Save or toss? What really happens when a beauty product expires

As a compulsive beauty product hoarder (1,083 lipsticks and 479 perfumes at last count – so not kidding!), I am constantly faced with the battle between throwing out expired products (but that eyeshadow palette is sooooooooo pretty!!!!!!!) and not wanting to literally hurt my skin.

Confession: The former have once too often won over the latter, the lure of an expensive moisturiser that was left in the cupboard for a year too long winning over the potential ramifications of subjecting my skin to an expired product. Because honestly, which one of us hasn’t thought that throwing away a half full tube of mascara after three months is a bit too extreme? That lipsticks don’t expire… they just gently fade away, with no repercussions for our skin? And our health? That it’s all a marketing gimmick on the part of beauty brands to just make us buy more and more products in place of our perfectly fine ones?

Unfortunately, this is the equivalent of shoving your head in the sand, ostrich-style. Because all beauty products expire and using one that’s gone bad is doing some pretty serious damage to your skin. Which is something I learnt after a nasty set of breakouts on my forehead that simply wouldn’t go away. The culprit, as discovered by my dermatologist? A setting powder well past it’s date.

And that’s what led me to research this subject further. Exactly what happens when a beauty product expires? Why is it that old mascara is actually toxic and why you need to buy a new tube of sunscreen every year?

First… reading the label

Unfortunately, most cosmetics don’t come with an expiry date printed on the label – all due to lack of regulation on the subject. What you may find is something called Period After Opening (PAO) date, which is usually indicated by the illustration of a jar with a number written in it. So, a jar with “12” or “12M”, would mean the product is good for 12 months after opening.

I usually just jot down the date I bought the product as well as the date I opened it on the container itself, with a sharpie. If you want to be more sophisticated, look at Timestrips.

Also check the list of ingredients – if the first ingredient listed is water, understand that the product will have a short shelf life as this particular element encourages bacteria to grow the fastest. Organic and preservative-free products are also prone to short lives, as they have no protection against contaminants.

And when in doubt, err on the side of caution, since you really don’t know for how long the product was sitting in the warehouse before you even brought it home!

Case in point: The International Journal of Cosmetic Science published a study in 2013, which revealed that 70% women use at least one expired beauty product, especially eye makeup. And that a whopping 67% of this eye makeup was contaminated. Time, seriously, to rethink our beauty habits.

Moisturizers and eye creams: Nine months to one year

The longevity of creamy skincare formulations – whether moisturizers or eye creams – depends on their packaging. Pump bottles, ampoules or any kind of dispenser in which the product is not exposed to air or your hands will last up to one year. Jars, however, usually last for only 6-9 months. That’s because your hands can contaminate the product with bacteria, while exposure to air and sunlight makes it degrade faster.

In either case, moisturizers and eye creams start degrading and undergoing chemical changes past the one year mark. This happens in different ways: Ingredients like vitamin C and hydroquinone start losing their potency, while others like glycolic acid and retinol actually become more concentrated over time. The former means products lose their efficacy, and the latter leads to skin irritation. Plus, oil-based creams may become rancid, which will further inflame the skin.

Sunscreen: One year

Sunscreens are actually regulated by the FDA and usually come with a prescribed expiration date of one year. After that, the active ingredients start to break down, making the SPF weaker. The formula also starts becoming unstable when exposed to heat and the active ingredients become unequally distributed in the base – so, while with one pump you may get enough SPF, with another you may get none.

beauty-expiry-dateAnti-acne products: Six months

Most acne products are centred on salicylic acid and Benzoyl peroxide, which break down and lose their potency very quickly. Worse, they break down into other chemicals that can irritate and harm the skin.

Retinoid creams: Nine months

Vitamin A is another product that breaks down pretty rapidly, so you need to use it up within the year. Faster if its not packed in an opaque tube as exposure to light and air accelerates the process.

Grainy exfoliators: Two years

Scrubs of the grainy kind are a hardy lot but they are still prone to breeding bacteria that are passed on from your fingers. So, avoid contaminating the tub with dirty fingers and you’re pretty much set for a while.

Peels and masks: Three months

Peels and non-grainy masks, on the other hand, are creatures with short lives. Especially if they are anchored by fruit and glycolic acids. That’s because the buffering agents start evaporating after a while, making the acids more potent. Cue: Skin irritation and burns.

