The Long and Short of It
Like beauty itself, beauty products don’t last forever. Given enough time and the right circumstances, just about everything will eventually spoil. It’s usually easy to tell when a beauty product has taken a turn for the worst—there will be an unpleasant smell, it will change color, the texture or consistency will become uneven or lumpy, or the components will separate. The most common reason products go bad is that their preservatives and binders degrade, but spoilage also happens because of bacteria, water evaporation, or expiration of the active ingredients. Although some spoilage is unavoidable, much is caused by simple mistakes such as storing the products improperly or allowing them to come into contact with air or other contaminants.
Some products can be safely stored for years, while others are best used as soon as they’re opened.
- Sunscreens: two to three years. The active ingredients in sunscreen lose their potency, even if the product itself smells and looks fine. Some sunscreens are printed with expiration dates, but it’s a good idea to toss any tube that’s more than three years old.
- Perfume and cologne: two years or more. Especially when they’re in glass bottles, fragrances can be adversely affected by light and heat, which cause some of the components to degrade, altering the scent.
- Lotions, shower gel, and shampoo: two years. These products are relatively stable, unless they contain specialized ingredients to fight acne, dandruff, or other conditions.
- Anti-aging and anti-acne products: up to a year. These cosmetics contain antioxidants like vitamin C, retinol, and glycolic acid, which break down more quickly than the products’ base ingredients.
- Hair-styling products: three to five years. These products tend to have long shelf lives because many contain alcohol, which acts as a preservative.
- Nail polish: one year. Polish is extremely sensitive to heat and humidity. The chemicals that keep the polish smooth and flexible degrade easily, leaving the product clumpy or stringy.
Luckily, an expired beauty product doesn’t usually become truly dangerous—it just becomes ineffective. Expired perfume may not smell exactly right, expired retinoids may not work as well as they’re supposed to, lotions smell funky, and nail polish doesn’t glide on as smoothly as it should. The worst-case scenario is that the product’s concentration of active ingredients has changed, causing some temporary irritation (or with an expired sunscreen, a burn).
In order to get the most life out of any product, the best thing you can do is store it properly. When possible, keep lotions, sunscreens, and face products in a cool, dark place, instead of out on a bathroom counter where they are subject to fluctuating heat and humidity. Perfumes should be kept away from light and heat, and nail polish will last longest when stored in the refrigerator. Any product that comes with a pump, tube, or spray will usually have a longer shelf life, since the packaging keeps out air and bacteria. Whenever possible, avoid products sold in tubs or bottles unless they are products you use regularly.
Don’t forget that other countries have different regulations about the chemicals and preservatives allowed in cosmetics and beauty products, so these guidelines only apply to formulations made and sold in the United States. Also, products without traditional preservatives or from natural lines may have even shorter shelf lives.
As difficult as it can be to part with any item from your beauty cabinet, you should always toss any product that’s developed a strange odor or texture, or that seems “off” in any way. After all, clearing out the remnants of unused products just means that there’s plenty of free space to buy new ones.