Old Beauty Products: Keep or Toss?

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We all hate to do it, but sometimes it's time to throw our beloved beauty products away. Using my experience as a makeup artist and product developer, along with the expertise of several industry veterans, I've established some helpful guidelines.

Lip Gloss Wand – 12 months. Wand glosses tend to spoil more quickly than glosses in other packaging because you pass bacteria back and forth from your mouth into a tube with a small opening.  Bacteria will flourish inside that warm, dark space.

Lip Gloss (all packaging except the wand) and Lipsticks – 24 months

Mascara and liquid eyeliner – 3-6 months. Just like lip gloss wands, these are particularly bacteria-prone because you pass bacteria from your eye back into a tube with a narrow opening, then back out again.

Powders –Three years for eye shadow, blushes, face powder and brow powder.

Concealer, Foundations and Cream Makeup – One to two years, depending on the formulation.

Pencil Liners – Three years.

Moisturizers, Serums, Cleansers and other skin treatments – Generally 6-12 months, but check the PAO symbol (see below for info on PAO) as the shelf life of different products will vary based on their ingredients.

Shampoos, Conditioners and Styling Aids – Generally one to two years, depending on the formulation.
Regardless of when a product goes bad, “cosmetics cop” Paula Begoun warns, “if it smells funky, looks gunky or the texture has changed significantly—definitely toss it out.”

PAO (Period After Opening) Symbols

“Preservatives in products only last so long after opening, and the stability of ingredients have a shelf life as well”, says Paula Begoun.  Paula adds, “It may surprise you, but in the United States there are no FDA regulations for the expiration date for skin-care or makeup products. While there are no regulations for actual expiration dates in the EU either, there is a system of sorts to give consumers an idea of how long the product should be kept after opening.”

Ada Polla, founder and CEO of Alchimie Forever skincare line says, "the PAO symbol looks like an open jar with the following notations “6M” or “12M.”  (This) means that once opened, the product should be consumed within six or twelve months. In general, the timing will vary based on the preservatives used in the products.”

While the PAO system is helpful, it obviously doesn’t adjust based on how the product is being used and the conditions in which it is being stored.

When Should You Toss If You Don't Remember Buying?

Clemence Coussy from Nubonau, a natural and organic online skincare boutique, is one step ahead.

"We are sending 'First Enjoyed' labels with all our orders so people can remember when they first opened (the product),” Coussy says.  Unfortunately, this service is rather rare, so here are tips for determining when your goodies are past their prime.    

Begoun’s advice: “if a product seems unusually discolored, runny or lumpy, has separated, has a strange odor, or feels different on the skin, then it should absolutely be thrown away. [If the] packaging has expanded or has signs of deterioration it is definitely a warning that something is wrong inside.

As a rule, products that contain water as one of the first ingredients have the shortest shelf life after opening because water encourages the growth of bacteria and other microbes…  Products made up of almost no water (such as powders) last the longest, because almost nothing can grow in these kinds of products.”


Philip Luque, Youngblood Mineral Cosmetics Education Director, says, “You will be able to tell if the product is starting to go bad by the smell and the feel. Lipsticks will get a bit thick, drag on the lip, and have a slight smell, while foundations usually separate and have an odor. Shadows and powders will tend to get hard and become more difficult to get on the brush”. 

What Causes of Contamination And How to Avoid It

Bacteria – Wash hands before using your products.  Also, make sure to clean your makeup brushes at least twice per month with a mild hair shampoo or professional brush cleaner.  Makeup brushes are a hotbed for bacteria.  If your brushes are slightly sticky or feel oily, clean them.

Replace Sponge Applicators - Sonia Kashuk for Target makes great sponges (and other tools) that are well-priced. Prices vary.

Use a plastic spatula with creams that are packaged in jars. Many jars of cream come equipped with spatulas – use them!  If a spatula is not included, they can be bought at beauty supply stores.

Sunlight – Julia Homs from Anthologyplace.com says to "buy your skin care in opaque or dark colored containers - sunlight is a great enemy of oils, makes them go rancid quicker and can deplete your cream of all nutrients before you even bring it home from the store (who knows how long that jar has been sitting exposed to light?)”.   

If your products are packaged in light-colored or see-through bottles or jars, store in a cool, dark place.

Oxygen – Close caps tightly after using!  

Heat – Julia Homs says, “High temperatures provoke rancidity in…creams, so try keeping it away from sources of heat”.

Paula Begoun has some handy how-tos:

  • DO write the date of purchase in permanent ink (use a Sharpie) on the bottom or back of the package.
  • DO toss out eye products after an eye infection.
  • DON'T share your products.
  • DON'T add water or saliva to thin out or remoisten products.
  • DON'T purchase products with broken seals or other signs of tampering”


As Sonia Kashuk says, “when in doubt, throw it out!”  Also, "the number one place to pick up bacteria from cosmetics is at makeup counters.”  

I feel compelled to call out those of you who are buying/trading “gently used” cosmetics online…stop it!  Believe it or not, cold sores and eye infections can be contracted by using contaminated testers at cosmetics counters.  The same goes for “gently used” products. 

Natural Products

Pay attention to these because the preservative level is lower than standard products (and some contain no preservatives). I asked natural beauty guru Julia Homs to address this topic. Her take: “As an expert on preservative/chemical free organic skin care, I recommend using them up in one to four months, unless it’s purely oil-based skincare, which can hold up for as long as six to ten months - provided it's artisanal and was made in small batches."

Take an hour and go through your makeup bag, closet, drawer or trunk. Trust us, your face will thank you.

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