It’s a sad scenario and one many of us never wish to be faced with: having to toss our skincare products. Which is especially hard if we paid more than a few pretty pennies for that bottle, or if we just really, really love that particular item. While we may be tempted to hold onto products until they’re gone, or if we're just bargaining with the idea that we’ll "use them again someday," hanging on to skincare items like toners, moisturizers, and SPF can come with a price of its own, and according to the experts, it simply isn’t worth it.
We sat down with the cosmetic chemists behind Chemist Confessions, Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu to find out when we should toss products, and why it’s bad to keep using them after they’ve expired.
Meet the Expert
Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu were colleagues together as cosmetic chemists at L'Oréal before leaving to start their popular Instagram account and blog, Chemist Confessions. Through their platforms, they decode skincare ingredient labels and shed light on misinformation in the beauty industry, as well as provide general skincare information. The duo also created their own skincare line, Chemist Confessions.
When Do Products Expire Once Opened?
"Most products have a shelf life of two to three years,” Fu explains. There are a number of variables that indicate how quickly a product will expire, including the ingredients, and any preservatives used in the formula. Additionally, the shelf life and expiration date aren’t the same thing—the clock starts ticking on the expiration date of your product the moment you open it. Look for the PAO—or period after opening—label. The symbol looks like an open jar. It indicates the shelf life of the product once it’s been opened, which is typically between six months to one year.”
Opened toners tend to last for a little less time than some other skincare products, and it's generally recommended that you replace after about a year from opening. If your toner contains exfoliants, like AHAs, like glycolic or citric acid, or BHAs, like salicylic acid, it’s important to keep this timeframe in mind, as extended use might result in dryness or irritation of the skin. According to the FDA, acids, especially AHAs, can result in extreme skin sensitivity to sun exposure, and products are only deemed safe for consumers when measuring a pH of 3.5 or greater. Over time, the pH of products may shift, which could lead to damage to the skin.
Serum and Moisturizer
These products tend to last for around a year from opening, give or take, depending on the formula and ingredients used. Products containing essential oils, for example, may burn out quicker than others as these oils will degrade over time, especially when stored incorrectly according to a 2018 study, which can make them less effective. If you aren’t sure if your serum or moisturizer is expired, keep tabs on how well your skin reacts to it compared to when you first started using it—often, expired moisturizers won’t be nearly as hydrating. Additionally, changes in the texture (like separation) or shifts in the odor of your product can indicate that it may be time to renew.
When do face masks expire? Generally, masks expire in about one to two years from opening, depending on the active ingredients used. Clay masks may possibly drying out on the shorter end of that estimate, depending on the type of mask it is. Other masks contain unstable ingredients, like vitamins C and E, which degrade over time and may result in less efficacy. The good news, however, is that a mask made with activated charcoal will not expire if it hasn’t made contact with air, so as long as you keep it closed, you should be good until you’re ready to use it. To keep your masks fresher for longer, try using a spoon or spatula to dip into the mix, which will prevent the transfer of bacteria from your hands, and keep sheet masks in the refrigerator, which may add a little extra time to their shelf life.
Opened cleansers can last up to two years in some cases, although many brands suggest tossing it around the one-year mark. Some cleansers, like Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser, are formulated to be “shelf-stable” to last for years as long as it's not exposed to extreme temps, and has no expiration date, according to the brand. To be sure, check that PAO on your package so you’ll know when to toss, if needed, says Fu.
While some people may get a little extra time out of certain skincare favorites, even against professional advice, there is one staple that should absolutely be tossed once it reaches that use-by date. “If there’s absolutely one product to stay on top of for shelf life, it's sunscreen. Don’t try to save a buck and use sunscreen from last summer that just recently expired,” says Fu. Why? Because unlike other products, sunscreen has been proven effective at preventing skin cancers, which can be fatal in some cases. “It’s really not worth risking skin cancer. Don’t do it!” she adds. Every sunscreen is marked with an expiration date, so be sure to keep that date in mind to keep your skin, and yourself, healthy.
Why You Shouldn’t Use Expired Products
So, we know when products expire, but is it really that big of a deal to keep using them after that time is up? According to the experts, some side effects of using expired products are more harmful than others, but they will all produce unwanted effects over time, even if that just means they become ineffective. “The shelf-life marks the time span that a formula will hold up in terms of formula stability, compatibility, and preservatives,” says Lu. “After you go past the tested shelf life, formulas can start to get gross and preservatives aren’t as effective, which opens your skin up to unwanted microbe contamination. Microbial contamination can lead to anything from irritation, breakouts, and in really bad cases even infection.”
While we can’t control the effects of time, there are some measures we can take to get the most out of our skincare products. Spatulas, droppers, and anything that will keep our hands from touching the products before it reaches our skin will go a long way in preventing bacterial contamination. Storing our products correctly will keep them in their best form as well—for the most part, keeping products away from extreme temperatures and away from exposure to direct sunlight can help keep their ingredients stable, especially in terms of oils. Finally, to make no mistakes about your PAO date, write the date you opened it on the bottom of the package in permanent marker.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Alpha hydroxy acids. Updated August 24, 2020.
Sarkic A, Stappen I. Essential oils and their single compounds in cosmetics—a critical review. Cosmetics. 2018;5(1):11. doi:10.3390/cosmetics5010011
Telang PS. Vitamin C in dermatology. Indian Dermatol Online J. 2013;4(2):143-146. doi:10.4103/2229-5178.110593
Sander M, Sander M, Burbidge T, Beecker J. The efficacy and safety of sunscreen use for the prevention of skin cancer. CMAJ. 2020;192(50):E1802-E1808. doi:10.1503/cmaj.201085