With growing vaccine distribution, warmer temperatures and relaxed COVID-19 restrictions on the horizon, many are safely returning to “normal” activities such as work and (responsible, distanced) social outings. A return to pre-COVID life is very welcome, but it also means we’ll likely leave behind the sweatpants, makeup-free skin and low-maintenance beauty routines of the past year.
So, when you’re ready to swipe on some lipstick again, is it safe to use a tube that predates the pandemic? We consulted with three medical experts to get the skinny on the true shelf life of our everyday beauty and skin care products.
What is the shelf life for skin care products?
Spring cleaning is the perfect time to take all of your products (both makeup and skin care) off the shelf, look at the expiration dates and toss anything past that date. “Depending on the quality of the product, in terms of formulation and chemistry, it’s safe to assume one year of shelf life,” said board-certified dermatologist Harold Lancer. “If it’s not a high-quality product, the shelf life is closer to three to six months.”
For any skin care bought and opened in March of last year (or before), it is definitely time to throw it out.
If you are someone who throws away the original packaging, or who doesn’t pay attention to expiration dates, there are ways to ascertain if the product is still safe ― namely the ol’ sniff test.
“Pay attention to an already-opened product,” advised Purvisha Patel, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare. “When it does not look or smell the same, it has gone bad and should be discarded. Products that are creamier or those with oil emulsions will tend to smell and get rancid faster after exposure to air.”
Though the thought of tossing unused products (and money) in the trash will definitely sting, it is still best to throw pre-pandemic items away.
Unopened products may still be safe to use, but it depends on the type of product and formulation. “If you have a loose powder or compact that has not been exposed to air, then they should be OK,” Patel advised. “If you have a lipstick or liquid foundation, it can separate and lose water content over time. These products should be mixed and evaluated as to the thickness and texture to see if it still works.”
Patel does note that most unopened makeup products should be OK, with the exception of natural products with edible ingredients.
When should you throw away makeup?
For any opened products you plan on using frequently, you need to consider how long they’re meant to last.
Foundations, concealers and powders are good for up to a year. Blushes and eyeshadows also last about a year, possibly longer if it is a powder formulation.
Patel recommends that lipsticks should be thrown out around the eight-month mark and recommends tossing lip products even sooner if they come into contact with any type of cold sore or other lip infection.
With the exception of eye shadows (which should be tossed after a year or two), eye makeup has the shortest shelf life: Mascara should be replaced every four to six months. Eyeliner needs replacing every year, although liquid eyeliners should be replaced more frequently at the six-month mark.
Paying attention to the expiration dates of eye makeup is especially important because of how sensitive the eye area is. “We have a normal flora of bacteria on our skin and eyelashes that just hang out there on a regular basis, but they get introduced into our products through makeup brushes, wands or other applicators,” explained Johndra McNeely, a doctor of optometry in Greenville, South Carolina. “Bacteria and fungus can grow in the product itself and then get reintroduced to the eye or face when putting makeup on over time.”
McNeely suggested that “if someone hasn’t been wearing eyeliner or mascara and those products have been sitting unused, but opened, since the pandemic started, I would toss it out.”
What happens if you use an expired product?
You might think, “What’s the worst that can happen?” A lot, actually.
“Holding on to a product for too long can cause allergic reactions, and if there is contamination of a product with bacteria, an increased risk of infection: folliculitis, skin infections and inflammation,” Patel explained.
In particular, our eyes are highly susceptible to additional bacteria and expired product use. McNeely said that conjunctiva ― the lining inside your eyelids ― functions as one of the main mucous membranes for the entire body, and the eye itself responds very quickly to allergens. “So, when putting on eyeliner, eye shadow or mascara, allergens and bacteria can float in the tear film and cause itching or redness of the eye itself. Using old products on the eyelid can also introduce bacteria into the glands inside the eyelids and cause a painful stye.”
Those who have sensitive eyes or wear contact lenses should be especially diligent about replacing their eye makeup over time. “Take no chances with eye products, as they grow germs,” Patel cautioned. “Close it tightly after each use, avoid pumping the wand in and out and never ever share your mascara with anyone.”
Even if no reaction occurs, it’s best to toss old products anyway, particularly those with “active” ingredients like SPF, retinols/retinoids and hyaluronic acid. For unopened products, look at the expiration date and toss if the product is past its prime. Patel explained, “In products with actives, the product stops working as the actives break down over time. So, even if you don’t get a reaction, you experience ineffectiveness of the product.”
The main lesson? Just because you haven’t used it in a year, that doesn’t mean it’s usable.
Tips for extending the shelf life of your favorite products
Fortunately, extending product shelf life is often as easy as making sure the containers are properly sealed in order to minimize contamination.
There are a few key habits Patel recommends to help extend and preserve the shelf life of our favorite (or, let’s be real ― our most expensive) products. “Move your products away from the hot shower, where they can be exposed to heat and moisture,” she suggested. “You can also use a skin care fridge to keep your products fresh longer.”
Though the COVID-19 pandemic has made our global culture more aware than ever about bacteria and germs lurking in benign places, one of the biggest keys to keeping harmful bacteria out of your beloved products and off your face and eyes is surprisingly simple: Toss early and often, and keep your fingers out of the container by using a spatula or tool instead.
“You can never be 100% sure that a product is bacteria, fungal and viral free,” Lancer cautioned, “but using clean hands and applicators and brushes will help reduce the chance of contamination.”