When Do Skincare Products Expire?

by Gio

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?

Rough skincare products expiration dates

So, 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 and eye moisturizers: 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

Creams and 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: they are effective for only a month or two.
  • 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

Sunscreens: 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. Get a new bottle.

Organic & Natural products: 4-6 Months

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!

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5 signs your skincare product has gone bad

Ok, 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 the product changed colour?

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

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.

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How to make your skincare products last longer

So now we know when it’s time to throw away our 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.

So, what can we do to make our skincare products last longer? Here are my fave tips:

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!

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).

Do you follow skincare products expiration dates to a T or do you keep your products until you notice some change in them?

Take The Guesswork Out Of Skincare Shopping

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Shari November 20, 2012 - 1:40 pm

Lovely!! Thanks for this!
The Misty Mom

beautifulwithbrains November 20, 2012 - 8:23 pm

Shari, you’re welcome. 🙂

Trisha November 20, 2012 - 7:49 pm

I wish we had POA in the states! That’s a really good rule.

As for me, I go by the “how to tell if it’s expired” rather than by any expiration date or general rule. Some things last way longer than what magazines say…

beautifulwithbrains November 20, 2012 - 8:26 pm

Trisha, I think all products everywhere should their expiration dates printed on the packaging, in one way or another. Hopefully one day soon that will be required by law in the States too.

Sherry B. November 21, 2012 - 2:49 am

That’s scary, but good information to have! Think I’d best do a “clean-out”! Thanks for letting us know, Gio.

beautifulwithbrains November 21, 2012 - 12:34 pm

Sherry, you’re welcome. It’s always good to clean out your stash every now and again and get rid of anything that may have gone bad. 🙂

Marianthi November 21, 2012 - 6:35 am

Very nice post, thank you.

beautifulwithbrains November 21, 2012 - 12:35 pm

Marianthi, you’re welcome. I’m glad you like it.

xin November 21, 2012 - 8:07 am

can’t imagine if i ever find black spots in my cream! but usually i notice the smells turn funny than anything else

beautifulwithbrains November 21, 2012 - 12:35 pm

Xin, that would be scary, wouldn’t it?

Janessa November 23, 2012 - 4:42 am

Even though I really don’t like jar packaging, I have a full-sized jar of vitamin C face cream in a jar. It came in a gift-set. Now I’m going to have to use it up in a month! Haha. Well, I am generous with it and I’ll use it on my neck too. Grr. It’s a great moisturizer so it just might turn into a regular moisturizer. I’m hoping to use half the jar before it turns into nothingness. 😛

You’ve covered EVERYTHING I can think of in this post, you did a really thorough job!

beautifulwithbrains November 23, 2012 - 12:11 pm

Janessa, isn’t it a shame when they package a well-formulated moisturizer in a jar that will soon render it ineffective? I hate it when that happens, but enjoy it while it is still performing its best. 🙂

Ana November 23, 2012 - 8:06 am

The sales thing is so me.

Also, my sunscreens rarely get used up.

If a moisturizer is past its exp date, but I don’t see a change in it, I’ll use but for a part of skin I don’t consider sensitive.

beautifulwithbrains November 23, 2012 - 12:13 pm

Ana, if nothing has changed, then it is still good to use. Maybe some of the actives may have lots their efficacy, especially if the product is packaged in a jar, but it should still be able to moisturize skin without causing any negative reactions. 🙂

yasmine January 14, 2013 - 4:43 pm

A great post
I buy so many products and then forget about them
Would be great if all products had a clear use by date on them would be so useful

beautifulwithbrains January 14, 2013 - 9:04 pm

Yasmine, I agree. That would be very useful indeed. I hope that’ll be required by law one day.

elisio November 1, 2017 - 2:08 pm

I would really like an explanation to something. most skin care products don’t come sealed, so doesn’t this mean that their expiration time starts counting since the day they are manufactured instead of the day when you use it for the first time?

this is something that I am really worried about. buying an expensive cream just to find out that its expiration time had passed before you bought it… that’s not nice

Gio November 5, 2017 - 5:32 pm

Elisio, usually the expiration date starts from the day it is opened. But if something has a clear packaging and is stored in front of big windows or in a hot environment, the product will start to go bad before you open it. 🙁


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