Eyedropper bottles, a traveler’s best friend

With the TSA’s current “3-1-1” rule that prohibits air travelers from carrying bottles of liquid larger than 3 ounces (slightly less than 100 ml), a lot of people have started saving their bottles of hotel shampoo or various travel-size samples they come across.

While those smaller bottles and containers will definitely pass muster at the airport security checkpoint, I personally don’t think they’re your best option. For my money, the best thing to do is to transfer your favorite liquid products into eyedropper bottles.

You can either reuse bottles of eye drops you have in your medicine cabinet, or purchase empty ones. The empty ones you purchase are usually transparent, making it easier to see how much liquid you have left. Recycled eye drop bottles are usually not, making them better candidates for storing photosensitive facial serums and such.

Why do I think eyedropper bottles are so much better?

  • The opening is very small, letting you control how much you disburse at once.
  • The small opening with a separate twist cap means it’s practically impossible for them to leak.
  • The air pressure caused by trying to dispense your liquid through a small opening means it’s significantly easier to get thick liquids out without excessive tapping.

Sample eyedropper bottles of various popular sizes. From left: 1 ounce (30ml), 0.5 ounce (15ml), 0.45 ounce (10ml), all over-the-counter eyedrops, and a half-ounce transparent bottle (purchased as an empty bottle).

How to make your own perfect toothpaste in a bottle

I’ve never been a big fan of tube toothpaste. My favorite is the liquid gel toothpaste from Colgate. Now, I realize you can buy toothpaste powder to avoid having to put your toothpaste in your 3-1-1 baggie, but I’m not a big fan of brushing my teeth with powder; it feels a bit too abrasive for me.

Instead, what I do is tranfer my favorite toothpaste into an empty eyedropper bottle.

A regular bottle of Colgate toothpaste and an empty half-ounce eyedropper bottle.
A regular bottle of Colgate toothpaste and an empty half-ounce eyedropper bottle.

Step 1: Start by removing the outer cap and the inner dispensing tip.

Start by removing the cap and inner dispenser cap.
Start by removing the cap and inner dispenser cap.

The inner dispenser cap is the secret to these bottles, so make sure you don’t lose it.

Step 2: Carefully suqeeze the liquid from your main bottle into the dropper bottle.

Squeeze your liquid into the dropper bottle.
Squeeze your liquid into the dropper bottle.

The easiest way to ensure that you can get all the liquid into the dropper bottle while minimizing spillage is to squeeze the dropper bottle and slowly let it expand as you inject liquid into it. The expanding dropper bottle “sucks up” the liquid you are pouring in.

Once the bottle dropper is filled (not quite to the brim; you want enough room for the dispenser tip to fit without spilling), press the dispenser tip until it snaps into place, then twist the cap closed.

Step 3: Take a permanent marker to a mailing label and write down the contents of the bottle.

Write down the content of the bottle on a label.
Write down the content of the bottle on a label.

If you are labeling a bottle that you know will get wet regularly (such as shampoo), use weatherproof mailing labels like this one from Avery. Otherwise, your standard mailing label works just fine.

Avery\'s Weatherproof White Labels.
Weatherproof White Labels from Avery won’t dissolve if your bottle gets wet.

Step 4: Stick your label onto your bottle. To prevent the label from being crooked, align the end of the label against the vertical seam that runs down one spot on the bottle.

Carefully place the label onto your dropper bottle.
Carefully place the label onto your dropper bottle.

Complete! Ta-da! You now have your very own dropper bottle full of toothpaste!

Your own dropper bottle of toothpaste.
Your own dropper bottle of toothpaste.

One big advantage of using a dropper bottle for toothpaste is that the dispenser cap ensures that you will always get a perfect line of toothpaste to squeeze onto your brush. You will have less waste, and the bottle will stay clean without extra toothpaste clinging to the bottle’s threads.

Before you wonder if a half-ounce bottle is enough, try this test: When you buy your next tube or bottle of toothpaste, use a permanent marker to write down the first day you start using it. Use this same tube/bottle until it runs out, and note the finish date. Figure out how many days it took to go through the full container, and divide it into the size of your container. Chances are, half an ounce of toothpaste will last you at least a couple of weeks. If you’re very fastidious and prefer to brush after every meal, consider taking two of these dropper bottles of toothpaste. When you’re done with one bottle, just toss it in the trash and your 3-1-1 bag just got lighter!

