How Long Does Your Skincare Actually Last?

Is it time to toss your skincare? Ashleigh Cometti speaks with two experts to set the record straight


Cosmetics have a shelf life too. Photo / @shelfielust

We’ve all seen the Instagram posts. Shelf upon glorious shelf of colour-coded, height-ordered skincare, bathroom drawers brimming with palettes and pressed powders.  

But it turns out there’s a downside to having a sizable skincare arsenal – these products don’t last forever.  

While a well-stocked shelf is pretty to look at, as the weeks and months go on and the serums and sunscreens go unused (or sit half empty), there’s a high chance the active ingredients contained within are slowly losing their efficacy. Or worse, are breeding bacteria to cause skin irritations like rashes or infections.  

There’s a lot of information out there around which ingredients break down the fastest and the best methods for prolonging a product’s shelf life, so we asked two skincare experts for some intel on how we can keep our skin healthy. 

Shelf Life Signifiers  

According to Caroline Parker, head of education at Dermalogica, the shelf life of a skincare product can be measured in three ways. 

“The first is a printed expiry date which indicates the length of time that the manufacturers guarantee the stability of the active ingredient for, for example with SPF,” she says.  

In lieu of a printed expiry date, expect to see a PAO (period after opening) symbol on the packaging, which looks like a jar with an opened lid with either six, 12, 24 or 36m inside.  

Lastly, Caroline says unopened products also have a shelf life for how long they are considered safe and effective for.  

“The expiry date is relevant whether the product is opened or not. If there isn’t an expiry date, then the safety and efficacy of an unopened product will vary depending on how long ago it was manufactured,” Caroline says. The shelf life of an unopened product can be up to three years, but it pays to check as this varies between brands. 

Caroline says there are four main reasons why products expire. “The preservatives used, the emulsifiers which hold the oil and water together in a formula, packaging and storage of the product to avoid exposure to heat and sunlight,” she says.  

Preservative-free or organic formulas should be used quickly due to their very short shelf lives, especially if they’re packaged in a jar.  

Shelf life varies from product to product. Check out our quick guide below.  

  • VITAMIN C: While great for glow-getting, vitamin C is notorious for its fast oxidation after exposure to air, heat or water. “This causes your vitamin C product to lose its effectiveness,” Caroline explains. “If your vitamin C serum is looking a brown colour, chances are its oxidised.”  
  • SERUMS: As serums are high in concentrated or active ingredients, Clinique education manager Tracey Pedersen recommends using these up within a year to get the maximum results possible.  
  • MOISTURISERS: Caroline says typically the PAO for these types of products would be 12 months, but it pays to check the back of the packaging just in case. “Safety and performance would be issues after the PAO has passed,” she says.  
  • EYE CREAMS: You can’t be too careful when it comes to eye products, Caroline heeds. “Some microbes that can grow in an out-of-date formula can cause nasty eye infections,” she says. “If there is any change in the smell, texture or colour of your product – stop using it.” For an extra level of safety, look for eye creams that have been tested by ophthalmologists. 
  • SPF: Most SPF products will be printed with an expiry date, otherwise aim to buy new every summer as storage in beach bags or warm cars can cause the formulation to separate or become less stable, Tracey warns.  
  • SPOT TREATMENTS: "These will often have an expiry date as they usually contain active ingredients that are going to help clear breakouts,” Caroline says. When the expiry date has passed there is no guarantee on the efficacy of those actives to keep breakouts at bay.  

The dangers of using a product past its expiration date depends on the type of product in question. “In the case of an expired SPF there is a risk your skin could burn with UV exposure,” Caroline says.  

Time To Toss?  

If you think it’s time to toss out a product, it probably is. "A change in smell, colour or consistency would be a sign the product has gone off,” Caroline explains.  

Other signs to look out for include product separation, a difference in texture, or the presence of black, green or blue mould spots.  

Any single-use products or ampoules need to be thrown out immediately after the first use, even if there is product remaining.  

Dispose of expired product responsibly by looking into local recycling initiatives, or if they can be tossed in your green and yellow bin for kerbside recycling 

In addition, Tracey recommends washing your hands before applying your skincare, as unclean hands can cause contamination. “These [formulas] can be affected by [poor] hygiene if you are using fingers for application. A spatula is always a great tool (but try not to double dip). Always ensure lids are returned back on product after use.”  

Safe Storage 

Turns out the best place for your skincare isn’t actually the bathroom. A cool, dry environment away from direct sunlight and heat is the best spot for skincare, Caroline says 

Consider packaging when shopping for skincare, as some designs aren’t airtight meaning the formula won’t last as long as it should.  

There are active ingredients that are degraded by exposure to light and air so packaging should take that into account and have a coating over a glass bottle, for example to stop light interreacting with the formula, and a smaller opening with a dropper lid to reduce the exposure to air,” says Caroline.  

Make sure water does not get into the container, as mold may develop over time. It's best to buy products that are in sealed containers like pumps instead of jars, as they tend to have a longer shelf life,” she adds.  

Tracey agrees, especially when it comes to unstable active ingredients like vitamin C. “Packaging may keep certain ingredients separated in a vial so they are fresh on usage and more active, or tubes which have a small neck to keep the ingredients from being exposed to air, helping to maintain its shelf life,” she says.  

Ever been told to keep your skincare in the fridge to extend its shelf life? Turns out it’s not true. Tracey says that storing products in the fridge will not add to its shelf life, but will adding a cooling effect – ideal with summer right around the corner.  

Share this:
New Zealand Herald

New Zealand Herald

Subscribe to E-Newsletter