How Long Does Makeup & Skincare Really Last?
Try as we might to stop time from passing, the old adage remains true: nothing lasts forever. Why can’t our favorite skincare & beauty products be exempt?
This was a situation that I recently encountered when I hit the “deep-cleaning bonanza” phase of 2020.
As I gazed over at the small stack of half-used cosmetics and cleansers in my “toss” pile, I began to second guess myself: after all, do skincare and make-up products ~truly~ expire? Can’t I keep this one bottle, just to be safe, despite the fact that it’s been untouched & dusty since New Years Eve ‘18?? The answer is, sadly, no, and after some lamenting I went on a mission to find out why.
Using Expired Skin Care Products
While parting with unfinished cosmetics may feel wasteful, or even counterproductive, rest assured: it’s 100% the better choice. Much like food becomes moldy & inedible over time, a product’s potency weakens from the moment it’s opened, so using expired skin care products won’t do you many favors.
Also, longstanding bacteria buildup can contribute to angry skin moods, like irritation, redness, infection and breakouts. Keeping tabs on your shelf space is essential for maintaining the integrity of not just your cosmetic’s capabilities, but also your healthy skin as well.
I mean, sure - creating a shrine of unopened jars & serums meant to be seen, not touched is one possible solution (if you think that I didn’t seriously consider this, you’re wrong - it’s been a weird year).
Luckily, I have better news for you: there are way more practical, tangible ways to help promote peak performance in your products. In fact, the secret to longevity can be found in a few key areas: expiration date, ingredients, packaging, and storage.
Here to help make the inevitable keep-or-toss decision a bit more straightforward, I’ve compiled a breakdown below of each key area and explained how to work with, not against them to get the most out of your skincare & beauty essentials.
Looking for an expiration date is, obviously, the first step most people take when assessing whether something is still “good” or not. By law, the FDA does not require cosmetics to include an expiration date (1), but thankfully many companies do so anyway. The PAO, or “Period After Opening” symbol found on over-the-counter beauty products, was created for this exact purpose.
Appearing as a small jar image on the back of your product, the Period After Opening symbol includes a number (6, 12, 24, etc.) plus the letter “M”, which indicates how many months after opening your product will expire. Here’s an example for reference:
In the above image, “12M” means the product expires 12 months after opening. Yep, it’s really that straightforward! From there, figuring out the shelf life is simple - just count up the number of months listed, starting from the day you opened the product, and VOILA! You have your expiration date.
Sounds easy enough, right? Not quite. You see, sometimes we forget to check for the Period After Opening symbol at the time of purchase, and sometimes by the time we look at it we don’t even remember when exactly we bought the product in question, and… Oops. In this case, these symbols don’t help you much.
As if relying on memory isn’t hard enough, sometimes the expiration date is stamped on the discardable, outside packaging. You know - the one that usually gets tossed right away, never to be seen again? Thanks for trying though, I guess...
In that case, check out these simple solutions that require minimal effort on your part, but help a ton:
- Label your skincare & beauty products with a permanent marker AS SOON AS YOU OPEN THEM, noting the expiration date/year using the Period After Opening symbol. This way you’ll have a reminder every time you apply. Yes, you’ll still need to remember to do this upon purchase, but a sticky note reminder on your mirror could help jog your memory!
- No Period After Opening label to reference? Instead, check for a “Best By” date. If that’s not available and your product is unopened/sealed, it should last for about 2-3 years from the manufacturing date (2). However, it’s worth noting that ingredients play a big role in calculating the expiration (don’t worry, we’ll cover that next). If the unmarked product is open, try to keep tabs on any noticeable changes in consistency/color/scent. If the product has changed color, becomes separated, smells weird, or performs differently/has adverse effects on your skin, it’s usually a clear sign that it’s on its last leg.
I don’t blame you - the facts are a little... all over the place. Instead, you can use this quick guide (2) to keep track of the expiration of your more commonly used beauty essentials:
Lipstick: 18-24 months
Lip Gloss: 12-18 months
Foundation/Concealer: 12-18 months
Mascara: 3-6 months
Liquid Eyeliner: 3-6 months
Cream Products: 12-18 months
Powder Products: 12-18 months
Moisturizer: 6-12 months
Eye Cream: 6-12 months
Face Oil: 12 months
*all dates are upon opening.
