When Good Beauty Products Go Bad

By Gina Roberts-Grey

Is it possible for your favorite moisturizer or shampoo to be done with you, before you’re ready to throw it into the trash? You bet. In fact, experts say it may be time to clean out your shower or medicine cabinet because you may be using products well beyond their shelf life. 

Expiration dates 
All personal care products have a shelf life. Most soaps and shampoos with preservatives (like parabens or pthalates) remain unchanged for up to two years from the manufacture date, not the date they’re sold or opened. But depending on the product, the shelf life of paraben-free personal care items could be whittled down to three or four months. 

Over time, the active ingredients in natural bodycare products lose their efficacy. “You may notice your hair isn’t as shiny or your skin is dry despite using body lotion,” says Joyce Carboni, founder and director of Skinsational Skin & Body Spa in Carlsbad, California.

In addition to altering effectiveness, experts say out-of-date products can affect your health. Expired products carry bacteria that can cause harm when you apply them to your lips, skin that’s irritated, scratched, or injured, or the sensitive area around your eyes. “The result could be rashes, irritation, breakouts, and infection,” says Carboni. 

How do you know if your product’s past its prime? With or without parabens, the FDA requires over-the-counter acne treatments, sunscreens, and moisturizers with sunscreen to have a drug facts panel and expiration symbol on the label. And many makers of shampoos and eye creams have followed suit, voluntarily adding expiration information on their product’s packaging or label. 

These expiration dates usually appear as the symbol of a jar with the lid either on or off along with a number preceding the letter M. “A jar with an open lid represents the number of months the product will remain fresh once opened,” says Stefani Thionnet, executive vice president of MD Skincare by Dr. Dennis Gross. “And a closed lid tells how long the product is good from the date it’s manufactured.” 

In addition to the age of your beauty products, how you store them also affects shelf life. Kimberly Sayer, organic chemist, aesthetician, and creator of the Kimberly Sayer of London line of organic skincare products, says a cool, dry medicine cabinet extends shelf life longer than keeping items near sunlight or in a humid environment. And although some manufacturers now recommend keeping natural personal care products in the refrigerator, only do that if the label says so. Sayer says, “Storing [some] products at a cold temperature could negatively change their molecular structure.” 

Beyond looking at the expiration date, use your other senses to assess product viability. If it has started to separate, smells odd, is discolored, or seems slightly off, consider it spoiled. “Properly formulated natural products are developed with special care to eliminate the issue of separation,” says Rich, “And there should be no changes in physical appearances or in color, odor, or texture during the shelf life.” 

Is it time to toss?
You can expect natural products to have the following shelf lives:
Mascara, eye creams, lubricating eye drops: three to four months
Sunscreen: up to two years if kept in a cool, dark location
Shampoo and conditioner: two years, but water can break down the product and reduce shelf life 
Moisturizer: up to six months, depending on the ingredients; botanical- or essential oil-based products may last three to four months
Deodorant: Although it may last longer, the ingredients are most effective within the first year.
Body lotion: three to four months
Lip balm: If resealed after use and kept in a cool, dry location, three months for pots and one year for tubes.