biolage Hydrasource is a thick, concentrated conditioner that works really well. I just use it on the ends. I can use just a tiny amount and it smooths and detangles my hair. One 3 oz tube of this, used very sparingly, lasted for seven weeks.


To keep my kit really minimal, I use a moisturizer with an SPF 30, to double as sunscreen. I like one that isn’t so expensive so I’m not afraid to slather it on my shoulders and legs in a pinch.

I like Neutrogena in general, and it can easily be found abroad. The Healthy Defense moisturizer is a good all-in-one with a nice consistency. It comes in a nicely sized bottle as well, which can be surprisingly hard to find.


I don’t bring soap. I use the hotel bars or shampoo, even if they aren’t the best. I just don’t like toting around a mushy bar. Minimalism!


Geez, are razors expensive. I usually break or lose them when I travel, so my advice here is to buy the cheapest ones you can find and bring a few to toss along the way. I’ll have more specific advice on razors in my next articles, for men and women.

Hair Comb

All hair is different, but I prefer a comb to a brush. They are far more compact and light weight. Have you ever bought a really good comb? I mean, a REALLY good comb? I bought an insanely expensive one in the Amsterdam airport once, I had no other options, and it changed my opinions on this topic forever. Nice combs are worth it. You can try this one or ask at your hair salon.

Is That ALL?

If you are trying to go super basic, then yes, this is all you need, personal meds aside. Seriously, you could. I know this doesn’t include any beauty products, but this is my most basic list. You could get by and be hygienic with just these travel toiletries.

Lewis N Clark Toiletries,
Stay tuned, coming up next: suggestions for travel toiletries for men vs women, luxuries and toiletry hacks.


Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.

19 thoughts on “Travel Toiletries Part One: The Most Basic Basics

  • Geraldine

    I try to bring minimal toiletries: moisturizer (I hoard samples of it and toss the empty packages along the way), stick sunblock, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrush, dental floss, a comb and hair ties, enough hairspray for 3 days (I buy more at my destination), Daily contact lenses, q-tips, medications, etc. I just discover Clinique makeup remover balm, no more bringing liquid makeup remover + cotton pads to remove my mascara. Also a couple of disposable razors.
    2 things I add are mosquito repellent wipes, I’m allergic to mosquito bites and get terrible rashes… not fun. And shower sponges instead of washcloths: I bought a big sponge and I cut it into small pieces before a trip that also toss along the way (2 cities = 2 sponges, 3 cities = 3 sponges), they weight nothing and can be squeezed inside my toiletries bag.
    What I don’t bring is shampoo, conditioner, soap, body lotion, I try to use what they provide in hotels. If I forget something I can always get it there.

  • Kim B.

    Another plus for Marvis toothpaste — the super cool packaging!! And supporting an Italian company, of course! ; p

  • Susan

    The one item, I have to take with me any place I go is Earth Therapeutics® Natural Exfoliating Hydro Towel. . It doesn’t have to be this specific one, but its the one I find most often in grocery stores. As so many places in Europe do not have wash clothes, this is my wash cloth. Because of its length you can easily reach your back. But most importantly, I use it for cleaning my private parts when I get sweaty and itchy. I usually pack it in a waterproof baggy with other toiletries. It is almost weightless and you can dry it out quickly by shaking it and them drying it quickly with a towel.

  • Megan David

    Thanks Sarah. Getting ready soon for 14 days to Puglia and Amalfi without car so need to pack super small and light. I appreciate all your valuable tips.

  • Elaine

    I’m stuck on REI’s nalgene bottles that come in 1, 2 and 3 oz sizes:

    Some of us are chemically sensitive and need to bring our own unscented stuff and not run out, so I always calculate how much I’m going to need. I like Dr. Bronner’s for a liquid soap, and also bring liquid laundry soap for hand washing. And shampoo. They can be used interchangeably if I run out of one, except the shampoo.

