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Female Packing List for Tricky Skin

what to pack for tricky skin

The following packing list for sensitive skin is brought to you by Dara. See all packing list posts here. All affiliate links are denoted by an asterisk.

My relationship with acne as a teenage and into my early twenties was pretty average. I had a few seemingly horrendous breakouts and a consistent but easy to hide 1-2 pimples at any given time, but I never needed to branch out beyond a drugstore or see a dermatologist for my skin.

After a few years of long-term travel (which included seven months with no sunscreen in West Africa…), my skin drastically changed.

When I moved to India for work, my face broke out into multiple large cysts that created mounds of pus and swelling redness across my face. All combinations of make-up could not hide them. Teachers and even my own students would ask me what was going on with my face. Once a complete stranger, a teenage Indian boy walking down the street, pointed at my face and quizzically asked: “Pimple or mosquito?”

Today I live in Cairo, but I am acne free. Even though I will be dealing with the leftover scarring for awhile, I don’t even get the 1-2 pimples that I used to always sport during my teenage years. I saw two dermatologists (one in India and one in Egypt), and each time I was prescribed creams and oral antibiotics with few results.

To be truthful, I got the most success by following a routine using these easy-to-locate items:

1. Sunscreen

Before I lose all credibility hear me out: I used to be one of those people who got glossy-eyed and bored when people waxed poetic on the sunscreen. But if you are experiencing cystic acne (especially if you think it is linked to pollution like mine was), this is a must. In addition to it protecting your skin from the sun, it will also protect your skin from the environmental stressors like pollution. It also keeps your acne scars from getting darker, thus helping them to fade more over time.

packing list for tricky skin
Neutrogena break-out free sunscreen*

2. Two cleansers

One for make-up removal and one foam cleanser. When I was scrubbing my face raw with St Ives twice a day, even though my skin felt clean, it really wasn’t. The beloved apricot scrub was actually creating micro-tears in my face and grinding dirt into my pores. Now I use one cleanser for make up removal (like Ponds Cold Cream) and one foaming cleanser. This makes my skin actually clean without using a hard scrub.

packing list for tricky skin
Ponds cold cream cleanser* & CeraVe foaming facial cleanser*

3. A spot treatment

To treat the acne you do have, you should always have a spot treatment that includes benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. In some countries you can get great acne treatments over-the-counter. In Egypt I use a .5% tretinoin on my face every night which has greatly reduced scarring and rate of cysts.

packing list for tricky skin
Clean & Clear persa-gel 10*

4. Moisturizer and Vaseline

I always thought that to get rid of acne you had to dry it out. That oil created acne, and if I didn’t have any of it, I wouldn’t get cysts. Wrong. It turns out that I was dealing with a broken moisture barrier. Now every night I put on a layer of moisturizer and a layer of vaseline to lock it all in. (Vaseline, by the way, very likely will not break you out. It is an occlusive, which means that it sits on top of your pores, not clogging them.)

packing list for tricky skin
CeraVe moisturizing cream* & Vaseline*

5. Hydrocolloid bandaids and Neosporin

For when you do get a cyst, put some Neosporin on it and cover with a hydrocolloid bandaid overnight. It will drain the pus out of the cyst and significantly reduce your healing time. (I have used regular bandaids with some success too.)

Neosporin should be used sparingly, so only on your worst cysts.

packing list for tricky skin
Nexcare acne absorbing covers* & Neosporin*

If on the move a lot and traveling light, be sure to store your skin care items in travel size bottles and tubs.

Have you ever experienced skin problems on the road? What’s on your packing list for sensitive skin?

>> Check out Dara’s other post on The Sensitive Traveler Survival Kit.

About the author: Dara Denney currently lives in Egypt where she is a Kindergarten teacher by day and a freelance writer by night. Find her at: The Traveller’s Cookbook

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Reader Interactions


  1. Tracey says

    An oil-based cleanser for makeup removal is good too, as it’s really gentle on your skin. I’ve recently been using The Body Shop chamomile one. Also balm cleansers are great to use in the evening for dry skin, as they moisturise as well as cleans.

