Skin Care Expiration Dates: When to Toss the Products in Your Cabinet

If you look into the average American woman’s bathroom cabinet, you’re likely to find a plethora of skin care products bought at various points over the past five years. For many of us, it’s hard to say goodbye to a product we think we might use at some point in the future. However, those old skin care products on your shelves may have become unstable to the point where they will have no effect on the skin whatsoever, or worse, they could potentially be harmful if contamination has occurred.

Skin care products that contain preservatives, as most do, generally last for a considerably lengthy period of time, especially when the product has not yet been opened. However, there are certain factors that may affect a skin care product's performance and stability. These factors contribute to what is called the product’s “shelf life” – the period during which a skin care product is recommended for use, as determined by its manufacturer.

Are there Rules for Skin Care Shelf Life and Expiration Dates on Product Labels?

Even though skin care and cosmetic manufacturers are mandated to ensure their products are safe for consumers, there are no U.S. laws or regulations requiring them to print a product’s expiration date on the label of their skin care products. When skin care manufacturers do include an expiration date, it is on a voluntary basis. 

Skin care products manufactured in Europe must abide by EU cosmetic regulations, which require that product shelf life from the time of first opening be stated on the label. For products with a lifespan longer than 30 months, this is indicated by a symbol of an open jar with the PAO (“period after opening”) stated in months. Products with a shelf life under 30 months may feature the open jar symbol or an hourglass symbol accompanied by the "best before the end of" date.

Note: Lexli products feature each product’s expiration date in the stamped code found on every bottle or jar. Following the words “EXP,” the letter corresponds to the expiration month and the two-digit number corresponds to the expiration year. Lexli products also list the PAO period.

While printed expiration dates are helpful to consumers, the reality is that a product’s true shelf life is highly determined by the methods in which you, the end user, store and use the product. Generally speaking, skin care products can be kept for several years. To ensure you get the best performance out of your skin care products during that time, consider the following:

Basic Guidelines for Skin Care Product Shelf Life

  • To extend shelf life, avoid dipping your fingers into the formulations. Skin care products that come in a jar should be dispensed using a cosmetic swab or cosmetic spatula to extend shelf life. If you must use your hands, ensure that they are washed thoroughly before touching the product.
  • Care must be taken with products that feature active ingredients, such as anti-aging formulations and acne products. Some actives begin to oxidize when exposed to air, resulting in a loss of effectiveness within just a few months, while others actually become stronger as they age and can irritate the skin. Therefore, for best results these products should be kept for no longer than six months, regardless of the expiration date listed on the packaging. To optimize their stability, these products can be stored in the refrigerator.
  • Exposing your skin care products to UV rays can cause the ingredients and preservatives contained in them to quickly degrade. Be sure to keep them away from windows and never leave them in the car. One of our favorite recommendations is to store your sunscreen in the cooler when at the beach to keep it protected. An added benefit is the cooling relief you’ll feel when applying it to your skin.
  • Heat and humidity can significantly reduce the shelf life of any skin care product. Storing products in a cabinet above the bathroom sink can expose it to heat and humidity, which are major factors that accelerate the growth of mold, fungi and bacteria. The best option is to store your skin care product in a closet outside of the bathroom.  

And finally, a tip: buy skin care products in sizes that you know you'll use up within a few months while the product remains at optimal effectiveness.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Lexli blog in August of 2017.