Whether you’re a carry-on-only kind of person or not, knowing the Transportation Security Administration’s liquid limits is essential for anyone who wants to travel by plane (without headaches) in the United States. Yet understanding which of your toiletries, foods, and other items even count as “liquid”—let alone how best to pack them—can get confusing. Use this guide to understand the TSA’s rules and restrictions about liquids, common exceptions, and tips to help ensure your next airport security screening goes smoothly.
What is the liquid limit for TSA?
The TSA’s liquid limit for carry-ons—known as the 3-1-1 rule—allows travelers to pack liquids, aerosols, gels, creams, and pastes under 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) in their carry-on bags. This amounts to one quart-sized bag per person, or roughly nine 3.4-ounce containers in a single quart-sized bag. Anything more will have to go in a checked bag.
It’s important to note that if your liquids are stored in containers larger than 3.4 ounces, even if there’s only 3.4 ounces left inside the bottle, you can’t bring them through security.
Completely empty bottles, such as your reusable water bottle, are allowed through the TSA checkpoint since (spoiler alert!) they don’t contain any liquids at that moment.
Which toiletries TSA allows in your carry-on
The TSA allows all of the following common toiletries in your carry-on only in containers that are 3.4 ounces or less:
- Shampoos and conditioners
- Lotions and sunscreen
- Gel hair products
- Aloe vera
- Lip gloss
Powders and powder-like substances, including baby powder and some makeup items, aren’t restricted in your carry-on bag. But if you’re carrying more than 12 ounces (350 milliliters) of a powder, you’ll need to place it in a separate bin for X-ray screening, and it may be subject to additional screening.
Tips for packing your toiletries in your carry-on
Especially if you don’t have TSA PreCheck, it’s helpful to pack all of your toiletries in a quart-sized (or smaller) clear plastic toiletry bag for screening. For an upgrade from that large Ziplock, we recommend the standard-sized Clarity Jetset Case from Truffle ($88), which has a clear window panel and is comparable in size to a quart-sized bag.
Since toothpaste is considered a liquid, paste, or gel by the TSA, most of us toss those tiny 1-ounce tubes in our carry-on bags. However, if you want to ditch the hard-to-recycle packaging, consider toothpaste tablets, an ecofriendly alternative that’s not subject to the 3-1-1 rule. We like Humankind’s fluoride toothpaste tablets ($12), which resemble small mints and turn to paste when you crush them between your teeth.
For travel toiletries that are easy to rebottle (like shampoo or body wash), consider investing in reusable bottles or containers so you can always keep your preferred brand on hand. Some of our favorite TSA-approved toiletry bottles include:
Buy Now: GoToob three-pack of 3.4-ounce bottles, $30, rei.com
These easy-to-fill, leakproof silicone tubes are ideal for shampoos, conditioners, lotions, and body washes. GoToob’s line comes in a variety of sizes, ranging from 1.7 to 6 ounces, and are easy to clean between refills.
Buy Now: $13 for one or $35 for three, matadorup.com
Each 3-ounce, TSA-approved bottle is made from a durable, waterproof, nylon-based fabric. Like GoToob, they’re leakproof and easy to fill, but thanks to their flexible, fabric-like design, they will shrink to their contents, taking up less space in your pack.
Buy Now: $14 for one or $74 for six, keepyourcadence.com
The refillable travel containers by Cadence are small, leakproof “capsules” that click together with magnets. At 0.56 ounces, they’re best for makeup and toiletries you don’t need much of—like a weekend’s worth of shampoo or a week of that under eye cream you only need a dab of.
Foods are subject to liquid limits
The TSA’s 3-1-1 rule applies to food too, meaning you’ll need to make sure any foods that count as liquids, gels, or pastes (like yogurt, peanut butter, pâté, jams, or that tasty pimento cheese spread you tried to bring home from Charleston) are less than 3.4 ounces or packed in your checked bag. There are some exceptions, like frozen foods and juice for babies, and the TSA’s website is the best resource to check for specific items.
Exceptions to TSA’s liquids rule
The TSA has several important exemptions to its liquids rule, including:
Medication: You’re allowed to bring medically necessary liquids, aerosols, and gels through security. This also includes the ice or gel packs you may need to keep your medications cool. You are not required to store these items in a plastic, resealable bag, but you should remove them from your luggage and let the TSA officer know what you’ve packed.
Baby formula and breast milk: Like medication, you can bring freezer packs to keep these items cool, and you should remove them from your luggage and notify an agent when you go through security. More baby-related exceptions? Gel or liquid-filled teethers and canned or jarred baby food.
Of course, the final decision on whether an item is allowed through the checkpoint rests with the TSA officer.
If you’re ever unsure about a specific item, the TSA’s website has a handy, searchable list of prohibited and allowed items worth checking before you travel.