If you’re like most women, chances are you have a drawer full of cosmetics bursting at the seams. Lipsticks, facial creams, sunscreen, and even hair products have a tendency to accumulate – but when was the last time you considered clearing out your cosmetics drawer for any other reason than to free up space?
The fact is, cosmetics expire. Creams, gels, and liquids are particularly prone to spoilage – they become hotbeds of bacterial activity, they stop working correctly, and they can even negatively affect your skin, leading to breakouts or rashes.
As much as it might pain you to throw away your beloved tube of mascara and say goodbye to the eyeshadow palette you only used once, it may be time to give your past-due goods the old heave-ho. Here’s what you need to know to help you clear out your cosmetics drawer.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), cosmetics companies aren’t required by law to print expiration dates on cosmetics labels. Rather, cosmetics companies are expected to take the onus of determining shelf life for products into their own hands. Based on internal testing, a series of “voluntary shelf-life guidelines” have been developed by the cosmetics industry to standardize the acceptable shelf life for specific types of products (usually between 18 and 24 months, depending on the product).
Unfortunately, this doesn’t always translate well to actual usage, since the phrase “shelf life” often refers to unopened products that are warehoused or left sitting on a shelf at a store waiting to be sold. In other words, just because you bought a product in May of 2014, do you know how long it’s been since it was manufactured?
Not to mention, once purchased, a product’s expiration can be affected by many factors, including temperature, exposure to sunlight, exposure to air, and exposure to other bacteria (for instance, from your hands). Just because a bottle of shampoo should theoretically last two to four years, doesn’t mean it will.
Because of the confusion and problems surrounding the life of cosmetics, there are general guidelines consumers can use to determine whether it’s safe to hold onto certain products, or if it’s time to throw them away. Start with these guidelines when digging through your makeup drawer, and keep in mind that they apply to products you’ve opened and used. Unopened products, when stored properly, can be kept for roughly 12 to 18 months longer than the lengths of time listed here.
Liquid Foundations & Liquid or Cream Makeup
- Expiration: 6 Months
Liquids, by their very water- or oil-based nature, are more likely to grow bacteria and mold than solid, powdered formulas. Plus, because you’re constantly sticking your fingers and makeup brushes into the makeup, you’re transferring external bacteria into the product.
Furthermore, as liquid or cream makeup ages, some of the water content evaporates causing the product to thicken. It may not go on as smoothly or evenly as this occurs, leading to an uneven finish or “cakey” appearance.
Powder Foundations & Powder-Formulated Makeup
- Expiration: 24 Months
Because there’s little water-content to contend with, powdered foundations, bronzers, eyeshadows, and blushes all have a longer shelf-life. But even if your powdered products are technically good for longer, that doesn’t mean you need to hang onto them for two full years. Ditch the unfortunate yellow eyeshadow you’ve never worn that’s just taking up space, or that packed powder that irritated your skin.
Remember, even powdered products can transmit bacteria. Avoid using your fingers to apply your makeup, opting instead for a high-quality brush or a clean sponge.
Face Lotions & Eye Creams
- Expiration: 3 to 12 Months
Like liquid makeup, the water or oil base of face lotions and eye creams have a two-fold problem. First, the wet environment makes them a breeding ground for bacteria, and second, as the base eventually evaporates or separates, the active ingredients can degrade or become more potent.
This is particularly bad when you’re using anti-aging or acne products that are designed to be applied at a particular strength. For instance, many anti-aging products rely on antioxidants as the active ingredient – these can degrade with time or with exposure to light or oxygen. On the other hand, retinal could become more concentrated over time as the base of the cream evaporates – the result is a more potent chemical concentration that could irritate your skin.
The good news is that some products are regulated by the FDA and are required to list an expiration date. If you’re using an acne cream or any other product (over-the-counter or prescription) that contains drugs, check your bottle for the expiration.
Some companies also list a generic “period after opening” (PAO) number on their product containers. This isn’t an actual date; rather, it’s a small image of an open bottle or container with a number listed next to it (usually 6, 12, or 18). This indicates the number of months the product is good for after it’s been opened. However, the actual usefulness of this number is dubious, as it’s only helpful if you remember when you opened the product.
Your best bet for maximizing product life is to purchase products in squeeze or pump bottles to minimize bacteria transfer from your hands, and to store products in a dark, cool area, such as a closet. And most important of all, use the products you buy. If you find you don’t like a product, go ahead and toss it immediately instead of allowing it to sit in your bathroom for the next year – you don’t want to suddenly decide to start using it again 18 months down the road when it’s already passed its prime.
Mascara & Liquid Eyeliner
- Expiration: 3 Months
Eye products have one of the shortest life spans of all cosmetics, mainly because of the constant bacterial transfer from makeup applicator to eye. Mascara and liquid (or gel) eyeliners are the primary culprits, as the liquid nature of the products can once again become breeding grounds for bacteria. Not to mention, mascara has a tendency to dry out and clump up, making it less-usable over time.
Go ahead and toss after three months, or if you experience an eye infection, discard any products you used while infected. The last thing you want is to keep introducing the same nasty infection into your eye because you keep using contaminated products.
