We know that food goes bad, but what about stuff like lotion, conditioner and mascara? Even though they may seem to last a long time—and often end up sitting on shelves for years — toiletries do actually come with expiration dates. Here’s what you need to know.
I have a collection of skin care products and other toiletries that are so old I don’t even remember when I bought them. Do things like moisturizer, shampoo, or perfume go bad? If so, when should I toss them out?
Like most things in life, skin care products, toiletries and beauty products don’t last forever. Once opened, the clock starts ticking on these items, because exposure to air, light and bacteria can break them down. Even left sealed, things like heat and humidity can cause products to degrade over time.
Expired products aren’t necessarily a big deal. Sometimes it just means they lose effectiveness. For example, an expired perfume could smell a little off or your anti-dandruff shampoo no longer keep your mane flake-free. Other times, however, an expired product can be irritating or cause other problems, as with using expired sunscreen and then toasting yourself in the sun.
Below are some general guidelines for different cosmetic products so we can take some of the guesswork out of how long to keep them. (For the rest of this article, we’re going to use the word “cosmetics” for all these kinds of items, since that’s how the FDA defines them.)
How to check your products
You won’t find an expiration date printed on most cosmetic products, thanks to a lack of regulations. In the US, only the products the FDA considers drugs are required to have an expiration date; these include sunscreen, acne medicines and products that treat dandruff. If you buy European products, you might have more luck, since the European Union has a directive requiring an expiration date to be shown—at least for those products that last less than 30 months.
Required or not, some manufacturers do print expiration dates on their products. If it’s not clearly printed on the container as something like “Exp 12/2020,” look for what’s called a Period After Opening (PAO) date. This is a picture of a jar with something like “24M” on it, which means the product should be good for 24 months after opening. Sometimes, the shelf life is noted by a special (undecipherable) batch code printed on the container. You can look up these codes for major brands at CheckCosmetic.net.
As with milk and other foods, though, expiration dates on cosmetic products aren’t always reliable. When in doubt, toss anything that has changed in smell, color or texture. Trust your eyes and nose! Also know that all natural products have a more limited life span and can go bad much sooner than products that include preservatives. If water is the first ingredient, it generally has the shortest shelf life after opening because the water encourages bacteria to grow—which, when it comes to toiletries, is enemy #1.
The shelf life of various cosmetics
Sources such as skin care and makeup expert Paula Begoun, The Los Angeles Times and Real Simple generally agree on when to keep or toss specific items. The chart above is a kind of cheat sheet for these guidelines, with more details below.
Skin and hair care
- Moisturizers, face creams and eye creams: Six months to one year. The danger with expired creams isn’t just possible less effectiveness, but also irritation and possible bacterial infection. Ones that are in a pump are less likely to introduce bacteria, while creams in jars should be tossed after six to nine months.
- Sunscreen: One year. This is regulated by the FDA, so it comes with an expiration date usually of one year. Store it away from the sun (perhaps in a cooler) to prevent the formula from becoming unstable.
- Anti-aging or anti-acne products: up to one year, depending on the ingredients. As the New York Times reports, anti-acne products containing Benzoyl peroxide have a shelf life of three months once opened. Products with antioxidants such as retinol, glycolic acid and vitamin C also break down more quickly.
- Shampoos, conditioners and hair styling products: One to two years opened, three years unopened. Water and air that gets into the bottles could break down the formulas.
- Loofas and bath sponges: Three weeks for loofas, seven weeks for sponges, eight weeks for poufs. That may seem pretty short, but consider the moist environment and all the holes inviting bacteria to grow.
- Deodorant/anti-perspirant: Three years or check the expiration date, if available. Outside Online notes that deodorant really doesn’t lose that much efficacy or run the risk of bacterial infection (because it is an anti-bacterial product after all).
- Shaving creams and shaving soaps: Two years or perhaps longer if stored properly.
- Toothpaste: Check the expiration date, printed on toothpastes containing fluoride. It’s usually two years after manufacturing.
- Mouthwash: Three years from manufacture date, also usually printed on the bottle.
- Soap: Three years, according to manufacturers, for both bar and liquid soaps. Yes, even soap can expire, particularly if they contain essential oils. Some bars seem to last forever, though, and if they’re all cracked and dried up, that’s not a good sign.
Makeup and fragrances:
- Perfume/cologne: Two years. As lovely as the bottles might look on the counter, store them away from sunlight and humidity.
- Mascara and liquid eye liner: Three months. Get a new one every season and toss even sooner if it’s dried out or if you’ve had an eye infection.
- Liquid foundation and concealer: Six months to one year
- Powder-based cosmetics (e.g., eyeshadows and powder foundation): Two to three years
- Lipsticks and glosses: Two to three years. If you’ve had a cold sore, toss your lip products sooner.
- Eye and lip pencils: Three to five years. Sharpen before use to preserve them.
- Nail polish: One to two years. You can usually tell by the gooeyness of the polish.
To help you keep track of all these dates, write on the label your purchase date and when to toss it. A product like Timestrip can save you the effort.
How to store your cosmetics
How you store your products is even more important than these date guidelines (which are really just estimates). To make them last as long as possible, keep items away from heat, sunlight, humidity and air. Look for pumps instead of jars, for example, and make sure your hands are clean before use so you don’t contaminate your products. The FDA says:
Consumers should be aware that expiration dates are simply “rules of thumb,” and that a product’s safety may expire long before the expiration date if the product has not been properly stored. Cosmetics that have been improperly stored—for example, exposed to high temperatures or sunlight, or opened and examined by consumers prior to final sale—may deteriorate substantially before the expiration date. On the other hand, products stored under ideal conditions may be acceptable long after the expiration date has been reached.
Just remember: use it or lose it.
This story was originally published on 11/21/13 and was updated on 9/3/19 to provide more thorough and current information.