When to Toss Out Beauty Products

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We’ve all been there. You really love that discontinued eyeshadow or just can’t bear to toss that two-year old skincare product you’re certain you’ll use again. Someday, right? Probably not! Know when to let go—if you’re hanging on to your skincare or makeup past its expiration date, chances are microbes and bacteria have taken their toll and might be causing skin problems you’re trying to solve!

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When Good Products Go Bad

It may seem harmless, but expired beauty products can carry a range of bacterial baddies. A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science evaluated the makeup routines and habits of 44 women (ages 18 to 28), and the results were more than a little cringe-worthy. 70% of women in the study used some type of expired product—mostly eye makeup (mascara, eyeliner, eye shadow).

The researchers sampled the eye makeup for contamination, and found that 67% contained potentially harmful levels of microorganisms (including Staphylococcus corynebacterium and Moraxella, all common in bacterial skin infections).

Here is what you need to know on the shelf life of your favorite makeup and skincare products, and how to spot those that are past their prime.

All Beauty Products Expire

Whether moisturizer or mascara, preservatives in products only last so long after opening, and the stability of ingredients have a shelf life as well. The tricky thing is that only products regulated as over-the-counter drugs (i.e. sunscreens and anti-acne treatments) have official expiration dates stamped or printed on their packaging. The average beauty product’s expiration date depends on when you first use them and how the product is packaged and stored.

Using a product beyond its expiration date risks irritation, rashes, blemishes and various skin or eye infections. Yuck. Keep reading for tips on what to look for to assure you’re using your products within the timeframe of their “best by” date!

PAO = Period After Opening

The PAO symbol (a number followed by an M and an open jar symbol) was born in Europe and should be sported on any skincare or makeup product sold there—including U.S.-based brands that are sold throughout Europe. Although not a 100% sure bet, the PAO symbol tells you when to throw a product away after opening.

The letter M stands for the Latin word for month and the number refers to how many months. So, a “12M” with an open jar symbol means you should throw the product out 12 months after you've opened it. This is commonly known as the Period After Opening (PAO) date.

How to Spot a Beauty Product Gone Funky

If a product seems unusually discolored, runny or lumpy, has separated or developed a strange odor, or feels different on the skin than it once did, then throw it away.

Packaging that has expanded, warped, or has signs of deterioration is definitely a warning that something is wrong inside. A product doesn't have to be old to have gone bad or have been exposed to bacteria, so you should always pay attention to how your products are holding up every time you use them.

As a rule, products that contain water as one of the first ingredients have the shortest shelf life after opening because water encourages the growth of bacteria and other microbes. Also susceptible to bacterial contamination and breakdown from exposure to air are products that that contain plant extracts, whether pure extracts or “plant tea”, where the extracts are stepped in water. Just think how long fresh fruit lasts on your kitchen counter!

Products made up of almost no water (such as powders) last the longest, because almost nothing can grow in these kinds of products. Lastly, if your product is labeled "preservative-free" you should definitely take extra caution, because without some kind of preservative system bacteria can flourish easily.

At this time there are no natural preservatives (like grapefruit or tea tree) that can protect any product against a broad range of pathogens. We know it seems safer to preserve a product with natural ingredients, but they’re simply not as effective as synthetic alternatives.

Though products vary greatly, as do the conditions of consumer usage and storage, the following is a helpful guide for assessing what needs to go or how long it has left.

Makeup

  • Mascara (regular or waterproof), liquid or gel eyeliners: 4 to 6 months (always toss out dry mascara—never add water to extend its life)
  • Cream, Liquid or Stick Foundations: 6 months to 1 year
  • Powder-based products (including mineral makeup): 2-3 years
  • Lipsticks, Lip Gloss, & Lip Pencils: 2-3 years

Skincare

  • Cleansers: 1 year
  • Toners: 6 months to 1 year
  • BHA or AHA Exfoliants: 1 year
  • Facial or Body Moisturizers and Serums: 6 months to 1 year
  • Lip Balms: 1 year
  • Sample Packets: 1 day (no, really, one day)

Remember: If it smells funky, looks gunky or the texture has changed significantly—definitely toss it out! Watch (or sniff) for any new odors, as smell is one of the first qualities to change when a formula has expired.

The Dos & Don’ts of Making Your Products Last

Here are some easy tips for prolonging the shelf life of your products, while keeping your skin and body as healthy as possible.

DO:

  • DO store products in a cabinet or drawer
  • DO wash your hands before using products
  • DO tighten/secure the cap after each use
  • DO consider how climate and humidity will shorten a product's shelf life
  • DO write the date of purchase in permanent ink (use a Sharpie) on the bottom or back of the package (this can be even more helpful than relying on the PAO date)
  • DO toss out eye products after you've had an eye infection
  • DO abide by the expiration dates on sunscreens, acne products, and prescription medications such as topical antibiotics and Renova or Retin-A

DON’T:

  • DON'T buy products packaged in jars of any kind. Jar packaging carries a 100% risk of bacterial contamination due to the fact your sticking fingers or other objects into them.
  • DON’T store your products in the refrigerator. Skincare formulas are designed to withstand the average fluctuations in temperature, but not long-term heat or cold storage—that means keeping your products in your fridge reduces their lifespan and stability.
  • DON'T store products in direct sunlight (for example, don’t keep them on a sunny windowsill)
  • DON'T share your products with others
  • DON'T add water or saliva to thin out or remoisten products
  • DON'T "pump" your mascara
  • DON’T forget to clean the cap or lid if you drop it on the floor. Use soap and water or rubbing alcohol and dry thoroughly before replacing.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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