When Do Skincare Products Expire? – Beautiful With Brains

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Do your skincare products expire? Sure, nothing lasts forever. But how long do your lotions and potions last – especially when you haven’t even opened the bottle yet? 🤔

I’m a skincare magpie. Always looking for the next big thing. And when I find it, the old one gets unceremoniously dumped into a drawer. But, after a while, I start to feel the guilt gnawing at me. It’s not like I am emotionally attached to a serum or anything like that (gosh, that would be weird!). It’s just that I hate waste.

Skincare products aren’t like an old book you can set aside, pick up years later, and still get a lot out of it. They’re more like milk. Wait a little too long to finish it, it’ll go bad. Best case scenario, its active ingredients stop working. You may just as well be splashing water all over your face. Worst case scenario, bacteria will wave you hello when you open that jar. Ewww!

So, how you can figure out if a skincare product has expired and it’s time to toss it away? Here’s how to tell if a skincare product has gone bad and the expiration dates of your skincare products, so you know exactly how long you have to finish that new moisturiser or serum you’ve just opened:

Do Skincare Products Have Expiration Date

Yes, just like milk or medication, skincare products have their own expiration dates too. But, unlike food and medication, very often skincare products don’t display the expiration date on the packaging. Bummer! But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to know…

If you’re a fellow European, you’ve probably noticed that most of your skincare products feature a little open jar with a number followed by the letter M either on their bottles/jars or their boxes. That’s the PAO (Period After Opening) symbol. The letter M stands for months and the number for the number of months the product is good after opening. So, for example, if you’re using a cream with 12 M stamped on its tube, it means you have a year to use it before it expires.

But, there’s an exception: any product that lasts 30 months or slightly less doesn’t need to display the PAO symbol. Instead, it’s only required to have a “best before” date. In the USA, things are different. There, only OTC drugs (such as sunscreens and anti-acne treatments) are required to show their expiration date on the packaging.

Having the expiration date printed on the packaging is very useful. But, not enough. PAO and “best before dates” don’t take into consideration how the products are stored once we bring them home from the shops. Your brand new sunscreen may have a PAO of one year, but if you keep forgetting it in your car during the blazing hot summer months, it may not survive the week!

Related: What’s The Difference Between A Cosmetic And A Drug?


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When Do Skincare Products Expire?

If you’ve bought a product with no expiration date on the packaging, how can you tell when it’s time to toss it? While there are no hard rules, there are some general guidelines to follow. They’re especially useful if you decide to follow Dr Chopra’s tip and write the open date on your bottles and jars (actually, you shouldn’t be using products in jars, but that’s a whole new article).

P.S. Same limitations apply. If you don’t store your skincare products properly, they’ll go bad a lot sooner. Use these guidelines as rough guidelines, not hard rules. Having said that, when in doubt, toss it out.

Face + Eye Moisturisers: 1 Year

A simple, basic moisturizer without antioxidants, retinoids or sunscreen ingredients (you know, all that good anti-aging stuff) can last up to a year. The reason is simple: none of the ingredients in these simple concoctions are light-sensitive or degrade when exposed to air. They stay stable in most storage conditions, so you can enjoy them for a long time.

Related: How Anti-Aging Creams Really Work

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Creams + Serums With Antioxidants And Retinoids: 1 To 9 Months

Antioxidants and retinoids can oxidize (ie lose their effectiveness) when exposed to light and air. How long they last depends on how they’re stored:

  • When packaged in a jar: The ficklest antioxidant, L-Ascorbic Acid, is effective for only a month or two – and that’s often from when they’re made. I’ve been given Vitamin C samples that were already a dark orange (the colour of death for Vitamin C!). Other antioxidants can last longer if you close that lid quickly. Still, the sooner you use them, the better.
  • When packaged in an opaque tube or bottle: They’re effective for up to 9 months (for L-Ascorbic Acid, again, that applies from when the product was made, not opened. If the product contains water, it lasts a lot less even if packaged in a tube).

After that time has passed, you can still use the cream for a few more months. But it’ll only moisturize your skin. All its anti-aging properties have evaporated into thin air.

Related: Why You Should Avoid Retinoids Packaged In Jars

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Sunscreen: 1 Year

Sunscreen is the most important product in your skincare routine. It prevents 90% of premature aging as well as sunburns and skin cancer. Using an expire sunscreen is a no-no. You’re leaving your skin completely exposed to all kinds of damage. Just like antioxidants, UV filters stop working overtime, too. That’s why your sunscreen is usually good only for one year. That old bottle leftover from last summer? Ditch it. This is a case when it’s better to be safe than sorry. Plus, you should be using sunscreen all year long, so why do you still have a bottle from last summer?!

Related: Can You Still Use Expired Sunscreen?

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Organic & Natural Products: 4-6 Months To Years

Organic products are very delicate. They usually have very weak or, worse, no preservative systems, so they are more prone to bacteria contamination. Use them within 4-6 months. They may still work after that, but you’re at risk of bacteria contamination and the infections they bring. Ewww! Oils are the exception. Bacteria thrive in humid environments. Oils don’t have a drop of water, so they can last for years.

“Products with natural ingredients and those that are preservative-free spoil faster than those that aren’t,” says Dr. Chopra. “Broad-spectrum preservatives help prevent the growth of bacteria and yeasts. These products can be hotbeds for organisms to grow, so be particularly careful with these.”

Related: What Are The Best Organic Skincare Products?