    For my birthday I’m getting a Tom Bhin 311 bag. They are pricy, so it’s a birthday luxury. But the quart ziplock bags seem to get funky immediately; I hate them.

  • Nancy

    I also wanted to ask – a gentleman just told me of his encounter at Heathrow Airport. He was forced to go to the end of the security line and to repack his 3-1-1 bag, because the security people there insisted on him using their bag. Do you know if security at the Rome airport might be the same?

  • Nancy

    Thanks, Sarah – these are great tips! One thing I’ve been experimenting with is using plastic eye-contact cases to hole face moisturizer and foundation. I use night , day and eye moisturizer and liquid foundation. So far this summer, I’ve found that these definitely hold enough for a week long trip and more. And they are pretty compact. My real test will be our 14 day Europe trip this fall. (Rick Steve’s My Way 🙂 )

    Love following your adventures and your great advice!

  • Sharon

    Terrific post Sarah. And it’s great to read the comments too for extra tips and thoughts. Thank you everyone!

    I’m a fan of the solid shampoo bars. I’m in Australia and there’s a lovely company in Tasmania called Beauty and The Bees ( They ship internationally. I use their shampoo bars at home and for travel. My favourites are the beer shampoo and the Rosemary & mint one. I cut the bars into thirds for travel, only one of those thirds goes into my toilet bag. I wrap it in a new Chux wipe or similar that I cut down to size so it’s not too bulky. This helps to stop the mushies spreading.

    I also use the same shampoo bar for washing my face and body if there’s no soap or shower gel in the hotel.

    I also take a 100ml Nalgene bottle filled with Sorbolene. To use as a moisturiser at night or to use as a cleanser for face and body (just rinse off under the shower).

  • Kathy Johndon

    A website called is a great source for travel-size toiletries, drugstore items, and more–the small boxes of cereal that you used to see in the grocery store, the small packets of sugar, salt, jelly, butter, etc.

  • Joan

    Great post!

    I’m obsessed with using products that don’t need to go in my ziplok…solids, powders, etc.

    LUSH has a few things that I use:

    Aromaco solid deodorant. Non-ziplok. No packaging waste. Smells awesome.

    A whole lineup of solid shampoos and conditioners.
    The shampoo can also double as body soap, esp for shaving and also for sink laundry.

    I liked using their Toothy Tabs to replace my toothpaste, but they tend to crumble in humid climates and the box falls apart.

    For tooth powder I use Eco-Dent. Non-ziplok and I love the way it works.

    The travel sized solid face soap bars from DHC Skincare.

    Have Fun!

  • Dee Dees

    Sarah, I always love your comments and tips, and especially appreciate this one. I’m always telling my daughter and friends, “You don’t need to pack full size bottles of stuff!” One thing I do that may not suit everyone, but it does eliminate one item, is to take along Pantene combination shampoo/conditioner. I use it at home too, to eliminate one step in the shampoo process. Also, I have all my basic take-alongs in a grab ‘n’ go bag, so I never forget anything. When I run out, I make a note and be sure to restock before the next trip. The grab ‘n’ go includes duplicates of my make-up as well, so I don’t have to wait until I’m finished getting ready in the morning to pack those items.

  • Bobby Graham

    I think your toiletry recommendations are terrific; lots to try next time I travel. One thing to note is that any tube or pot should not contain more than 100 g or 100 ml – otherwise the customs people throw it out!

  • Ellie Victoria

    I usually bring a bright yellow wide tooth comb, like 4 inches in length, that my now teenaged daughters had as an accessory to their doll. However, on my last trip to Italy, I forgot to bring my reliable comb. Well, I ended up using my fingers to untangle and “comb” my shoulder length thick wavy hair for almost 2 weeks. Didn’t miss the comb quite a bit. So if my hair was unmanageable, I used hair ties or wore a hat or beanie. Travel makes me improvise and adapt to what I have on hand as much as possible.

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