    I’ve heard that foam cleansers aren’t the best for dry skin as they can strip the moisture from your skin, but I haven’t yet found a good alternative for the second stage cleansing (after makeup removal). Maybe a non-foaming milk cleanser or something?

    • Dara Denney says

      Hi Tracey! Thanks so much for your comment. It is true that many foam cleansers are too harsh and stripping for dry skin. Still, because of the amount of pollution I experience n a daily basis, I find that it helps to have a foaming cleanser, and I do have very dry skin as well. The trick is to find a foaming cleanser with the right amount of pH. Currently I use Bioderma Atoderm, which is for atopic to very dry skin. They have a foaming cleanser made specifically for dry skin. Check it out: c

  2. Francesca says

    I’ve got acne-prone skin and I never travel without my skincare essentials. I try to pack very light with everything else, but I always bring with me my own cleanser (I use a gel one with lots of aloe and no SLS in it, as it is very gentle but effective on removing make up and dirt from my face), my night treatment (it contains glycolic acid, so it does miracles on spots and underskin pimples, but I would not use it on cystic acne and it cannot be used on daytime) and my day-cream which is very gentle, hydrating and not greasy at all, it works good as a make-up base and obviously has a 30 sunscreen in it. I try to decanter everything in smaller containers and my face cleanser can be used as a hand and body wash too. Talking about make up I bring foundation, powder and concealer with me, along with some lipbalm, eyebrow and eye pencils, mascara and a more audacious lipstick for nights out. Sometimes I use the shampoo that most hotels give to guests, but I would never use their products to wash my face as I only trust my well tested out routine for my troubled skin. I’d never use vaseline and petroleum products too because they are way too greasy for my skin and at the same time they do not feel like they’re moisturising at all, but I tend to prefer natural cosmetics for everything so I guess it’s all a matter of how you feel about your own skin.
    Anyway I wanted to thank Her Packing List for the posts about DivaCup, my sister has used it for six years now and would never turn back, but I was still a little suspicious about it: after reading your posts I finally decided that it was healthier, cheaper and a lot more comfortable when travelling, so I just ordered my Meluna Cup ( very similar to the Diva Cup, but it’s a German brand since I live in Europe, also it’s cheaper and comes in a lot of sizes and colors and you can choose between three options about softness and flexibility too!). I cannot wait to try it out! :)))

  3. Svenja says

    My skin is seriously bitchy, so I stick to my tried and true facial care system: Wash morning and night with natural soap (right now I’m loving Dr. Bronners Tea Tree Bar, but I’m not that picky, any natural soap will do), pat dry, moisturize with Kiehl’s Super Fluid SPF 50 in the morning or cactus seed oil at night – that’s it!

    I never had skin trouble as a teen, my skin used to be pretty normal and pimple-free until I hit my mid 20s and my skin decided to have a puberty revival party.
    I spent the next decade trying each and every skin care line’s acne system, had lots of dermatologist appointments and not much success getting rid of my newly acquired adult acne. Two or three years ago, I finally decided to drastically simplify my skin care system and haven’t looked back.

    As long as I stick to my soap-water-SPF-cactus oil line-up, my skin is happy, but mess with it and all hell breaks loose…

    Bonus travel tip: Obviously, soap is solid and therefore carry-on-friendly. My SPF and cactus oil go into empty eye drop bottles, 15ml is plenty for a two or three week trip, and the little bottles are absolutely leak-proof.

  4. Kelsey Tuller says

    Love this! I constantly have issues with acne. I thought it was supposed to stop after the teenage years but I guess not…Right now I’m using Lush’s 9-5 make up remover which gets eye make up off like no body’s business. And for cleanser I used Eau Roma Water, also from Lush. I’m going to look for that Neutrogena sunscreen here in England- I’m going to need it this summer for sure.

    • Dara Denney says

      Hi Kelsey! If they don’t have the Neutrogena sunscreen, look for Bioderma’s Photoderm. They don’t have many Neutrogena products where I live in Egypt, so I mostly use Bioderma, which makes amazing sunscreen. (Photoderm also specifically advertises to block against harmful pollution, which is why I use it everyday. Works too! )

  5. Susie says

    At 40 years old, I think I’ve been dealing with acne for 30 years now. Yuck.