Soap: 18 months to three years

Yes, soap expires. And how fast it expires depends on the formulation. Commercial non-organic soap bars can usually last for about three years, given the added synthetic ingredients and preservatives. However, these very same synthetic ingredients and preservatives will change their chemical composition over time, leaving them skin-unfriendly. Organic, handmade soaps, on the other hand, usually contain high amounts of fat and no chemical preservatives. The fats start breaking down and becoming rancid, giving them a shelf life of 18-24 months. And once you add things such as flowers, fruits, herbs and essential oils, the longevity reduces even further as these organic ingredients decay pretty fast.

Bath oils and shower gels: Two years

Loaded as they are with oils, botanicals and other natural ingredients, bath oils and shower gels are prone to oxidation, which causes chemical changes in the formula. Over time, the consistency also changes, making the oils and water separate. Result: Not so effective, not so pretty.

Loofas and bath sponges: Three weeks for loofas, six weeks for sponges

According to dermatologists, loofahs and sponges are responsible for some of the worst skin infections they see on a regular basis. Loofahs contain proteins and carbohydrates, which become a feeding ground for bacteria. Both loofahs and sponges are also riddled with tiny holes that trap dead skin and harbour bacteria and molds when moist. So, air dry them thoroughly in between uses and toss out in a maximum of 3-6 weeks. Less if you notice any funkiness.

Shampoos and conditioners: Two years

Once water and air start getting into the bottles – as they invariably do – the formula starts breaking down or separating.

expired-beauty-productsDeodorant: Three years

Deodorants are usually loaded with anti-bacterial ingredients and come in an aerosol can, which limits the risk of contamination, so they run foul more slowly.

Liquid foundation and concealer: One year

With time, liquid makeup starts thickening and separating, making for a patchy finish. It also starts changing colour due to oxidation, all of which explains why old foundation does not sit as well on your complexion as a fresh one.

Eyeshadows, blush and other powder-based makeup: Three years

As long as you’re not touching powder-based makeup with dirty hands or brushes, it runs a lower risk of feeding bacteria as there is no water to aid their growth. However, with time, they start drying out, crumbling and become clumpy, making application difficult. Some also contain botanical ingredients, like aloe or essential oils, and these can harbour infections. So, keep an eye out for any kind of growth or change in consistency and toss out immediately if that happens.

Lipsticks and lip glosses: Two years

Lipsticks are loaded with wax, water and emollients, which literally draw in bacteria and become mini-reservoirs of infections. They also contain oils that go rancid with time. Plus, they start drying out as the water evaporates, causing a drag on lips, rather than the creamy or glossy effect you’re seeking.

PS: If you’ve had a cold sore, any lip products you use at the time have to go immediately. Apologies!

Lip and eye pencils: Three to five years

Pencils usually go very close to mucous membranes, thereby increasing the chances of both picking up bacteria and transmitting them back to your eyes and lips. However, every time you sharpen them, it gets rid of the contaminated layers and reveals a fresh, clean one. This extends their shelf life. Only caveat: Regularly sanitise your sharpener and toss out the pencil immediately if you have any cold sores or eye infections.

PS: Self-sharpening pencils don’t have the same benefits and need to be tossed out after 3-6 months.

Mascara and liquid eye liner: Three months

Wet cosmetics such as mascaras and liquid eye liners, which are packed in dark, narrow containers, are literally a petri dish for bacteria – and you’re going to use them next to your eyes! Plus, every time you pump the wand, it pushes air into the formula, drying it out and making for not-so-smooth application.

Nail polish: Two years

The formula will start separating, becoming stringy or gooey. This will start happening sooner if the nail polish is exposed to heat and humidity.

perfume-expiryPerfumes: 3 years to infinity

Do perfumes actually expire? Yes, they do. However, they don’t have a fixed expiry date and their longevity depends on a lot of factors – much like fine wine. Which is why some perfumes go “off” in a couple of years, while others are good for a couple of decades (my mother’s Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps, housed in the original crystal bottle and stored at the back of a very cool, very dark cupboard, smells great after 17 years!). That’s because alcohol is the perfect preservative. However, the ingredients inevitably do start oxidising and breaking down when exposed to the environment. Perfumes with heavy base notes, like woods and musks, last longer than light citrus or florals, which evaporate more quickly. Again, perfumes with a higher alcohol content last longer.

Next, comes the way you store your perfumes. Sunlight, heat and humidity are mortal enemies of fragrance, leading to chemical changes that alter the scent. When this happens, you will notice that the perfume starts changing colour – becoming darker or going milky – and starts smelling more like alcohol than a fragrance. The best way to increase your perfume’s shelf life is by storing them in a cool, dry place, like a drawer or wardrobe.

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