by Laura Verallo de Bertotto

One of the most frequent questions I get from friends is: can I still use a product if it’s past its expiration date? Do cosmetics really expire? In our home, we often, and happily, use “expired” stock for a few reasons, some of which you might find surprising.

It’s Not Food

Most cosmetics — including VMV products — don’t “go bad” the way food does. This is why many cosmetics and skincare products use preservatives (more on that later). Skincare and makeup actually “last” — meaning they don’t exhibit changes under normal conditions — a really long time: two years, five years, or more. Formulations with little to no water tend to last longer.

When Things Do Go Bad

Unlike fresh food that goes bad over time, if something funky happens to a product, it’s frequently due to contamination…some organism got into the product. This can happen if water gets into it, or if some product got out and you put it back in, when sharing products with different people….you get the gist. But left alone, closed and stored well? Most products last a really, really long time.

IMPORTANT: if you do notice funky changes, expired or not, trash the product as it may have become contaminated.

Expiration Dates

Why do some cosmetics have expiration dates? This depends in part on rules in different countries’ FDAs and with a store’s preferred shelf life.

Expiration dates are sometimes mandated if a product is considered a drug, or if its tested shelf life is less than a specific amount of years.

For drugs, the expiration date refers to efficacy. ALSO IMPORTANT: expired sunscreens might not protect at the tested protection factors so it’s best to use them before the expiration date.

For other products, “expiration” or “sell-by” or “shelf life” can refer to how long the product can sit on a shelf in normal storage conditions without manifesting changes in “organoleptic properties” (how it looks, smells, etc). This is important for stores to know how long they can display or stock a product for sale. Again, not how long before it “rots.”

Preservation

Many products use preservatives to be able to stay on shelves longer without manifesting those organoleptic changes.

Pro tip: some “preservative-free” products use fragrances or other allergens that double as preservatives.

Due to the highly sensitive/allergic skins of our customers, with the exception of very few products, VMV Hypoallergenics does not use preservatives. Instead, we use a proprietary mix with zero allergens. This is great for skin, but it also means our shelf life is shorter than most…but we’re constantly testing to try to push it further (hence the constant “skinnovation!”).

Prevent Contamination

Some best practices to prevent contamination are:

  1. Never pour water or anything else into the container.
  2. If some of the product falls out or you take out too much by mistake, do not put it back in (even if it was just on your hand or a cotton applicator).
  3. Store your products in a cool, dry place away from light. Many ingredients are photosensitive and can change color from light exposure. For the most part, storing products in the refrigerator is fine (check with the company, though).
  4. Try not to share your products. If you need or want to, make sure you: don’t “double dip” with open-mouthed containers (your fingertip or cotton applicator touches the bottle once); you do not share mascara or lip gloss wands; you apply lipsticks with your own lip brush; and you disinfect makeup brushes before using a product (and wash makeup brushes regularly). And obviously, if someone has an infection or the risk of infection (herpes blister, cut or wound, etc.) put the sharing on pause until it’s cleared.

The “Skinny”

  • As a rule, cosmetics are not food and do not tend to naturally “rot” or “go bad” over time.
  • Most cosmetics, especially if they use preservatives or have little water in the formulation last a really long time: two years or more.
  • If a cosmetic product shows an expiration date, it might be mandated by the local FDA because it is a drug, or it has shown organoleptic changes after a certain number of years in stability tests, or retailers require it so they know how long they can store a product. Expiration rarely refers to “rot.”
  • If a product shows an expiration date, do you trash it?
    • NOT NECESSARILY if it is a cosmetic product and shows no changes in smell, texture, consistency, color, etc.
    • YES if you notice “funky” changes, whether or not the expiration date has passed (it may have gotten contaminated).
    • YES if it is a drug or sunscreen! Do not use it after the expiration date — not for “rot,” but to make sure you’re getting the tested potency of the active ingredients.
  • As usual and especially for sensitive skin, skin that’s prone to infection, or if you are immune-compromised, when in doubt, ask the manufacturer and your doctor.


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Laura is the CEO of VMV Hypoallergenics and eldest daughter of our founding dermatologist-dermatopathologist. She has two children, Madison and Gavin, and works at VMV with her sister and husband (Madison and Gavin frequently volunteer their “usage testing” services). In addition to saving the world’s skin, Laura is passionate about learning, literature, art, health, science, inclusion, cultural theory, human rights, happiness and goodness.

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