We have a sneaking suspicion that if you were to rummage through your existing skincare and beauty stash, you’d find an item or two well beyond their prime. That’s totally understandable — and relatable, as we’re guilty of this beauty sin, too — since figuring out when products expire can be tricky. It’s also easy to lose track of when you purchased (or cracked open) each and every product on your shelf. But above all, it’s pretty painful to toss a half-used jar of luxury cream you bought in a treat-yourself moment. Nevertheless, paying attention to when products expire is important.
“A product shouldn’t be used past its expiration date for a number of reasons,” says Dr. Shari Marchbein, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the NYU School of Medicine®. “Let’s use sunscreen as an example. Like food, sunscreen can go bad and the ingredients can spoil, leading to a watery consistency. They also become less effective, which [significantly] increases the potential for [photodamage] and skin cancer.”
In addition to a potential reduction in efficacy, products past their expiration date can sometimes end up being harmful to your skin. This can mean anything from causing minor irritation and acne breakouts to bacterial infections. These rules don’t just apply to creamy products (moist formulas facilitate the growth of harmful fungi and bacteria): even dry cosmetics, like eyeshadow and blush, ought to be tossed after a while.
However, you don’t have to throw a product out the second it hits its expiration date. Like milk, eggs, or the Chinese takeout you bought a couple days ago, your serum or mascara very likely still have some life in them. More than anything, you should be looking for physical signs that the product has gone bad. These signs include a sour or “off” scent, a change in color (usually from clear/white to orange), a change in formula consistency, separation of ingredients and, of course, any sign of mold or growth.
All that said, it’s still good practice to adhere to expiration guidelines to ensure you’re getting the most out of your skincare regimen and beauty routine, and circumventing any unnecessary harm to your skin. Most products will have one of three expiration indicators: an actual expiration date, a creation date, or a tiny jar symbol with a number inside of it; this number represents how many months a product is good for once it’s been opened. Consider labeling your products with a piece of masking tape and a permanent marker denoting all this information, or giving yourself a deadline to finish the product by its expiration date. This will help you keep track of how much time you have left to safely use it.
In addition to checking for physical changes and referring to on-label expiration information, refer to the rough guideline below for how long different types of products last.
All-natural products: A few days to three months
“All-natural products have shorter shelf lives because they tend to remain preservative-free,” says Dr. Rita Linkner, a board-certified dermatologist at NYC’s Spring Street Dermatology™. “This increases the likelihood of active ingredients deteriorating with time.” If the product was formulated with water, then it’ll expire even more quickly since water breeds bacteria.
This is especially true of homemade treatments or freshly-mixed products. For example, a DIY mask with rosewater, matcha, and honey will likely only survive a few days before it’s ready to toss. Store-bought products sometimes have natural preservatives in them (which could give you more time out, but these are usually not as effective as man-made preservatives). Because of their tendency to spoil quickly, all-natural products should be kept in cool, dark, dry places. Therefore, your bathroom cabinets — which is exposed to tons of steam while you shower — aren’t the best places to store these types of items.
Mascara: Three to six months
There’s a very good chance you’re using mascara well past its expiration date. “Mascara can be used up to six months, but toss it as soon as it becomes clumpy or dries out, which is often by month three,” says Dr. Marchbein. To help prevent the formula from drying out ahead of its time, you should avoid pumping the wand in the tube when loading up the brush. Not only does this force air inside (and thus dry out the formula faster), it could also cause bacteria to enter the tube.
Serums: Three to six months
Just like freshly mixed products, cool, dark storage spaces (and airtight, dark containers) are ideal for serums, which have a shelf life of roughly three to six months. Serums containing vitamin C and acids should be monitored especially closely since they have a tendency to oxidize quickly when exposed to air, light, or heat, meaning the formula will deteriorate if exposed to too much of any of the three. If a product has turned orange, then it’s probably oxidized and no longer as effective.
Eyeliner and lip liner: Six months to two years
Rummage through your eye makeup stash and take out your liners — they’ve probably seen better days. Liquid and gel eyeliner have a shorter life span of six months since they tend to harden over time. They are also prone to harboring bacteria (remember, liquids and creams promote their growth faster!), and you don’t want to risk any infections near your eyes. Eyeliner pencils and lip liners, since they’re dry, can last up to two years.
Liquid cosmetics: One year
Liquid makeup, which includes foundation, concealer, highlighter, and lip gloss, among others, usually has a shelf life of about one year because of how susceptible to bacterial contamination they are. In some cases, you can stretch it a bit further (check the packaging or give the formula a sniff if you’re not sure). Usually, such products will change color or consistency once they’ve soured.
Moisturizing creams and lotions: One to two years
You have a fairly solid window in which to use up your favorite moisturizers — especially if you remain loyal to one product at a time. This includes products for your body and your face, though if your cream has an active in it — such as vitamin C, retinol, or AHAs — then pay close attention to the potential signs of spoilage we outlined above. Dr. Marchbein also notes, “If you are dipping your hands into a jar, make sure they are clean so as to not contaminate it with bacteria.” To get more life out of products in this category, seek out formulas housed in squeeze tubes or pumps rather than jars, as they’ll be exposed to less light and air. Or, you can opt to use a small spatula to extract your favorite creams without contaminating them.
[Editor's note: Retinol shouldn't be used by those who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.]
Lipstick: Two years
If it’s one of your favorite lipsticks, you’ll likely finish the bullet before you hit two years. And if you haven’t? Well, then it just might not be worth keeping anyway.
Powder makeup: Two to three years
Over time, powder makeup becomes dry and brittle and doesn’t glide on as smoothly. You’re better off buying a fresh new eyeshadow palette or blush versus using one that’s years old. Dr. Marchbein adds, “Make sure to clean makeup brushes regularly to prevent bacterial contamination.”
Sunscreen: Three years
Most sunscreen is formulated to be effective for up to three years. Honestly, though, you should probably finish the tube long before it even gets close to going bad. A primary sign your SPF is past its prime is the watery or separated consistency that Dr. Marchbein alluded to above. This is one category that is really not worth risking.
As we said, the expiration dates and recommendations are more or less loose guidelines to help you determine when to toss a product. Be mindful of physical signs of expiry, and be smart about what you’re slathering. While your wallet may beg to differ, it’s ultimately better to repurchase expired items than to take a chance on something old: health is more important than beauty!