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The Shelf Life of Your Skincare Products

Brunette woman shopping for skincare products
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So many skincare products, so little time. Really, it's easy to become obsessed with all the delectable offerings promising smooth, glowing skin. But there is a downside to having a robust skincare arsenal: the products don't last forever. Time is ticking on that jar of La Mer collecting dust in your beauty cabinet. So, how long do skincare products really last? We spoke with Teresa Stenzel, esthetician and director of education at Bioelements, for more on the ins and outs of product shelf life.

Meet the Expert

Teresa Stenzel is an esthetician and the director of education for skincare company Biolements, where she helps develop new facial and body treatment techniques.

The Shelf Life of Skin Care

For most skin and body care products, there's an easy way to find out how long the shelf life is. Simply look on the container for a tiny image of an opened jar with a number on it: six, 12, 24, or 36. This refers to the number of months you can use a product after you've opened it. Mind blown, right?

If the product doesn't have this symbol on the container, one-to-two years is a good rule of thumb for the shelf life, unless otherwise stated on the packaging. "While products can vary, in general, unopened products have a shelf life of approximately two years when stored properly," says Stenzel. "After a product is opened, it should be used as directed, within one year. Of course, this does not apply to over-the-counter products like sunscreens or acne formulas, which will will have an expiration date listed on the packaging."

Use your best judgment—if you think it's time to toss it, it probably is. You'll know it if you notice the following signs:

  • A bad or rotten smell
  • The product has separated
  • The texture has changed
  • The color has changed
  • There are black, green, or blue mold spots

A word about preservatives: There are many small, independent skincare companies these days that sell products directly to consumers. Many of these, as well as organic products in general, do not use preservatives. In these cases, the products have very short shelf lives, especially if they're packaged in jars. Consider storing these in the refrigerator, and use them quickly.

When to Throw a Product Out

Certain products are required by the FDA to have an expiration date on them, including sunscreens and acne treatments that contain active ingredients like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. Toss any sunscreen or anti-acne treatments that are past their expiration dates.

Products that contain acids should not be kept beyond their expiration dates, since acids actually become stronger and potentially more irritating over time.

Any item that's packaged as a single-use product—usually called an ampoule—needs to be tossed immediately after the first use, even if there are leftovers. 

As Stenzel explains, holding on to a product past its expiration date can wreak havoc on your skin. "If you don’t finish your product within one year, several things can happen," says Stenzel. "First, invisible bacteria can thrive in old products, especially in a humid environment like your bathroom. If applied to the skin, this bacteria can cause irritation, rashes, or breakouts."

Stenzel adds that every time you stick your finger in a jar of skin care, you’re contaminating it. "I recommend that you always make sure your hands are clean when applying skin care, to help lessen the risk of contamination. It’s just good hygiene."

In addition to the health concerns, Stenzel notes that a product simply won’t be as effective over time—yet another reason to ditch it. "The active ingredients won't be as active. So throw it out. And really, if your exfoliating mask or vitamin C serum is still hanging around in your bathroom after a year, that means you probably didn’t love it, right?" 

How to Store Products so They Last Longer

An unopened product that's still sealed usually has a shelf life of at least three to five years. However, this timeframe is shortened if the item is stored in a sunny, hot, or humid environment. Keep your skin care in a cool, dry place—ideally not in the bathroom.

Make sure water does not get into the container, as mold may develop over time. Also, it's best to buy products that are in sealed containers like pumps instead of jars, as they tend to have a longer shelf life.

Wash your hands before applying any skin care to your face or body so that you don't get dirt or bacteria into the product. You can use a clean spatula or a baby spoon to keep the container free of contaminants.

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