Pencil Eyeliners & Lip Liners
- Expiration: 24 Months
Pencil eyeliners and lip liners are a little different than most other cosmetics because in order to maximize their effectiveness, you have to constantly sharpen them, removing the old, potentially bacteria-laden parts. Go ahead and enjoy your penciled makeup for up to two years.
Lipstick & Lip Gloss
- Expiration: 18 to 24 Months
Even though lipstick and lip gloss have a greater water or oil content than some other products, they actually have a pretty good lifespan, ranging from 18 to 24 months. This is partly due to the formulation of the products, but also because it’s reasonably easy to cut away or remove dried-out or contaminated parts.
That said, avoid purchasing or using tubs or pots of lip products, opting instead for sticks or tubes – this helps you avoid bacterial transfer from your hands to your mouth. If you do use a tub or pot, go ahead and apply the product with a clean, dry lipstick brush, rather than your finger.
- Expiration: 6 Months
Sunscreens are another product regulated by the FDA (as is any product with SPF), and manufacturers are required to list expiration dates. Abide by these dates. As tempting as it may be to go ahead and keep using the tube of sunscreen from last year, the SPF can degrade over time, making it less effective.
- Expiration: 12 Months
Nail polish is one of those things that seems to build up and stick around. Because it’s applied to your fingers and toes rather than your face, there’s not as much risk for bacterial transfer to your eyes or mouth, but that doesn’t mean you should keep wearing your hot red polish from 2005.
Over time, the color separates, the base starts to dry out, and what’s left is some sort of weird nail gel that clumps, cakes, and cracks. Go ahead and splurge on a new $6 bottle of nail polish if your cosmetics drawer is currently stocked full of polish from your middle school days – and get rid of the old stuff.
- Expiration: 3 to 6 Months
Many cosmetics are marketed as “natural” and don’t contain synthetic chemicals common to their more mainstream counterparts. If you’re an “all natural” type of gal or guy, it’s important to understand that all-natural cosmetics don’t have the same shelf life as those that include chemical preservatives. Plant-based additives and oils can go bad over time, reducing their effectiveness and attractiveness.
Use the smell test on your natural products – smell them when you open them, then smell them regularly thereafter. If you start noticing a change in scent, it’s probably time to give them the old heave-ho.
- Wash Every 2 to 3 Months
While makeup brushes can last indefinitely, they need to be cared for regularly. A quick rinse-and-dry after every use is recommended, with a full-fledged cleansing with dish soap and hot water suggested every couple of months. This washes away any bacteria, preventing transfer from your makeup to your skin.
- Expiration: 1 Month
Since makeup sponges aren’t intended to be kept long-term, make sure you’re discarding them every three to four weeks. You can always start fresh again with a new sponge.
Managing Makeup Expirations
It’s one thing to understand cosmetic expiration dates, and it’s another to track them. Your best bet is to keep a permanent marker in your bathroom, and when you open a new product, mark the date on the back of the container. This way you can always check the date you opened the product to know whether it’s time to get rid of it.
For products you already have on hand, check them for signs of degradation. If the parts have separated within the bottle, if the product’s texture has thickened or thinned, if the product stops going on smoothly or evenly, or if the packaging has warped, it’s time to get rid of it. Likewise, if the product smells odd, put it in the trash.
Maintaining Your Cosmetics Products
While you may not be able to extend the actual expiration date of your products, you can take care of them to help prevent early spoilage. Be sure to follow these guidelines:
- Don’t use your fingers as applicators – you don’t want to transfer bacteria from your hands to the products, then again to your skin.
- Don’t store your products in the sun, as heat and light can damage them.
- Store products in a cool, dry, dark location, such as a closet or a drawer, and avoid placing them in the shower where heat and humidity can damage them.
- Clean your makeup brushes regularly and replace sponges monthly.
- Use products that come in a pump or squeeze container, and avoid pots or tubs.
- Don’t share your products, particularly your eye products, with family or friends – this just introduces more bacteria to your cosmetics.
- Don’t “pump” mascara by pushing and pulling the applicator in and out of the tube several times. This introduces more air and bacteria into your makeup, causing the product to dry out faster and increases the likelihood of bacterial infection.
- Don’t add water or spit to products to “get more life” out of them. Water is a breeding ground for mold and bacteria, and spit carries massive amounts of bacteria.
It can be hard to say goodbye to your favorite cosmetics, especially if you didn’t have the chance to use them all. But don’t allow old products to sit around. Discard the makeup and skin care products that don’t pass the sniff test or the usability test, then use what you’ve learned to make better buying decisions going forward.
By paring down your total cosmetics purchases, and actively managing the products you buy, you’ll end up getting more out of the products you purchase. Plus, this can help you better organize your makeup.
Face it: You don’t really needs 25 nail polishes and 10 lipsticks – you probably only use one or two, anyway. Learn to enjoy the products you use regularly, and avoid overstocking one-off “splurges” or trendy colors you’ll use once before pushing to the back of the drawer.
When was the last time you went through your cosmetics drawer to clean it out?