Remember, though: no matter when these products are ~estimated~ to expire, if any of them change in consistency, color, scent or performance: TOSS! 🗑️
Although the expiration guidelines above can help to decipher if a product’s gone bad, understanding what’s actually inside of your personal care helps, too.
For example: using natural creams & serums can be great for an eco-boost, but not so great for longevity, as they tend to lack certain preservatives found in mainstream cosmetics which makes them more susceptible to decay. As a good rule of thumb, always pay extra attention to the scent and consistency of your more natural go-to’s. Any funkiness should be taken seriously, so if there’s any question, throw it out!
You’ll need to be especially vigilant if your product consists of unstable compounds, like vitamin C (ascorbic acid) or hyaluronic acid, commonly found in products that combat the premature signs of aging (2). These may have already begun to lose efficacy on the shelf prior to your purchase due to many reasons: light exposure, temperature changes in the store, or improper handling when shipping from the manufacturer, to name a few.
Water, although it sounds like a harmless ingredient and is common amongst most personal care products, can even be troublesome. While its effects are non-existent to you, inside it creates a hotbed for bacteria from interacting with dirty fingers and oxygen in the air, which eventually creates mold. Some dermatologists even suggest opting for oil-based products instead when looking for extended use, as they create less of a germ-y environment.
Besides aesthetic and brand loyalty, most people probably aren’t looking at the type of packaging used on their preferred cosmetics. However, paying attention to this one small detail can help you better understand how well your products will fare once at home.
Remember that bacteria buildup we talked about? Packaging plays a key role in creating the perfect environment for it to grow, with wide open jars and bottles being the worst culprit of them all since they are exposed to air the most and are big enough for us to dunk our fingers in (tip: wash your hands before using a jar, clean your applicators, or you can swap in a makeup spatula for extraction).
If you can, choose packaging that includes a one-way air pump (meaning product comes out, but the pump will block anything from going in) or smaller dispenser holes which can help prevent germs from entering.
Glass is a popular option for packaging, as it blocks any potential moisture from seeping through. Airtight seals on glass bottles are the best defense against oxygen exposure as well. When the ingredients inside are fragile, like with natural products, a dark or clouded glass is suitable for combatting harsh UV light which can break down the formula inside. Lastly, plastic is widely used, but beware of its absorption qualities which can alter the product within.
Of course, realistically speaking you can’t always avoid how your personal care items are packaged, but it’s worth taking a second look at the container they come in as a hint to how quickly they might expire. Check the product ingredients to see if the packaging may shorten its lifespan.
Although keeping skincare products in the fridge is widely circulated as a “must” within the beauty community, I’m here to tell you that it's definitely NOT a one size fits all situation.
Before you impulse buy a mini-fridge for your skincare storage, check this out: Unless the product contains natural preservatives OR explicitly states refrigeration is required, there is little to no scientific data to suggest that refrigeration will increase longevity or performance of your products.
Refrigerating can even damage the chemical makeup of certain cosmetics, causing premature separation or weakened effects from subzero temps. Don’t think too hard on this one, though - many companies simply state on the label if their product is best served chilled.
For the rest of your arsenal, maintaining freshness means keeping everything in a stable, even-temp environment and avoiding steamy or warm climates, like the bathroom - while convenient for a quick touch-up, it’s prime real estate for harmful bacteria to grow, so it’s best to avoid if you want your product to last. Instead, a nearby hall closet or a desk drawer/compartment in your bedroom is cool, dark and dry enough for your favorites to thrive.
Nelly Furtado said it best: “why do all good things come to an end?”. While chucking a bottle of costly skincare or makeup in the trash isn’t the greatest feeling (especially in the middle of an economic crisis), knowing when to call it quits is a key aspect of maintaining any healthy skincare ritual. All it takes is a little reorganization, knowledge, and consistency - you got this, Mirra mavens! 💪
Written by: Adrianne Neal