Skincare expiration dates: how accurate are they?

Updated: May 7, 2020

The spirit of New Year caught up with me soon enough, and it got me thinking about my skincare, in between my annual decluttering.

I am 100% sure I am not the only compulsive beauty hoarder out there – buying with not just a hunger for results, but a product that looks great in my collection too. I admit that I may hold on to products longer than necessary, products that I have no intention of using ever again.

As I sort through half-used face masks and abandoned eye creams, I started to question how old some of these products were. A year, perhaps longer? What even happens to our skin when we use a product that has expired? How do we know for sure, when and how a product expires? I knew it was time for an hour of research and a new blog post.

In this article you will find out how to locate and keep on top of your skincare expiry dates, some background info into how expiration dates are created, and what may happen if you don’t toss those out-of-date products in the bin.

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What happens to skincare when it expires?

Depending on the texture and formulation of the product, several things can happen to skincare when it expires. Creams and serums can change colour (especially if it contains Vitamin C or retinol), and separate, or degrade into a lumpier texture than before. Out-of-date products can sometimes smell differently, and balm formulation can dry out and crack.

Why should we avoid using out-of-date skincare?

Fundamentally the expiration date is an indicator of when the product loses its effectiveness. Why carry on using a product that isn’t guaranteed to work as promised?

The other important factor is the bacteria that grows and multiplies over time in liquid-based products. Exposing skincare to air, sunlight and to an environment that changes temperature regularly can encourage a breeding ground for bacteria. Dipping fingers into jars is another common cause.

How does bacteria in our products affect our skin? I couldn’t locate any professional discussions or clinical trials on this, however it’s obvious that by using a bacteria-ridden product on your skin that has been opened for longer than a year, can only increase the risk of skin irritation and infection. To what degree, it is not far to say, but is unnecessary to take the risk.

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Where can I locate the expiration date?

In the UK, most products will display a Period After Opening (PAO) sign somewhere on the ingredient’s label. This helpful sign shows an outline of an open jar with a number and the letter M to indicate how many months a product is safe to use for once opened.

PAO symbol


All products should have a batch number printed on the packaging somewhere, and if you can’t locate the PAO sign you can always use this information to contact the customer care team of the company to find out more.

I have started to write down on small labels, the date in which I opened the skincare to remind myself when they need to be thrown away.

How accurate are skincare expiry dates?

Expiry dates for skincare work in the same way as food and other household items – they are not completely reliable and reflect a mere estimation rather than a precise date. To be able to establish the correct expiration date of a skincare product, requires a long-winded and expensive set of stability testing. Dr Schlessinger told the NY Times “most companies do not want to delay the launch of their product, which could take six months to a year.” He admits to forking out $70,000 on this kind of testing for his own product line, FixMySkin lip balms.

What happens during these stability tests? The FDA explain that “some companies test products by exposing samples to different temperatures and humidity levels, to see how different conditions affect the products. Some companies also track how long their products have been on store shelves and alert stores when it is time to discard them.”


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Amway, a global skincare supplier, are completely transparent about their stability testing on their website. After identifying the active ingredients, each one in the formulation is separated and tested individually. During these tests, change in the product’s odour, appearance and consistency are all noted in a variety of storage conditions. Drop tests are also carried out on the packaging of the products to mark endurance.

How to prolong the shelf life of your skincare

Bottle pumps are a more sensible choice over jar packaging as it reduces the chances of bacteria build-up because you don’t need to use your fingers to extract the product from its container. You don’t have to ban jar creams completely – most do come with a disposable spatula that can be cleaned before and after using it.

Liquid-based products like balms, creams, serums, cleansers, toners and face masks containing preservatives tend to last 6-12 months. Preservative-free, natural and fresh products like those manufactured by Lush will always degrade a lot faster so its best to keep these in the fridge.

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As I mentioned earlier, using a small sticky label to date the opening of your products makes it easier to keep track of how fresh your skincare really is.

If you can’t remember when you opened your skincare last, locate the batch number on the product and email/call the skincare company directly.

Think about how and where you are storing your skincare. Humid environments and spaces that are in direct sunlight are a big no-no if you wish to keep your skincare as happy and healthy as possible. Choose a cool, dry, dark space to stock your skin serums and creams – far away from the bathroom cabinet.

Understanding skincare expiration dates can be as easy as a two-step cleanse, if you know what to look out for and follow the few simple steps listed above. Bacteria breeds fast, and when skincare is used for longer than the recommended time, it can lead to risk of skin irritation and infection. Wash your hands before and after your skincare application, start a labelling system for your new products and welcome the new year with a savvy skincare clear-out.

If you enjoyed this article, you will love this one: How to read a skincare label like a pro.

#producttesting #skincareexpirationdates #skincarerecommendations #FDA #skincarestudies #skincareexpiry

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