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How To Tell If Your Skincare Products Have Expired

Now you know roughly how long a skincare product lasts before it expires. But they’re general guidelines, not hard rules. Your precious skincare products may have gone bad before then… How can you tell if that has happened? “If the product has been open for a while, starts to change color or texture, separates, develops an odor, or moldy I recommend tossing the product,” Dr. Chopra says. Here are the 5 tell-tale signs that tell you a skincare product has expired:

1. Has It Changed Colour?

Skincare products are sensitive to light. If it has taken on a yellowish or brown colour, it’s time to toss it. This is particularly true for L-Ascorbic Acid, the pure form of Vitamin C. It’s perfectly normal for Vitamin C to be a light yellow. But if it turns a dark orange or, worse, brown, it’s way past its due date. Keep an eye on it and, if you see it starting to change colour, use it immediately. FYI, using a dark orange Vitamin C serum won’t hurt your skin – but it won’t benefit it there. The darker the colour, the more Vitamin C has lost its effectiveness. Use it up quickly!

Related: My Vitamin C Has Turned Brown. Can I Still Use It?

2. Does It Smell Differently?

If it has a rancid, foul or just weird scent, throw it away. This isn’t any different from food, really. Fragranced products should keep their scent. Fragrance-free products either have a neutral scent or often smell a little bad to begin with (truth is, some of the best anti-aging ingredients have a foul smell…). Just keep your nose on it and if you notice any changes in smell, throw the product out.

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. Here’s what’s going on. If you’ve ever tried to wash a greasy pan with water alone, you know that water and oils don’t mix. In order for your skincare products to have their smooth consistency, a product needs emulsifier. That’s a fancy word for ingredients that help water and oils mix together seamlessly. When they go bad, your product starts separating. It’s a tell-take sign it’s gone bad.

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. Your skincare products don’t magically change texture and consistency on its own. If it has changed, it means something funny is going on with your skincare products – and you don’t want to put it on your skin to find out what that is. It’s not worth the rash!

5. Are There Any Black Spots In It?

Now we’re in dangerous territory. If you notice any black, fuzzy spots, then your product is very likely contaminated with bacteria. Throw it in the bin straight away. If you use it, you’ll risk an infection. Enough said.

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How To Make Your Skincare Products Last Longer

Now you know when it’s time to throw away your beloved lotions and potions. But, I bet you don’t want to throw away a bottle of moisturizer that’s still half full because you stored it in the wrong place or did something else to ruin it without even realising it. Here’s what you can do to make your skincare products last longer:

1. Store Your Skincare Products Away From Light, Heat, And Water

How quickly a product expires doesn’t depend on what type of product it is. It depends on how it is stored. “It really does not matter if it is a cream, serum, etc., but [rather] factors such as temperature, time, relative humidity, physical stress, and other environmental parameters,” says cosmetic chemist Vince Spinnato. “Water-based products, including liquids, creams, and lotions, are more prone to spoilage from bacterial growth if the preservative system isn’t strong enough or if the product is constantly coming into contact with the user.”

So any product, including oil-based products, can go back. But some active ingredients are more delicate than others and stop working overtime. The best skincare ingredients (antioxidants, retinoids and UV filters) don’t like light and heat. When they come in contact with them, they start to lose a bit of their effectiveness. To prevent that from happening, simply store them in a cool and dark place, such as a drawer, a cabinet, or even the fridge. Also, keep all your products away water. They may develop mold otherwise.

P.S. The bathroom cabinet isn’t a good place to store your skincare products. The temperature and humidity in the bathroom change all the time (blame those hot showers you love so much). That’s a recipe for disaster!

Related: 5 Anti-Aging Superstars You Need To Add To Your Skincare Routine

2. Write The Purchase Date On The Product

Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rishi Chopra recommends you keep track of your own expiration dates: “I always recommend clearly labeling your products as soon as they are opened with the date to make it easier to track how long they have been in your skincare lineup,” he say. Plus, it helps you see how long it takes to see results from a product. Smart, right?

3. Fingers Off

I don’t recommend you buy products packaged in jar. If you don’t wash your hands well before dipping your fingers in the jar, your risk bacteria contamination. Plus, as you leave the jar open as you continue the rest of your skincare routine, water can easily splash it into, accelerating the degradation process. If you really want to buy something packaged in a jar, at the very least don’t pick up the product with your fingers. Use a spatula, instead. That way, there’s no risk you’ll contaminate its contents with bacteria (remember, just because you can’t see them, it doesn’t mean they’re not there!).

Related: Why I Prefer To Avoid Jar Packaging

What Happens If You Use A Skincare Product Past Its Expiration Date?

Using an expired skincare product can seem harmless. It’ll still make your skin soft, right? In reality, it could cause all sorts of havoc. Once their preservative system weakens, bacteria can easily start multiplying in your products – especially if you keep them in a humid environment, like your bathroom (bacteria love moisture). If you apply bacteria-contaminated products onto your skin, you can get a rash, a breakout, or an irritation. No bueno.

Even if the product is uncontaminated, chances are its active ingredients aren’t working anymore. Oils and moisturisers may still have a softening and plumping effects, but anything anti-aging, like retinol, Vitamin C, and glycolic acid, has long lost all its effectiveness. You may just as well apply Nivea Creme on your skin. Just saying. And let’s be honest: if you haven’t used the product in ages, you didn’t like that much, did you? Even a skincare blogger like me, with a cabinet full of skincare products, finishes everything she absolutely loves…

The Bottom Line

Skincare products expire – and now you know their expiration dates. When an expiration date isn’t present, pay attention to any changes that may happen overtime. And when in doubt, toss it out!



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