So, I have a gross confession to make that may or may not discredit me as a beauty aficionado: I never throw out my makeup products. Unless it’s used up, dried out, or has a weird texture or smell, it’s staying in my collection. Hey, I paid good money, and I want to get my money’s worth. Plus the packaging looks so cute on my dresser, how could I possibly say good bye?
Apparently I’m not the only one, though. Redditors have come to a general consensus that, with exceptions to mascara, sunscreen and other skincare, they don’t follow expiration dates and let the formulation of the product determine what gets tossed.
So many of us hang on to old makeup, but should we? I put a lot of time and effort into my skincare routine, but am I sabotaging myself by using makeup I’ve hoarded since high school? I decided to investigate.
What does it mean when makeup expires?
When you first open a product, airborne bacteria enters, and as you continue to open and use your makeup, that bacteria grows, and more bacteria enters. According to the FDA, dipping fingers into a product adds microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. A small amount of bacteria does not pose a risk if you’re healthy, and these bacteria can normally be controlled by preservatives. But, over time, preservatives break down, opening the door for bacterial and fungal growth. This bacteria can cause breakouts, or worse, more serious skin infections. Similarly, makeup’s active ingredients and stabilizers break down over time, which increases the risk of makeup carrying an infection, explains dermatologist Mark McCune.
Another thing that occurs as makeup gets older is that the ingredients will begin to corrode and oxidize, diminishing the effectiveness of the product. Your expired makeup won’t apply as pigmented and buttery-soft as it once did. Destabilized active ingredients can potentially cause dermatitis as well. Women’s Health references SPF, salicylic acid and retinol specifically as active ingredients that become compromised over time. So if you use foundation with these skincare benefits, make sure it’s fresh to get the full effect.
How to judge when makeup is expired
Many products will actually tell you what their shelf life is. Look for an icon that looks like an opened jar, it should have a number, followed by the letter M. The “M” stands for months, and the number is how many months after opening (not after purchasing) the product is good for. This is the PAO, or “period after opening.”
However, the FDA does not regulate that cosmetic companies list the PAO on all makeup products. Luckily, there are other telltale signs that it’s time to toss your makeup, such as changes in color, texture, and smell. Other signs of expiry include foundation separating, mascara becoming dry, clumpy, and flakey, and cream products developing a film on top.
Powder products (including blush, bronzer, face powder and eye shadow) have a shelf life of around two years after opening, so you can keep them around for longer than your liquid or cream products because they are dry and don’t provide the moist environment where germs and bacteria tend to thrive. I recommend changing out your setting powder and eyeshadow even earlier, because your eyes are especially prone to infection.
Liquid and cream face products, like foundation and concealer, are good for one year, according to Cosmopolitan. Lip products are also supposedly good for around a year and a half to two years. Liquid eyeliner has a relatively short shelf life of three-to-six months.
Shelf life can also depend on the packaging; liquid products that come in a tube or pump can last longer than those that come in a jar, because you’re not directly touching it, and not all of the formula is exposed to their air.
Mascara is the product that you have the least leeway with, because it’s a liquid and provides that moist environment that bacteria love, and because it’s used in the eye area — eyes are the most prone to infection. Mascara can last around three-to-six months, and you can most easily tell when it’s time to toss it because it will get dry and clumpy.
Too much to remember? The most important takeaway is that mascara lasts the shortest amount of time, and powder products last the longest.
How can I preserve my products?
Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to un-contaminate your old products and revive them from the dead. But, you can preserve them before they go bad, so you can hold onto them a few months longer. Miki Hayes at Bustle suggests cleaning your brushes in addition to sanitizing your makeup itself, because bacteria won’t breed as quickly on products that are touched with clean tools. She also recommends not touching a doe-foot applicator directly to your face, because it causes bacteria to transfer from your face to your makeup and vice-versa. Instead, dab some product on the back of your (clean!) hand, then apply that product with a clean brush. In the case of lip gloss, dermatologist Dr. Debra Luftman advises to clean your wand every day (my more realistic suggestion would be after each use). You can also spray down powder products, like blush and eyeshadow, with 70% rubbing alcohol.
I would also venture an educated guess and say that, if you don’t use a given product that often, you can probably keep it around for an extra couple of months past its stated expiration date, because if you’re not continuously opening and touching the product, it’s not getting exposed to air and bacteria as frequently as if you were using it every day.
Storing your makeup products properly can also extend their shelf life. Don’t keep them in the bathroom, because the steam and humidity breeds mold. Too-cold temps are also not great, so if you store makeup in your skincare fridge, keep an eye on that temperature!
At the end of the day, it’s hard to tell exactly when a product expires, because this is determined by the ingredients and formula, and how the product is used and stored. These “rule of thumb” expiration dates are averages, not exact figures.
The bottom line: If you take care of your products, you may be able to keep them for a few months after the recommended expiration date so long as they still appear normal and your skin doesn’t react. But if your makeup looks, smells, and applies weirdly, it’s definitely time to toss. You wallet might be crying, but your skin will thank you.