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Why Staying Hydrated on a Flight Is So Damn Hard

Your nose is itchy, your hands are scaly, you’re parched — here’s what to do

When I’m on an airplane, the last thing I want to thirst after is my own hydration. There are B movies to watch, vodka chasers to drink and maybe even a cute dude in seat 25C to make eyes with (yep, I fly coach). 

Yet every time I end up in the friendly skies, my body becomes my own worst enemy. It’s almost as if part of the boarding process is for my tongue and skin to dry out. Nothing can satisfy me until those tiny-ass plastic cups filled with too little water come my way.

In an age where we’re almost always hydrated, the airplane is the only place where dehydration creeps in with little relief. You can’t just go find a water fountain. But I have holiday travel coming up, and I’m tired of feeling parched while flying.

Most commercial airplanes fly around 36,000 feet in the air. This higher altitude increases dehydration, says a 2014 Harvard Medical School article. Because the air is thinner, we breathe faster to keep our oxygen levels up. Our lungs are working overtime, so they’re low on fluids. 

To make things worse, most aircraft filtration systems that circulate outside air throughout the cabin can give you a dry throat. Dr. Clayton T. Cowl, chair of Preventive, Occupational and Aerospace Medicine at the Mayo Clinic, told Travel and Leisure in 2015 that humidity is at 10 to 20 percent on a plane, even though what’s comfortable for most people is 30 to 65 percent. Lower humidity means less moisture, which leads to dehydration. 

So how much H2O does your body need? More than you’re likely getting. “Drink about eight ounces of water each hour and use a hydrating nasal spray,” says an online pamphlet from the Aerospace Medical Association. (I’m going to pass on the nasal spray because I don’t have any more space in my carry-on bag.) Eight ounces every hour? That’s not too bad. But I’ll need to plan ahead and bring a bottle to fill before boarding (VSCO girls know what’s up; buy a Hydro Flask). Those tiny plastic cups on the drink cart may come only once in a two-hour flight. 

There’s a more urgent reason to fill up that bottle: The complimentary water on flights isn’t always fresh. A 2015 study on aircraft water quality by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that chlorine, microbial and chemical properties can all be found in airlines’ bottled tap water. 

If you’re really worried about dehydration, opt out of the vodka chasers or free coffee. Healthline reports both alcohol and caffeine before and during a flight may increase dehydration symptoms.

The good news is that airlines are catching on. Some new plane models are designed with higher humidity levels. Lonely Planet recently reported that Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 planes are made of different materials that can get nice and moist without rusting. American Airlines (domestic) and All Nippon Airways (international) are the largest operators of 787 aircraft.

Now, if you’re like me, you care about your skin — it doesn’t mean you’re superficial. (Okay, maybe I am a little.) While drinking water may help you stay healthy, you have to look healthy, too, so pack a hydrating, moisturizing face mask to wear during your flight. (I suggest the Laneige Water Sleeping Mask for $19.50 on Amazon). After all, you don’t want to arrive home from your vacation looking like you never left.

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