    My washing routine includes Clinique gel cleanser to get the junk off, followed by Cetaphil cleanser to soften and make sure skin is truly clean. I have been using Moisturel lotion for 30 years and will not use another moisturizer. Use Neutrogena face sunscreen, and Clinique light foundation with sunscreen.

    For travel, because different laundry soaps (and those awful scented fabric softeners!) seem to set off my skin issues, I ALWAYS travel with my own pillowcase and face towel. It doesn’t matter how posh the hotel – I use my own.

  6. Beth says

    I started having acne issues over the last few years (starting in my early-mid twenties) and have never really found a combination that worked. I’ve been under a lot of stress in the last year and so acne has even been worse. I’m THRILLED I came across this post. I think probably everything I’ve tried in the past has been waaaay too harsh. For the last couple of months since reading this post originally I’ve been using the Ponds Cold Cream and the Cera Ve moisturizer regularly (and periodically a spot treatment and vaseline) with minimal acne breakouts since. In fact, the only time I had a breakout that really annoyed me was when I went away for a few days and forgot to bring them with me so I had to use something else. So thank you for this!

    With the nice weather upon us, I know I’ll be outside way more so will start with sunblock and will try finding a good one for my face (normally, I find them super heavy and oily on my face, so I’ll try the one from this post!) I’m a ginger so this is super important.

  7. Briana says

    I’ve dealt with acne for nearly 30 years now (I’ll be 40 next year) and my favorite cleanser is Mario Badescu. I use their facewash at night followed by toner, and again toner in the morning. Their pink pimple spot cream is the best on the market, I’ve tried other brands but theirs works best.

    What I’ve recently discovered that I wish I had known years ago is that it’s not as important what you wash with but that you thoroughly wash. I used to think that my skin was clean after a couple passes, but now I spend probably a full minute massaging the facewash over my skin to really get it clean – it’s made a huge difference. I also use coconut oil as a moisturizer and won’t go back to anything else. My skin just cannot stand the artificial ingredients (I’d give up makeup too, but at some point I have to go out in public…) The trick is to use just tiny bit! Too much coconut oil makes me break out even more, but just ONE DRO{ makes my skin look so much better, it even helps reduce redness and the size of my pores. I combine it with water for spreadability. As a bonus, a jar of coconut oil is way cheaper than most moisturizers.

    I also have thick skin (literally) and my skin cells don’t rejuvenate quickly, so I use St. Ive’s apricot scrub every 2-3 days. This can be too harsh for a lot of people, but my skin needs it and regular use reduces pimples for me, and also cuts down on that flaky, dull look that crap-tacular skin like mine tends to have.

    Oh, and I agree with the Neosporin! When I get a cyst that doesn’t start to head after a couple days, or if I get several eruptions in one spot, I know that bacteria is causing the problem. Neosporin (or any antibacterial gel) really works.

    Will be trying face sunscreen when I travel this summer since I’ll be spending a lot of time in the sun. I’m a little nervous about it though, my experience using a sunscreen lotion on my face has never been good. I bought one that said it’s fine for acne prone skin, so I’ll try it. Better than getting sunburned.

  8. ClicketySnap says

    I am not bothered at all by my mild acne, but everyone else in my life seems to be really upset by it. My doctor is constantly trying to prescribe medication and short-term solutions that I just don’t agree with or understand.

    I found that when I significantly cut back on the amount of dairy I consume, my acne became much less of a problem. As soon as I increase my coffee intake (I like lattes and cappuccinos) or have cheese on all of my food, I notice more acne on my face and shoulders. Obviously this is harder to deal with when in a foreign country with lots of yummy foods.

    My mom raised me with the idea that you scrub your face hard twice a day with a routine of soaps, cleansers, toners, and moisturizers and make sure you take the same products with you when you travel so your skin doesn’t freak out.
    I have since realized that if I travel to a foreign country and my skin dries out a bit more than usual, things work out way better if I purchase a local product that is made in that climate for that climate.

    I have also switched from cleansers and soaps to homemade lye soap or soap-free cleansers for my face. A friend of mine does homemade cold-process soap with activated charcoal and it works great. I also get Angels on Bareskin cleanser from LUSH cosmetics. Very gentle exfoliating action and no harsh soaps.

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