There are so many things to consider when buying a new product. From ingredients to fragrance to purpose, a lot goes through our minds when deciding whether or not to try something new. One thing that tends to slip from our thoughts when we’re considering all things cosmetic products, however, is their shelf life. It’s easy to forget that our skin-care and other beauty products can expire just like perishable foods. But, what does it really mean for beauty products to expire? Below, skin-care experts and renowned doctors talk us through all things expired beauty products, from how to tell something is past its prime to what it could mean for your skin.
What does it mean for a cosmetic product to be expired?
We all know that with things like perishable foods, expiration dates usually correlate with sour tastes and even illness, so what does it mean for a cosmetic product to be expired? Luckily, in most cases, products simply lose potency after their expiration date. “Most dermatologists use products well past their expiration dates,” begins New York dermatologist Hiedi A. Waldorf, MD. “Look in any of our bathrooms and you’ll find steroid samples from a decade ago. That’s because we know the active ingredient loses about 2 percent potency a year,” she explains. “You’re less likely to find old sunscreens because we use them up!”
In terms of why products expire and why some have expiration dates and others don’t, Dr. Waldorf explains that “companies that make cosmeceuticals—i.e. non-prescription topicals—often test their products to determine shelf life under normal temperature and weather conditions. However, unless a product has an ingredient considered a drug by the FDA, like sunscreen ingredients benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, it isn’t required to have an expiration date on the label.”
Several other factors go into considering if and when a product will expire, including heat, time, UV exposure and oxygen, which can all degrade active ingredients depending on how a product is packaged. “Preservative-free products must be packaged to avoid external exposure,” adds Dr. Waldorf. “That’s why they are usually in single use packages or special airtight pumps.”
How can you tell a beauty product is expired?
Even with the knowledge of cosmetic products’ expiration dates, it’s still easy to forget to check the dates when going through your usual routine, so it’s helpful to know what to look out for when in terms of signs that your product had gone bad. “Generally, for identifying a possible problem with any product, look for a change in consistency, aroma and color,” Dr. Waldorf begins. “For example, a light yellow vitamin C product that’s gone gold or orange may have gone bad.” But, Dr. Waldorf also notes it is always better to ask your dermatologist, as a change doesn’t always signal an issue. “Compounded Kligman formulas like retinoids, hydroquinone, and certain steroid creams, for example, often turn brown once opened without a decrease in efficacy,” she explains.
When it comes to makeup products, you can “often see product separation, especially with foundation, while lip products can give off a smell of rancidity, mascaras can experience drying, caking and foul odor and eyeliners may begin to cause an itchy sensation,” explains cosmetic chemist Ginger King. “Do not use anything expired around the eye or lip area as these regions are super sensitive and could lead to potential ingestion and/or irritation,” King urges.
Can you prevent a cosmetic product from going bad?
While expiration dates tend to be fairly concrete in terms of how long a product can go without losing efficacy or potency, there are certain things you can do to prevent your products from going bad too soon. “Try to store products at ambient temperatures as high temperatures or rooms without air-conditioning can make products go bad faster,” King advises. “Also, avoid cross-contamination; always use clean hands before handling products. Avoid pumping air into mascara as that will make mascaras dry up faster, too.”