Skincare 113: Product Shelf Life

We all buy skincare products we don’t end up using as often as we had originally intended. Maybe that moisturizer you’ve just bought isn’t rich enough, or you can’t help buying a new exfoliate even if you already have a few you haven’t finished yet, or you ended purchasing too many products at a sale and now have forgotten one or two of them in a drawer…

And when you finally decide to use them again, you are worried that, after so much time, they won’t be good anymore. Skincare products, just like makeup and food, can expire too and, when they do, not only they became ineffective, but they could also harbor bacteria that will cause an infection. So, how can you figure out if they are still safe to use?

In most countries, only over-the-counter drugs, such as sunscreens and anti-acne treatments, are required to have their expiration date printed on the packaging. In the European Union, instead, all cosmetic and skincare products need to display the PAO (Period After Opening) symbol both on the product container and on the box. This symbol is simply an open jar with a number followed by the letter M, which indicates for how many months the product will last once it has been opened. Products that last 30 months or slightly less, instead, are only required to display a “best before” date.

Samples and hair dyes, products in packs such as aerosols that have no contact with the air, and very long-lasting products which do not deteriorate over time don’t need to display the PAO symbol either. However useful both the PAO and “best before” dates are, it’s important to note that they don’t take into consideration how the product is stored and used by the consumers. If a product has been exposed to heat, light or bacteria for instance, it will lose its effectiveness and go bad sooner. Not to mention that, unless you use a product daily, you may not remember when you first opened it and the PAO symbol won’t be of any use to you anyway.

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Rough skincare products expiration dates
As mentioned above, how long a skincare product lasts also depends on how it is stored and used, so the following expiration dates should be taken as general guides rather than exact indications:

Face and eye moisturizers: a simple, basic moisturizer that doesn’t contain any antioxidants, retinoids or sunscreen ingredients, and is packaged in an opaque tube or bottle, can last up to 18 months.

Creams and serums with antioxidants and retinoids: these ingredients can oxidize (i.e. lose their effectiveness) when exposed to light and air so, when packaged in a jar, they will last only for a month or so. If packaged in an opaque tube or bottle, their shelf-life can extend up to 9 months. After that time, your cream may still be good but only as a regular moisturizer with no anti-aging properties whatsoever.

Sunscreens: sunscreen ingredients too can deteriorate when exposed to light and air, so only buy those who come in opaque tubes and bottles. They usually last about a year, but some organic sunscreens can last for two, so make sure you check the label.

Organic products: organic products with weak or no preservative systems are more prone to bacteria contamination and only last up to 4-6 months, so use them quickly.

Anti-aging and acne treatments:Three months to a year. Antioxidants are easily oxidized, so be on the lookout for any changes in color.

5 signs your skincare product has gone bad
Because these rules are general and depend on different factors, it’s up to you to make the final call as to when a product has gone bad. How? By spotting any difference in how it looks and smells:

1. Has the product changed colour?: skincare products are sensitive to light. If it has taken on a yellowish or brown colour, it’s time to toss it.

2. Does it smell differently?: if it has a rancid, foul or just weird scent, throw it away.

3. Has it separated into two layers?: once the product has separated into two layers, you can’t simply shake them back together. You’ll have to throw it out.

4. Is the texture different?: if the consistency has become runny, lumpy, too thick or has changed in any way, then the product isn’t good anymore.

5. Black spots have appeared?: if you notice any black, fuzzy spots, then your product is very likely contaminated with bacteria and you should throw it in the bin straight away. If you use it, you’ll risk an infection.
How to make your skincare products last longer

1. Store your products away from light and heat: active ingredients such as antioxidants, retinoids and sunscreen agents deteriorate when exposed to light and heat. To make sure they remain effective for as long as possible, store them in a cool place away from light and heat, such as a drawer, a cabinet or even the fridge (especially if it’s a product you don’t use too often). For the same reason, it’s best to buy products packaged in opaque and air-tight tubes and bottles that will prevent light, heat and air, to get in contact with what’s inside.

2. Write the purchase date on the product: it’s a good habit, whenever you buy a new skincare product, to write with a marker the purchase date on the packaging. Provided that the product is stored carefully, this will help you determine how long it can last.

3. Fingers off: it’s always best to avoid products packaged in a jar but, if you really want to use them, pick them up with a spatula to avoid transferring any bacteria that’s on your hands onto the cream. If a product has a good preservative system the bacteria that manages to get inside the jar will be killed, but it’s best not to risk it anyway.

Do you throw away skincare products past their expiration dates or do you wait until you notice some change in them?

*Article in part from

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