If you're jetting off for a short break with hand luggage only, you may be surprised to find some UK airports make you put cosmetics such as lipstick, eye liner and solid deodorant in your 'liquids' bag when you take them through security. Here's how to pack to make sure you don't fall foul of the rules.

Since 2006 there have been strict rules around what liquids you can take through airport security and onto an aeroplane, amid concerns about liquid explosives.

Generally any liquids you take through security in your hand luggage must be packed in a single transparent, resealable plastic bag, in containers of 100ml or less (unless it's something such as medicine or baby food) – and you can take no more than a litre in total.

Yet when it comes to cosmetics and toiletries, the rules around exactly what counts as a liquid are vague, and we've found UK airports are interpreting them and enforcing them in different ways. At least five common cosmetics or toiletries DO need to be placed in the liquids bag at one or more airports – but DON'T elsewhere.

With many more airports simply refusing to say what their rules are, passengers are being left in the dark until they get to security.

While this obviously isn't a problem if you've packed your cosmetics in your hold luggage, if you're only travelling with hand luggage and are taking a fair haul of toiletries such as suntan lotion, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste and makeup, you could soon fill up your liquids bag - and after that, you risk having to throw toiletries away.

What are the rules?

Airports follow the hand luggage rules set by the Department for Transport (DfT). It says liquids include:

  • All drinks
  • Liquid or semi-liquid foods, for example soup, jam, honey and syrups
  • Cosmetics and toiletries, including creams, lotions, oils, perfumes, mascara and lip gloss
  • Sprays, including shaving foam, hairspray and spray deodorants
  • Pastes, including toothpaste
  • Gels, including hair and shower gel
  • Contact lens solution
  • Any other solutions and items of similar consistency

We asked the DfT if it could give more detailed guidance on what's included in the 'cosmetics and toiletries' category, but it refused. It's not clear if it's provided more detailed guidance to airports – however, from the information we've been given it appears airports are interpreting the rules differently.

A DfT spokesperson told us airports can impose their own restrictions above these rules.

What do different UK airports class as a 'liquid'?

We approached nine UK airports to check what their policies were on common cosmetics or toiletries. Five simply refused to answer – but those that did each have their own set of rules.

UK airports' rules – do these items need to go in the liquids bag?

Item Description Birmingham Edinburgh Manchester Stansted
Bronzer Liquid bronzer in bag, powder not in bag Not in bag Cream, mousse or paste bronzer in bag, powder not in bag If powder, not in bag
Compact foundation In bag In bag In bag Cream or paste in bag, powder not in bag
Gel eye liner In bag In bag In bag In bag
Lip/eye solid pencil liner In bag Not in bag Not in bag Not in bag
Lipstick In bag Not in bag In bag Not in bag
Nail varnish remover wipes In bag Not in bag Not in bag Not in bag
Powder blusher Not in bag Not in bag Not in bag Not in bag
Solid deodorant In bag Not in bag In bag Not in bag, unless roll-on or cream
Solid perfume In bag Not in bag In bag Not in bag
Translucent powder Not in bag Not in bag Not in bag Not in bag
Responses correct as of August 2017, but subject to change

Some other airports, such as Gatwick, referred us back to the DfT guidelines, and others such as Heathrow, Bristol and Cardiff refused to elaborate on the guidance on their websites.

A spokesperson for Southend Airport told us: "As a responsible airport there are so many factors which must be taken into consideration – our security would need to physically see each item to make a judgement."

'The rules aren't clear'

Steve Nowottny, news and features editor at MoneySavingExpert.com, said: "Unfortunately it seems there simply aren't any definitive UK-wide rules on what cosmetics you can pack in your hand luggage – and bizarrely some airports won't even say what their own policies are.

"As a result passengers are being left confused, and there's a real risk they could be forced to bin make-up or toiletries at security, simply because the rules aren't clear and vary from airport to airport. Airport security is there to protect passengers and does a vital job – but surely it's possible to agree what does or doesn't count as a liquid?

"If you're unsure if something will be considered a liquid, it's best to assume you will need to put it in the clear plastic bag and plan accordingly, rather than risk having to throw items away."

How to get the most toiletries and cosmetics through airport security

Here are the DfT rules about packing liquids in your hand luggage:

  • You can have one transparent, resealable plastic bag, approximately 20cm x 20cm
  • Each container must be 100ml or less, and some airports say its size, eg, 10ml, must be printed (not handwritten) on the bottle
  • Your bag can't contain more than a litre in total
  • You have to be able to seal the bag (it can't be knotted or tied at the top)

It’s worth noting that some airports may impose additional restrictions on top of these. The DfT and most of the airports we checked with don’t stipulate a maximum number of items in the bag, but some may – for example, Bristol Airport’s website warns you can take a “maximum of 10 items”, though the airport says in practice this number is only a “guideline” and you may be able to take more.

If the airport you’re flying from doesn’t have a limit on the number of items, then with careful packing it's possible to cram a lot into your one plastic bag. We managed to fit a whopping 21 items into a 20cm x 20cm clear plastic bag, including essentials such as deodorant, toothpaste, soap and shower gel:

Here are tips on making the most of your hand luggage liquid allowance:

  • Decant toiletries into smaller bottles. You can usually find packs of these for £1, or you can save the empty bottles from hotel stays, but remember how much it holds may need to be printed on the bottle. See make your own travel minis.
  • Bag make-up samples from counters or online. For example, Estée Lauder does a free 10-day trial of foundation, some sites also give freebies away when you sign up to newsletters, you could buy travel minis, or you can pay £3.95 for delivery of five toiletries and cosmetic samples from Feel Unique.
  • If there are a few of you going away... see if you can share some items, such as shampoo, to save space.
  • Many airports also have shops, such as Boots, where you can buy toiletries once airside. Remember though to keep hold of your receipt, and remember some airlines restrict the amount of airside goods you can take on outside of your hand luggage.