I finally found a way to justify throwing out products even when they are not finished. I toss them when they are expired! When I recently met Tata Harper (the owner of her eponymous natural skin care brand), she reminded me that time is often sooner than when most people think it is. Once I started researching the shelf life of beauty goods, I realized there was no reason to hoard so much stuff. It's pretty gross to hold onto a mascara or face cream for years. We don't eat food that old, so why put it on our skin?
"Every formula is different, but all products degrade over time," Tata later told me via email. "In the US only products regulated by the FDA (like sunscreen and some acne products) are required to list expiration dates, so it can be hard to tell when it's time to toss. Most products list a 'Period After Opening' recommendation (the little jar symbol with a number followed by an M), but in general the shelf life of a product depends on the actual formula, and so much depends on how you store and care for your products."
So how long does she wait to toss items? "Time and exposure to air, sun, or heat can cause the active ingredients — the ones that give you the results — to become less and less active," she explained. "That's why I personally don't like to put anything on my skin that's more than a year old, and why we batch our products every month; we think it's important to have the freshest products possible so that they are as effective as possible."
To help you navigate the shelf life of your own stash, Tata laid out some rules.
Moisturizer: six months to one year
"Most moisturizers are good to use for six months to one year after opening," Tata said. "Anything that comes in a jar will have a shorter shelf life because you're putting your fingers in it and exposing it to bacteria. Products with a pump will last a bit longer since they are more protected. In general, though, it is always important to look for changes in the smell, texture, or color of your product, which can all be signs that it's become unstable and should be thrown away."
Serum: six to nine months
"Serums have a slightly shorter shelf life of about six to nine months because the high-performing ingredients they contain can lose their effectiveness," she explained. "Formulas with vitamin C or other ingredients that oxidize will especially lose their effectiveness with exposure to air, so it's always good to look for airless packaging, which protects the formulas more."
Face wash: six months to one year
"There are so many varieties of cleansers," Tata noted. "Oil-based formulas can last for a year if kept in a cool, dark place, while water-based products should generally be used within closer to six months, particularly if they include BHA, AHA, or enzymes that can degrade or oxidize quickly."
Oil: approximately one year
"Oils are more resistant to bacteria than water-based products, but their shelf life is really about how you treat them," she said. "Oils can last for a year or longer, but can go rancid if not stored properly. They need to be kept in a cool, dark place. You can look for added (natural) antioxidants such as Tocopherol that aid in oil stability."
Body lotion: one to two years
"Body lotion is similar to moisturizer — it can last about a year and sometimes up to two years, but it depends on the formula and how much exposure it has to bacteria," Tata explained. "Again it's important to look for changes in the product from when it was first opened to determine if it's gone bad."
SPF: check the expiration date
"SPF is very strictly regulated by the FDA, but despite the expiration date, it can go bad early if not handled properly," she said. "If it's been left out in the sun or in a hot car you may want to consider replacing it."
Foundation: six months to one year
It's best to replace foundations and other non-powder face makeup after six months-a year. It's important to monitor these products for any changes and to be really mindful of how you're caring for tools like brushes and sponges. If not cleaned properly, these tools can attract a lot of bacteria that you're then spreading into your product and onto your skin.
Mascara: three to six months
"Mascara and eyeliner should be replaced every three to six months, and you should sharpen eyeliner before every use; you really don't want to get bacteria in your eyes!" Tata advised.
Lip gloss: one year
"I've heard that lip glosses and lipstick can last two to three years, but the most I recommend is a year," she said. "I don't believe a beauty product will be as effective as it was when it was created after a whole year, and I prefer to only put fresh products on my face, especially near my mouth and eyes."