How strict should you be with expiration dates? Are there general rules of thumb regarding when ingredients expire? We ask the experts.
Written by Amber Katz
I’d like to think I know exactly when I should throw out my skincare, and, yet, I recently did a batch code check on a cream I’d never opened and found out it expired in 2014 — 2014. Many of us could use a guide on what the shelf life of a skincare product actually means and how to read the label on the package or box to find out. How strict do we need to be with expiration dates? Are there general rules of thumb regarding when certain ingredients expire or how to prolong the shelf life of certain products and actives? To find out, we tapped a cosmetic chemist, dermatologists, and aestheticians to get their take.
“Unless there is an expiration date stamped on a product, manufacturers typically formulate skincare products to last one year after opening,” says Ron Robinson, a cosmetic chemist and founder of BeautyStat. He explains that, if you store your products tightly sealed in a cool, dry place, there might be some leeway with the date printed on the bottle. When in doubt, however, follow manufacturer instructions.
It should be noted that the stability of a skincare product is tested in its final packaging. As such, you’ll want to tamper with the formula as little as possible, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board certified dermatologist in New York City. He has the following tips for keeping products as stable as possible:
If you are wondering if a product is past its prime, Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, a NYC-based cosmetic dermatologist and author of The Pro-Aging Playbook, says it needs to pass the smell test. “If someone’s skincare routine becomes too complicated, you may need to check and throw out product that’s old,” he says. A pungent smell and/or skin irritation are signs that it’s time to toss.
Generally speaking, you should toss closed skincare products after one year and open products after six months, says celebrity facialist and eponymous skincare line founder Joanna Vargas. In fact, when you open a product may be even more important than the expiration date. An airless pump is much better than a jar, but, even in airless packaging, oxygen starts to get to the product, says aesthetician and ZIIP co-founder Melanie Simon. She prioritizes open date over expiration date, smelling her products “just like food” and looking to see if they are separating.
When you first open a product, pay attention to the consistency. If you notice it is separated or clumpy, Simon says to contact the brand. Similarly, if you’ve had the product for a long time, notice how the formula looks before using. “If it starts to have a foggy appearance or something with a vitamin C is changing color dramatically, it is no longer good to use,” she says.
With that in mind, below are some general rules of them when it comes to the shelf life of skincare products.
If ever there was a case for paying attention to the expiration date, sunscreen is it. Dr. Frank says that, once your SPF is opened, it becomes less effective as time goes on. Robinson agrees and notes that you should be careful with sunscreen products because, if those expire, you are more likely to get over exposed to damaging sun rays. Simon says that she typically uses a sunblock for six months after opening. “If it is more than a year old, I will only use it if it’s the only SPF I have — when I am absolutely desperate,” she says.
Cremes can be tricky because there are so many types, Simon notes. Some creams in jars, even when brand new, naturally separate. Simon says to use a Q-tip or cream applicator to stir the formula. “I also like to shake my bottles or jars of moisturizer almost every time I use a product,” she shares. “Especially now, skincare lines are getting away from chemicals that keep their products emulsified and preserved longer.”
Simon advises using a serum for up to eight months after opening. “If you’re using your serum properly, you really should be through it by that point,” she says. But there is a bit of leeway. “If you open and use consistently and it pushes three months past expiration, I believe it’s perfectly fine,” she adds. If you’re using a product without preservatives, think of it like the food you eat. “You need to open it and use it within a month,” Simon says.
This is the category Simon is most lenient about. “I would use an open cleanser for a year,” she says. “I have so many different cleansers to create different outcomes, so this is a product that I would likely have for a year after opening.” These formulations are typically very sturdy, she adds, which means they will hold up over time.
Dr. Zeichner says that some ingredients, like vitamin C and retinol, “are especially temperamental and can more easily become activated from environmental exposures like ultraviolet light.” Vitamin C “does not play nicely in the sandbox with other ingredients,” Simon adds. Once you open a product with vitamin C, she recommends using it consistently until it is finished. “If it is past expiration, don’t use it,” she says. Hyaluronic acid (HA) is another powerhouse ingredient that can be temperamental, Simon says. “It will gel up a formulation over time,” she explains. “If you notice small pills when you are applying on the skin, it is past its prime and time to toss.”
Before coming to market, labs and manufacturers stability test formulas to make sure they do not degrade and do not become contaminated over specific lengths of time. “In some cases, the expiration date may be printed on the bottle, but not always,” Dr. Zeichner says. “If a product is beyond its expiration date, it does not necessarily mean it is no longer stable or effective; it means that the company cannot demonstrate that it is stable and effective.”
While there is no hard and fast rule, Simon says it is always best to use products as consistently as possible. “Many sealed products that are close to their expiration date are just fine as long as once they are opened and used immediately,” she says. “If you happen to step away from a product for a few weeks that is already expired, coming back to it after it has been sitting is not a good idea.”