When Should I Throw Out a Product?

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Have you ever wondered how long your skin-care and makeup products remain safe to use once they've been opened? Find out how to tell if a product has expired, because even good products can go bad!

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It's Hard to Say Goodbye

We all have beauty products in the backs of drawers or at the bottom of makeup bags we know should be thrown out. So what stops us? Perhaps we feel like we're wasting money or that we might need that product one day or maybe, just maybe, it will come back in fashion. Unfortunately, keeping old products around is a gamble. Preservatives in products only last so long after opening, and the stability of ingredients have a shelf life as well. The trouble is, aside from products that are over-the-counter drugs such as sunscreens and anti-acne medicines, there are no expiration dates on product packaging nor are there any requirements for them to be there (except for products sold in the European Union [EU], but I'll get to that in a moment). So it's left up to consumers to know when it's time to say goodbye to old products yet often we just can't let go. However, it's time to toughen up and toss away products that have long passed their prime.

Lack of Expiration Legislation

It may surprise you, but in the United States there are no FDA regulations for the expiration date for skin-care or makeup products. While there are no regulations for expiration dates in the EU either, there is a system of sorts to give consumers an idea of how long the product should be kept after opening. On products sold in Europe, a number followed by an M and an open jar 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 12M with an open jar symbol means you should throw the product out 12 months after you've opened it. In the EU this is commonly known as the Period After Opening (PAO) date.

The Missing Pieces

While the PAO dating system is useful to an extent, it ends up being empty legislation because how that time period is determined as to when to throw the product away is completely random. That's right: PAO dates are generated without testing or regulated guidelines! More critical, the PAO date doesn't take into account how the consumer uses the product or how it is stored. The fact is that once opened, your product's clock is ticking because the more it's exposed to light, air, and bacteria, the more quickly it will degrade. But if the products don't have to be tested to determine the PAO, you also risk throwing out perfectly good products!

Solving the Guessing Game

Since government regulations are inconsistent (and, in this case, relatively nonexistent), it's ultimately up to consumers to make the call as to when a product has expired. Luckily, the basics of determining this are somewhat intuitive. If a product seems unusually discolored, runny or lumpy, has separated, has a strange odor, or feels different on the skin, then it should absolutely be thrown away. Packaging that has expanded 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 are products that are mostly waxes with minimal water, but that also contain plant extracts. Think about how long produce lasts in your refrigerator—not very long! 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.

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:

  1. Mascara, liquid  or gel eyeliners: 4 to 6 months (always toss out dry mascara—never add water to extend its life)
  2. Moisturizers, Serums, & Foundations: 6 months to 1 year
  3. Powder-based products: 2-3 years
  4. Lipsticks, Lip Gloss, & Lip Pencils: 2-3 years

And remember: If it smells funky, looks gunky or the texture has changed significantly—definitely toss it out!

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 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
  • 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 buy products packaged in jars of any kind (no matter how pretty they are!) because fingers getting into jars add unwanted bacteria to the contents. Most jar packaging carries a 100% risk of bacterial contamination.  
  • DON'T store products in direct sunlight
  • 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 purchase products with broken seals or other signs of tampering

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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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