skincare products expiration dates

I’m a skincare magpie.

Always looking for the next big thing. And when I find it, the old one gets unceremoniously dumped into a drawer.

But, after a while, I start to feel the guilt gnawing at me. It’s not like I am emotionally attached to a serum or anything like that (gosh, that would be weird!). It’s just that I hate waste.

Skincare products aren’t like an old book you can set aside, pick up years later, and still get a lot out of it. They’re more like milk. Wait a little too long to finish it, it’ll go bad.

Best case scenario, its active ingredients stop working. You may just as well be splashing water all over your face. Worst case scenario, bacteria will wave you hello when you open that jar. Ewww!

So, how you can figure out if a skincare product has expired and it’s time to toss it away? Here are the signs to look out for:

The Period After Opening (PAO) Rule (And Its Limitation)

If you’re a fellow European, you’ve probably noticed that most of your skincare products feature a little open jar with a number followed by the letter M either on their bottles/jars or their boxes.

That’s the PAO (Period After Opening) symbol. The letter M stands for months and the number for the number of months the product is good after opening. So, for example, if you’re using a cream with 12 M stamped on its tube, it means you have a year to use it before it goes bad.

But, there’s an exception: any product that lasts 30 months or slightly less doesn’t need to display the PAO symbol. Instead, it’s only required to have a “best before” date.

In the USA, things are different. There, only OTC drugs (such as sunscreens and anti-acne treatments) are required to show their expiration date on the packaging.

Having the expiration date printed on the packaging is very useful. But, not enough. PAO and “best before dates” don’t take into consideration how the products are stored once we bring them home from the shops.

Your brand new sunscreen may have a PAO of one year, but if you keep forgetting it in your car during the blazing hot summer months, it may not survive the week!

Related: What’s The Difference Between A Cosmetic And A Drug?


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(Rough) Skincare Products Expiration Dates

If you live somewhere expiration dates don’t appear on the packaging, how can you tell when it’s time to toss something? Here are some rough guidelines to help you out:

(P.S. Same limitations apply. If you don’t store your skincare products properly, they’ll go bad a lot sooner.)

Face + Eye Moisturisers: 18 Months

A simple, basic moisturizer without antioxidants, retinoids or sunscreen ingredients (you know, all that good anti-aging stuff) can last up to 18 months.

The reason is simple: none of the ingredients in these simple concoctions are light-sensitive or degrade when exposed to air. They stay stable in most storage conditions, so you can enjoy them for months and years.

Related: How Anti-Aging Creams Really Work

the inkey list retinol

Creams + Serums With Antioxidants And Retinoids: 1 To 9 Months

Antioxidants and retinoids can oxidize (ie lose their effectiveness) when exposed to light and air. How long they last depends on how they’re stored:

  • When packaged in a jar: The ficklest antioxidant, L-Ascorbic Acid, is effective for only a month or two. Other antioxidants can last longer if you close that lid quickly.
  • When packaged in an opaque tube or bottle: They’re effective for up to 9 months.

After that time has passed, you can still use the cream. But it’ll only moisturize your skin. All its anti-aging properties have evaporated into thin air.

Related: Why You Should Avoid Retinoids Packaged In Jars

bioderma photoderm max spf 50 aquafluid review

Sunscreen: 1 Year

UV filters stop working overtime, too. That’s why your sunscreen is usually good only for one year.  

That old bottle leftover from last summer? Ditch it. Sunscreen isn’t skincare. It’s medicine. It doesn’t just keep wrinkles at bay. It protects you from cancer. Don’t risk it.

Related: Can You Still Use Expired Sunscreen?

pai rosehip bioregenerate oil review

Organic & Natural Products: 4-6 Months To Years

Organic products are very delicate. They usually have very weak or, worse, no preservative systems, so they are more prone to bacteria contamination. Use them within 4-6 months.

They may still work after that, but you’re at risk of bacteria contamination and the infections they bring. Ewww!

Oils are the exception. Bacteria thrive in humid environments. Oils don’t have a drop of water, so they can last for years.

Related: What Are The Best Organic Skincare Products?

la roche posay anthelios dermo-kids lotion spf 50+

5 Signs Your Skincare Products Have Gone Bad

These are the general rules. But, how can we tell if something has gone bad before its time? Here are 5 tell-tale signs to look out for:

1. Has It Changed Colour?

Skincare products are sensitive to light. If it has taken on a yellowish or brown colour, it’s time to toss it.

Related: My Vitamin C Has Turned Brown. Can I Still Use It?

2. Does It Smell Differently?

If it has a rancid, foul or just weird scent, throw it away.

3. Has It Separated Into Two Layers?

Once the product has separated into two layers, you can’t simply shake them back together. You’ll have to throw it out.

4. Is The Texture Different?

If the consistency has become runny, lumpy, too thick or has changed in any way, then the product isn’t good anymore.

5. Are There Any Black Spots In It?

Now we’re in dangerous territory. If you notice any black, fuzzy spots, then your product is very likely contaminated with bacteria. Throw it in the bin straight away. If you use it, you’ll risk an infection.

mother dirt skincare review

How To Make Your Skincare Products Last Longer

Now you know when it’s time to throw away your beloved lotions and potions. But, I bet you don’t want to throw away a bottle of moisturizer that’s still half full because you stored it in the wrong place or did something else to ruin it without even realising it.

Here’s what you can do to make your skincare products last longer:

1. Store Your Products Away From Light And Heat

The best skincare ingredients (antioxidants, retinoids and UV filters) don’t like light and heat. When they come in contact with them, they start to lose a bit of their effectiveness. To prevent that from happening, simply store them in a cool and dark place, such as a drawer, a cabinet, or even the fridge.

P.S. The bathroom cabinet doesn’t count. The temperature and humidity in the bathroom change all the time (blame those hot showers you love so much). That’s a recipe for disaster!

Related: 5 Anti-Aging Superstars You Need To Add To Your Skincare Routine

2. Write The Purchase Date On The Product

Whenever you buy a new skincare product, write the purchase date on the packaging. If you remember when you’ve bought it, it’ll be easier to figure out how long it’s going to be good for.

3. Fingers Off

If you really want to buy something packaged in a jar, at the very least don’t pick up the product with your fingers. Use a spatula, instead. That way, there’s no risk you’ll contaminate its contents with bacteria (even if your hands seem clean, they are full of bacteria).

Related: Why I Prefer To Avoid Jar Packaging

Do you follow skincare products expiration dates to a T or do you keep your products until you notice some change in them? Let me know in the comments below.