We’ve all been there—you buy a new skincare product only to use it a handful of times before the novelty wears off. It gets shuffled to the back of your cabinet or bottom of a drawer, collecting dust until you rediscover it months later. But is it still safe to use?
Keep reading for everything you need to know about when skincare products expire, including how to tell if a product has gone bad.
How to Read Expiration Dates on Skincare Products
For starters, skincare products are classified by the FDA as cosmetics, not drugs. This means companies in the U.S. (and Canada) aren’t required by law to display expiration dates on their products.
The one exception is sunscreen, which is considered a drug since it serves a medical purpose. According to the FDA, sunscreen MUST include an expiration date on the packaging unless it’s been proven to stay stable for up to three years. Be sure to follow expiration dates on sunscreen closely or, if your sunscreen doesn’t come with an expiration date, throw it out after three years.
What Do Those Symbols on Skincare Products Mean?
For those brands that do indicate a shelf life on a cosmetic or skincare product, you’ll find a symbol printed on the packaging itself. There are two main symbols used to indicate how long a skincare product will last. Both symbols are required in the EU, but some companies in the U.S. choose to include them on their packaging as well, especially if they sell over in Europe.
- Period After Opening (PAO): This symbol tells you how long a product will stay good after it’s been opened. It looks like a little open jar with a number followed either by the word ‘months’ or letter ‘M’ on it. For example, 18M would mean the product is good for a year and a half once it’s been opened.
- Best Before End Of (BBE): This symbol indicates the date by which a product should be used, just like expiration dates on our food. It looks like a little hourglass followed by a date.
The challenge with expiration symbols (and the reason I’m not always a fan) is that there’s no way for them to be 100 percent accurate. For example, let’s say a symbol indicates a product is effective for six months after you open it. The reality is, the clock starts ticking on a product the minute it’s made and put into a jar or bottle. Between sitting in a warehouse, on a delivery truck, or on a retail shelf waiting to get sold, you just don’t know how long it’s been around before you get it. So because of this, you can’t totally rely on these symbols. To tell if a product has gone bad, I prefer using good common sense and judgment by inspecting a product for any visible changes.
How to Know If a Skincare Product has Expired
Regardless of whether or not your products have expiration dates or symbols on the packaging, it’s important to be aware they don’t last forever. Most skincare products guarantee safety and freshness for one year, though some can last up to two years, and others will be good for less (especially if they’re organic products). So with all this variation in potential expiration dates, how do you know if a skincare product is expired? Here’s what to look for:
- Expiration Dates: the first and most obvious step is to check for expiration dates or symbols. But as I mentioned, not all skincare products will have these, nor can you safely rely on them.
- Change in Consistency: is your product thinner than it was originally? Are the ingredients separating? Does the product just look strange? Is there mold growing on it? Yikes!
- Change in Color: has the color changed such as from white to either yellow or light brown? (This is especially common with L-ascorbic acid, a notoriously unstable vitamin C ingredient)
- Change in Scent: does your product smell different than it did when you purchased it? Does it smell rancid or just not a pleasant scent?
If your product is showing one or more of these signs, it’s time to toss.
What Happens If You Use Expired Skincare?
Luckily, most reputable skincare products use a robust preservative system that ensures they won’t become dangerous to use, even if it’s past a year or two. The one exception is “natural” products that don’t use preservatives. These can potentially grow mold or bacteria, which you definitely don’t want to be introducing onto your skin.
For the most part, the biggest issue you’ll face when using expired products is that they can become less effective over time. The extent to which this happens depends on the product. For example, unstable forms of vitamin C, such as pure ascorbic or L-ascorbic acids, can oxidize fairly quickly after being opened and exposed to air. Once this happens, they no longer deliver the same activity of antioxidants and will become less effective. This means less benefits to the skin. If a product contains enzymes, they can start to become inactive over time. Well-formulated products also use pH adjusters to keep them stable, but these can wear off after a while resulting in a different pH level. This can increase the risk of irritation or may simply make a product less effective.
In general, I always recommend using a product up within 12-18 months after opening for maximum results (and to get the most bang for your buck!).
Tips for Getting the Longest Life Out Of Your Skincare Products
Your products may not last forever, but I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks for making them last as long as possible. Here they are, from me to you!
- Write the purchase date on the bottom of your product with a marker. Whether or not the packaging includes a POA symbol (the image of an open jar), the difficulty will be remembering when you opened it. What good is knowing your product will last eighteen months after opening if you’re not sure when that was? Writing the date on the product is a foolproof way to remember.
- Keep your products away from light and heat. This definitely helps preserve them longer since many active ingredients can be compromised when exposed to light and/or heat. Store them in a drawer or cabinet, away from direct sunlight.
- Wash your hands before dipping fingers into a jar. Most skincare products should be formulated with a strong preservative system, so you shouldn’t worry about using your fingers to get a cream or mask out of a jar (no need for those little spatulas that have become popular recently). That said, it’s always good to make sure your hands are clean first. Learn more about whether it’s safe to use products in jars.
- Keep the caps tightly closed. It’s a fact that air can break down active ingredients more rapidly, so make sure the caps on your products are closed tightly.
- Optional: refrigerate your skincare products. If you aren’t using a product on a regular basis and want it to last, you can always store it in the refrigerator. This may help to maintain its freshness for longer. Learn more about which products to keep refrigerated.
For the best results for your skin, you do want to use your products up within 12-18 months because this ensures the product is most safe and effective. In addition, the more you tend to your skin with a regular skincare routine (and not fall into the laziness trap), the more positive changes you’ll see in your skin! Finally, if you haven’t been using a product and are wondering whether it’s expired, I urge you to consider WHY you haven’t used that product. If it’s ultimately not the right fit for your skin type, don’t force it. Give it to a friend or family member for who it might be a better fit. They’ll love you for the generous gift!
I hope this post gives you some good insight into product usage and safety. And as always, #ObeyRenee 🙂
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”