Finding a scent you’re obsessed with can feel like hitting the lottery. So, once you’ve invested in a fragrance, you want to do everything you can to preserve its longevity. Because no matter how fabulous, all good things can come to an end—especially if you’re not giving your fragrance the TLC it needs. Certain behaviors can alter the chemical makeup of a scent, making it expire sooner. Ahead, fragrance experts and a cosmetic chemist help us determine how to tell when your perfume has expired.
Meet the Expert
Keep reading to learn more about perfume expiration, and how to make your favorite fragrance last longer.
Does Perfume Expire?
"Perfumes are made with different fragrant compounds that constitute base note, middle note, and top notes, while the oils can be from natural or synthetic sources," says King.
Most fragrance manufacturers will recommend tossing your bottle after anywhere from one to three years (check your label), but since fragrance doesn't expire in the same sense that food does, it's sometimes okay to keep using a bottle for four, even five years.
Pallez confirms that indeed, fragrance does have a shelf life, but there is no hard and fast rule. She does offer tips on how to make your scent last, but first, you have to understand a little something about the chemical composition of cologne.
“In my experience,” says Pallez, “perfumes do not fade in intensity, but the scent tends to become oxidized, sour, sometimes acidic or metallic or with notes of plastic.” In other words, too much oxygen inside your perfume bottle can alter the molecules of the fragrance, which can affect the overall scent.
“The oxidation can come from the top notes like citrus, aromatics that are at risk, but also by the dry-down of the fragrance,” explains Pallez. Different formulas are more prone to oxidizing, which is why some perfumes last longer than others. “I have personally noticed that Chypre fragrances with a high concentration of Patchouli tend to risk a scent’s longevity,” she says.
Long says that you can store your citrus-based scents in the fridge to help slow this down. "The more oxygen above the juice, the faster the fragrance will oxidize, so saving the last drops of a favorite perfume is a bad idea," she says, recommending that you can decant into a travel spray once your bottle is mostly air.
How to Tell If Your Perfume is Expired
"There is usually a noticeable change in the odor of top note (this is often where the changes occur first), and there may be a change in color of the liquid as well," says Long. King adds that "Most fragrances have a yellowish tint to it (the color of oil) and when it goes bad, it can turn a darker brown."
The longest-lasting aromatics have a lot of chemical stability. “Woodsy notes, amber, and leather are quite stable, even after three years," adds Pallez.
Perfumes with high alcohol content tend to last the longest as the alcohol prevents the aromatic molecules from oxidizing. You might think of alcohol as an ingredient to avoid in beauty products, but when it comes to fragrance, au contraire. Alcohol is the key preservative for the integrity of a perfume. “These are typically colognes or the eau de toilettes with 90 percent alcohol,” says Pallez. “The less concentrated it is, the best longevity you can expect. A fragrance is usually 70 to 90 percent alcohol, which provides preservative support.”
Clean and alcohol-free fragrances; oil-based fragrances; and perfumes with patchouli or citrus notes tend to expire (or lose intensity) the fastest.
The role of alcohol is key and has been used as a preservative in perfume since Antiquity. “The Venetians invented [this technique] when they started trading their ‘made in Italy’ fragrances across Europe,” explains Pallez. “Their scents had a new longevity feature, which was not the case with the previous fragrances that were made with oil.” The rest of your fragrance’s formula, notes Pallez, is the concentrate made up of “dozens of different ingredients, naturals or synthetic molecules, in which we add a stabilizer and some UV filters to further maximize the longevity and the stability of the fragrance.”
And although clean fragrances can be appealing for those looking for a nontoxic beauty routine, these types of perfumes tend to lose intensity quickly. “If a fragrance does not contain alcohol, which acts as a preservative, it will have a shorter shelf life,” says Pallez. She adds, “Natural molecules are typically less stable than synthetic.” It’s up to you to decide what’s important to you in a fragrance and note that all clean perfume isn’t created equal.
How to Make Your Perfume Last Longer
Keep perfume away from light: Although it might look cute to place your perfume bottles on your window sill, this is the worst place to store fragrance if you want to preserve its integrity. Pallez says that light will break down the molecules of a fragrance making its composition unstable and prone to oxidation.
Keep perfume away from heat (and humidity): Heat will also break down fragrance molecules and alter their chemical makeup. Pallez suggests you keep the fragrance below 15 degrees Celsius or 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Long says to steer clear of storing fragrances in the bathroom, too.
Keep using it until the bottle is empty: “When half empty, the oxygen inside increases the risk of alteration,” says Pallez. If you have an extensive perfume wardrobe, Long says to "rotate your collection so that the lowest juice bottles get used up first and the rest should wait in a cupboard or a drawer."
Store in a cool place: To keep your fragrance at the ideal temperature, the fridge is a good option. However, Pallez has a caveat. “The fridge is not the perfect place if the whole family keeps on opening its door, constantly lighting up the inside.” You could wrap your fragrance in aluminum foil, or better yet, try the freezer. Perfume contains alcohol so it won’t freeze, plus it feels refreshing at a cooler temperature.
How Long Do Unopened Perfumes Last?
Unopened bottles stored in a cool, dark dry place can last for years (anything from a couple of years to a couple of decades), depending on the perfume and storage conditions. "Beware the 'vintage' find as the top notes are usually off by the time you get it," says Long. "Once you are using a bottle, use it or lose it."
An opened bottle of perfume can last anywhere between three months to three years, depending on the scent’s construction and what the packaging is like, and, of course, how it’s stored when in use.
Is Using an Expired Perfume Safe?
All in all, it depends. According to Long, some oxidization products can become skin irritants and some perfumes on the turn might start to stain clothes where they didn’t before. "Always do a patch test somewhere like inside of your wrist to check and if you’ve not reacted in 24 hours, apply cautiously at your own risk." King echoes the words of caution and adds that when applied to the skin, "the decomposed compounds may lead to allergic reactions upon direct contact." If the juice is not staining fabric but you’re still not sure about putting it on your skin, try scenting your clothing with it. "A scarf, handkerchief, inside hem of a skirt or trousers can be a nice way to wear perfume," says Long.
The Final Takeaway
Taking care of your fragrance is essential to preserving its longevity. Plus, you can get the most out of your scent by applying it correctly. Avoid rubbing fragrance on pulse points, as your body heat will evaporate some of the notes. Instead, apply on moist, damp skin to lock in scent as you savor every last drop.
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Watabe N, Tokuoka Y, Kawashima N. Stability of O/W emulsion with synthetic perfumes oxidized by singlet oxygen. J Chem. 2013;2013:971805. doi:10.1155/2013/971805