Note: This article was previously published in our free downloadable eBook “Meaningful Travel Tips & Tales: African American Perspectives.” To find more stories and resources for African American travel, download the eBook now.
Okay, ladies! You’ve got this amazing opportunity to travel abroad and now you are thinking about all the things you will need to bring with you on your trip, whether it is clothes, shoes, hygiene products, or anything else that will fit in your suitcase.
Hold up! Are you feeling unsure of or hesitant about bringing your precious hair, makeup, and skin products in an effort to pack light and save room for souvenirs? Are you nervous to travel with the products, scared they won’t travel well or pass the begrudged customs wall? If you’re anything like me, you’d almost be willing to let these setbacks become a deal breaker from signing up for an international program.
But, I’m here to tell you that it’s not necessary to fear studying, volunteering, teaching, or interning abroad for the lack of familiar beauty products. In fact, this would be an intense sacrifice for your precious serum. So, instead of throwing in the towel, just commit to packing SMART.
While your efforts to pack light are valiant (good on you) and there are some necessary rules to keep in mind with packing for travel abroad, you might need to go back to the drawing board. Even though beautiful, dark skinned people (like us!) live in many places in the world, they don’t live in all the places in the world.
Read on for the best black girl beauty tips, from one black girl who has been abroad to another on her way, especially curated for black travelers going abroad.
A Beauty Horror Story
I was in Bueno Aires, Argentina for an internship for about two months and I ran out of foundation [gasp!] - I needed some badly. I generally don’t mind not wearing makeup, but I felt I was more presentable to clients on the job when I looked a bit more polished. Anyway, there’s no makeup for women of color in Buenos Aires, because there are barely any women of color in Argentina, so I was out luck. But the worst was yet to come...
Further, my hair has been natural and chemically free for about four years, but before I even arrived in Argentina, I had my hair put in a protective style (I put my hair in braids and added extensions, so that when I got to my destination I wouldn’t be worried about doing my hair all the time). I was worried about my new environment stripping my moisturized hair dry, so I thought this was a smart step prior to travel. Unfortunately, my luck ran super thin and I ran out of the hair extensions that I was using!
To the rescue— another American volunteer’s mother was coming to visit her the next week, so I asked (no, begged!) her to pick up some makeup and hair extensions for me at her local beauty supply. The heavens parted and she said yes, and I knew my days of nappy hair and blotchy skin would soon be behind me. Picture my face when she brought me my much-needed bag of goodies!
The moral of the story: if you don’t want to go through all that beauty hassle (stress lines are real, people), just bring the stuff you need with you so you don’t run around a country you hardly know looking for things they may not have.
Girl, Do Your Research.
It’s always a good idea to research the country that you are going to, whether it is the people, culture, mannerisms, and food. But, you also need to take it a step further. In order to avoid basic beauty blunders while studying abroad, you need to research the season, the climate, and your shopping options in the country you’re headed to.
For instance, you’re going to want to know if you’re studying in Xi’an, China that the only black beauty store is in Shanghai. Try to research what stores will be within reach. It’s pretty likely that some countries don't even have the hair, makeup, or skin products that you’re used to - so better to plan ahead and pack right than to end up in a pickle like I did...
The Perks of a Protective Hair Style
If you’re headed to a very cold area, it’s good to keep your hair in a protective style (natural or permed hair) to protect the ends. I brought Jamaican castor oil, spray conditioner, and hair grease to put in the scalp of my hair, even when my hair was in extensions. I really wanted to make sure my hair was growing healthily underneath my French braids.
In order to style my hair, I brought an eco-styler gel to help the edges of my hair stay in place (not an easy task considering I was taking the train back and forth to work - sometimes I’d barely make it, which would result in my hair being crazy!). When I took my extensions out, I co-washed and conditioned my hair and wore my fro out. Otherwise, I used the eco-gel to (gently) force my hair down. I used a sock (yup, an everyday sock!) to make the perfect bun until I put my extensions back in with fresh packs.
Hair Straightening + Travel: A Winning Combo?
If you straighten your hair using perms, I would highly suggest bringing the perm with you, especially if you do it yourself anyway. Otherwise, you should think about putting your hair in braids instead. Ghana Braids, singles, the Senegalese twist, or the Marley twist are all great options. Be forewarned if you opt to stick with the perm, you might be disappointed and put into a hair-raising situation you don’t wanna be in.
There's only one word your hair ever needs to know: hydration! Whether you’re permed or not, protective hairstyles are convenient while you’re abroad. I wore my hair in crochet braids for three months before I actually did it again and the second time it lasted for four months. I went through my seven month journey in South America without any issues after my mini crises (shock face emoji!) in Argentina.
The Skinny on Skin Care Products
Although basic skin-care needs are the same for everyone, there are some issues that darker skin tones are more likely to experience, whether at home or abroad. As black travelers, our increased levels of melanin mean we need to be more cautious about dealing with acne or ingrown hairs. And remember: being ashy is nobody’s friend.
I brought Vaseline and Hemp lotion with me so my skin would stay super moisturized. Plus, the Vaseline kept unwanted bugs away – really important if you’re going into areas home to a lot of mosquitoes or gnats. Bring sunscreen with you from home; they’ll usually have it abroad, but it could be twice as expensive and harder to come by than you’d think.
In Short: Pack Smart
Bring all of your preferred hair, makeup, and skin products with you. It would be smart to bring two of everything with you so you don’t run out (can you imagine being without your precious Miss Jessie’s baby butter cream?!).
Pro tip: make sure to put any of your liquid-based products in your checked luggage, lest you find yourself bargaining with customs officer over Madame C.J. Walker.
Assume nothing and you won’t be left out to dry without your beloved products.
Let’s Review the List of Things You May Want to Bring With You as a Black Traveler:
- Hair bands/ties
- Eco-styler gel
- Hair extensions
- Shampoo and conditioner (especially dry shampoo!)
- Oil/hair grease
- Skin care products (such as Ambi or Rx for Dark Skin)
- Hair spray
- Vaseline/Coco Butter
- Hair perm products
- Makeup (especially foundation)
- Hair rollers
- Sock bun
Remember: You Look Great!
Even if your hair gets a mess or your skin decides to flare up, that’s not what your study abroad experience is really about, anyway. It’s more about interacting with locals, pushing yourself past your limits and out of your comfort zone (Ding ding ding! This includes feeling comfortable without your “creature comforts,” aka beauty products), and having an incredible learning experience. Just know that your outward beauty is one manifestation of yourself, and not the most important one by far.
So put on a smile, walk out the door, and go see what this beautiful world has to offer you!