Tips for transferring from a tube (vs. a bottle):

If you like the thicker toothpaste from a tube, it might not be as easy to pour your toothpaste into a dropper bottle. If this is your situation, carefully take your dropper bottle (with the dispenser cap removed), and carefully insert the opening into the mouth of your toothpaste tube. Chances are your dropper bottle will fit, and you can carefully squeeze your toothpaste into the bottle. Make sure you start by squeezing the extra air out of your dropper bottle and expand is as you squeeze in the toothpaste.

You can use dropper bottles for all sorts of liquids, and use different sized bottles based on your need or length of trip. Want to take your favorite fragrance but you don’t want to take a glass bottle on your trip? Carefully transfer your cologne into the tiniest dropper bottle (such as the quarter-ounce size). The cap will stay on and you won’t have to worry about broken glass. And the dispenser cap means you can carefully dab one drop on your wrist!

The biggest advantages about using dropper bottles is that you don’t have to try to find travel-size bottles of your favorite toiletries, or settle for odd-smelling conditioner because that was the only thing available at your local drugstore, and you will wind up with a ton of more space in your 3-1-1 toiletry bag!

A 3-1-1 baggie with regulation-sized toiletries. The same 3-1-1 baggie with a lot more space.
On the left, a regular 3-1-1 baggie with regulation-sized liquid bottles. On the right, the exact same items, with some adjustments to containers including using dropper bottles.

These bags both contain bottles of shampoo, conditioner, hair spray, daytime face lotion, sunscreen, liquid foundation, facial cleansing lotion, clear nail polish, and toothpaste.

Travel toiletries in the back, with their smaller siblings in the front.
Travel toiletries in the back, with their smaller siblings in the front.

By converting a few of these products into dropper bottles, we’ve been able to save quite a bit of space.

Finally, forego the disposable baggie, and go with a transparent plastic toiletry bag with a real zipper. The big benefit to those is that they are pleated, meaning you can fit a a lot more items in there.

Minimized toiletries in a zippered toiletry bag.
Minimized toiletries in a zippered toiletry bag.

It looks cavernous in there! Now you have more room to add extra bottles (which you can toss as you go), or add extras like a folding hair brush.

One more thing: This isn’t just for air travel. A small on-the-go kit like this is a great little pouch to keep in your purse (hey, you can brush your teeth after that onion lunch and not worry when you step into your afternoon meeting), or keep it in your gym bag.

Happy toting!


  1. I was with you up to the last point. Does the zippered bag meet the one-quart limit? If so, how do you prove it to touchy, by-the-book TSA goons?

  2. Super great tips! I am definitely in need of some waterproof labels!

    One thing about using the empty bottles (as opposed to re-purposed ones) is that most of them do not have the volume actually printed on them, either via a sticker label on in the plastic mold. I once had several items well under the 100ml limit confiscated for this reason. The only empty bottles I have found that have the volume in the actual plastic are the Nalgene ones sold at outdoor stores like REI. Unfortunately, I don’t think they have an eyedropper…but maybe we can find an eyedropper lid to fit their bottles?

  3. Andrew — The zippered plastic pouch is small; it has so much room in it because it’s pleated. You can find several brands of these reusable 3-1-1 bags on the market now.

    Kelle — Nalgene indeed does make eyedroppers, but I do NOT recommend them! They have a narrow dispenser tip but the closure is not a twist cap but a snap-on lid that is tethered to the bottle with a little plastic leash. It’s too precarious to me, too easy to snag, too easy to have something go wrong with them. The biggest problem with the hard plastic Nalgene toiletry bottles is that thick liquid is a real pain to dispense. Things like liquid toner though, work fine (although the bottle mouths tend to be big so you have to be careful not to spill any).

    100 milliliters is actually huge. If you look in my photo of the array of toiletries, the largest tube there (the Neutrogena sunscreen) is a 3-ounce tube. It’s their REGULAR size tube, not even their travel sized one (that smaller version is standing in front of it in the “two types” photo).

    My philosophy is that one should never need to carry any bottle even remotely close to 100 ml. Most travel-sized sample bottles you buy are 2 ounces; the largest of the dropper bottles in my examples are 1 ounce, half of their size. No TSA agent, no matter how goonish, will question a 1-ounce bottle as being too big.

    A good rule of thumb is that if you have to take that much fluid with you, break them out into smaller containers, or just buy the same thing at your destination.

    In fact, a cheap bottle of White Rain will cost less than $2.00 — and you will have 16 ounces worth of liquid lather to last you for the whole trip.

    One consideration… leave the original labels on and leaving the volume information intact, and then either write over, or label over it with your own info, without covering the information. That would be one way to do it.

  4. I just discovered your site and am soaking up your tips. Where do you buy the transparent eye drop bottles? I’ve tried using google and haven’t been able to find them.

