More on bottles (or eyedropper bottles, take 2)

Based on the blog comments and email I’m getting, there seems to be a lot of questions and concern about the use of bottles in carry-on luggage. Instead of having these hidden in email exchanges or buried in the blog comments I thought I’d revisit this topic again.

Kelle shared this experience:

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?

Nalgene water bottles are great, and even their smaller hard-plastic toiletry bottles can withstand a lot of abuse. I think they have a couple of features worth noting (both pro and con), including:

The hard plastic means you can’t squeeze them to press thick fluid out. So just like those old ketchup commercials that had you tapping the bottles repeatedly, expect a little frustration waiting for the thick conditioner to slowly travel its way down to the mouth.

They tend to have wide mouths, which makes transferring thicker fluids into them really easy. Be careful when you try to pour thinner liquids out, though, because you can easily glop out too much.

A small Nalgene bottle A smaller Nalgene bottle
A 2-ounce Nalgene bottle (left) and its smaller 1-ounce cousin on the right. [Photos from]

If you like regular Nalgene bottles for drinking water out of, you will really like the general look and feel of the small toiletry versions.

The Nalgene drop dispenser bottle, however, is a different matter altogether. Take a look:

Nalgene eye dropper
A Nalgene dropper bottle. [Photo from]

I’ve played with the dropper bottle, and unlike many others with a snap-top tip, this one actually snaps on pretty snug. That said, it’s still a snap-on, and I do not trust it one bit! I still say the screw-top dropper bottles with the separate dispenser tips are a much better bet. Kelle, for my buck I would still recommend the small eye dropper bottles I reviewed the other week.

Lynnette posted:

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?

This kind of goes with Kelle’s comments about her bottles having been confiscated. Now, it seems to me that there is one unwritten rule with the TSA, and that is:

Not all TSA agents are completely knowledgeable about the intricacies of the administration’s rules.

Some agents will take things literally, some agents will refuse to use common sense, some agents will try to come up with their own interpretation of the rules, and some will plain come up with their own application for the rules. Sucks, I know.

So with Kelle, it sounds like a TSA agent decided that—because her toiletry bottles didn’t have original labels on them showing net weight—the bottles would not be allowed in her carry-on, even though, according to Kelle, it was obvious that the bottles were smaller than 100ml. In Kelle’s case, there isn’t a whole lot you can do, because the TSA agent decided arbitrarily on his own that the bottles must have been larger than 3 ounces. [Had the bottles been 100 milileters, technically, it would not be 3 ounces, but 3.38140 ounces, and there is a very grey area because some TSA agents will allow that slight discrepancy while others will not.]

Lynnette wasn’t sure if the TSA would confiscate bottles simply because they were generic.

I’ve scoured the TSA Web site, and here are the exact words they use:

All liquids, gels and aerosols must be in three-ounce or smaller containers. Larger containers that are half-full or toothpaste tubes rolled up are not allowed. Each container must be three ounces or smaller.

Notice how exacting and particular the wording is. And this is the phraseology they use across the board, uniformly. And nowhere in that phrase does it state that liquids must be in their original container.

The thing is, you might run into a TSA agent who has had a bad day, who has irritated hemorrhoids, is itching to pick on a hapless traveler, or otherwise wanting to just impose his authority. The trick here is to use as small a bottle as you can. That means that it’s far better to carry two 1-ounce bottles of the same shampoo, than to carry a single 2-ounce bottle. Using this strategy also lets you toss the first bottle away when you’re done, lightening your load. Even better? Just take one 1-ounce bottle. Don’t bother with the second. Better than that? Consider foregoing altogether and buying shampoo at your destination, or purchase a bar of shampoo from stores like Lush and avoid this altogether.

Personally, I’m now down to using nothing larger than a 1-ounce bottle. For a lot of things like toothpaste, I don’t even take that much with me, remembering that I can always buy more stuff when I get to my destination.


  1. There are 2 things you can do to protect yourself against overzealous TSA people:
    1) Go to the TSA site and print out a copy of the rules.
    2) If (1) doesn’t work, then ask to speak to the agents supervisor.

    Not 100% I know, but these guys don’t have the right to arbitrarily make up the rules as they go along. As agents of the US government they need to be accountable too!

  2. Regarding Cindy’s comment:

    When I challenged (tactfully) one TSA rep’s interpretation of the rules his response was, “Our policy is to have no fixed policy.” In other words, to hell with rules, a good TSA man does whatever he wants to stay a step ahead of evildoers.


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