  5. Hi Vicki — Glad you’re enjoying the site!

    I realized after I wrote the post that I didn’t make it obvious where to buy them. I’ll try to come up with an addendum to my original post with a more full listing, but for now your best bet for the 1/2 ounce bottles is to buy them through Dharma Trading at http://www.dharmatrading.com. They sell fabric dyes and knitting supplies and such, and it turns out the eye dropper bottles are used for dying silk (using the resist method). Their prices are reasonable to boot. Just look for bottles at their Web site and just buy the regular dropper bottles. Don’t worry about purchasing “tips” separately; they are talking about the needle-small metal tips used for doing fabric dyes; the bottles come with the regular dropper dispenser cap inside the white outer cap. Enjoy!

  6. Love your site, very inspiring for a travel addict.

    I don’t know if you have Jordan in the US, but surely there is something similar. They have a GREAT solution for the tooth brush+toothpaste+airline problem.
    Couldn’t find it on their website jordan.no but I took a picture of mine along with another tip for saving space and weight in your carry-on: cleansing wipes (removes make-up and cleanses, and needn’t be in the zip-loc bag).


    The two-in-one paste and brush has a refill and it no larger than 8x2x2cm. Perfect for both travel, gym or handbag.


  7. I’ve been told that items need to be in their original bottles. That, depending on the TSA, items in these generic bottles will be taken…even if the ounces is clearly marked on the bottle. Have you found this to be true?

  8. Have you tried the excellent refillable squeeze tubes from Easy Traveller? (http://www.easytravelerinc.com/extrasqueezetubes.aspx) They aren’t cheap, but come with handy tools for filling. I discovered that a cheap plastic syringe of the sort that dentists give you for gum treatment (wish I could come up with a better description) is also excellent for filling these tubes. While Easy Traveller’s smallest tube is a hefty 1 1/2 oz., I know that smaller tubes exist as I’ve seen them at Tokyu Hands in Tokyo. Alas, I cannot find any source accessible from the US and Tokyu Hands (still) doesn’t have an on-line presence.

  9. Muji.com sell many small refillable bottles & tubes ideal for travel. They also sell adhesive contents labels
    Their 7030532 P.E 30g Tubes are ideal for liquids & gels as they are squeezy & the flip top seals well. They also have a larger 50ml version.
    Their 4.8ml pocket atomiser is perfect for scent.

  10. James — I love Muji, but do they actually have an online store at their Web site? I thought you could only shop from their retail store, which I believe is located in New York City. I meandered around their Web site but couldn’t find their catalog or any way to buy anything online.

  11. Lani,

    Sorry for the delay, been off for two weeks in Italy (though I am from England).

    Yes, the US website is rubbish. The muji.eu site is much better & they will deliver to the US.

    The site states the following (and checkout does have the US as a country to deliver to):

    We can only deliver orders within the UK, Europe, United States and Canada.

    Unfortunately we cannot accept American Express or Diners Club cards at the present time for Online payments.

  12. I thought I was brilliant when I stumbled across the eye dropper bottles at my local art supply shop and immediately thought “great for travel toiletries!” but I see you’ve beat me to it. They were much cheaper at the store: $1 CND each; I’d recommend calling a couple of art shops and see if they carry them. Unless they’re big-box chains, chances are they either carry them or would be interested in carrying them.

    I wouldn’t have thought of the waterproof labels; that’s a great idea.

  13. I have been a Flight Attendant for 21 years. I also like the idea of smaller containers, but would like to clarify a couple of things. Liquids do not have to be in their original containers, but the number of ounces should be imprinted in the plastic on the bottom of the bottle. Do not count on the “it is less than half an ounce, how can a TSA possibly think it is over the limit”. Although most will let it pass, their rules say that is should be on the bottle. I have had two bottles (1/2 ounce and 1 ounce) on two occasions taken away for lack of the imprint on the bottle. I would also caution that although most TSAs will allow the zipper “quart” , the TSA rules (and website http://www.tsa.gov/311/index.shtm) specify a “zip-top” bag. Yes, you can buy nice clear zippered bags for this purpose but TSA may not allow them.
    I would like to add that I like the waterproof labels. I also have colored bottles for quicker I.D>

  14. It was quite a great idea! Definitely want to thank you for the info you just provided. Just go on coming up with this kind of posts. I’ll stay your faithful subscriber. Thank you.

  15. Thanks for these great tips! I am truly a minimalist in travel and in my daily life. Good to know there are others out there. For shaving, you should try Kind Shave Oil (www.kindshaving.com). It comes in a 1/2 oz bottle and is awesome stuff. I have given up shaving creams and aftershaves all together. This stuff is all you need…

    Thanks again!

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