Sussing Out the Shelf Life on Your Beauty Products

Sable Yong
Getty/Anthony Lee

Getty/Anthony Lee

Most of the time you probably don’t pay attention to little branding or copywriting logos on beauty products because they’s just so vague. You might however have noticed a little symbol that looks like an open jar or tub on any of your beauty products with a number and the letter M (like 6M, 12M, 24M) next to it. Guess what? There’s your expiration date! From when you open that product for the first time, that number is how many months that the product is usable. It won’t necessarily rot or disintegrate past that time, but that is how long the company can claim the product is effective, basically.

You may feel comfortable playing fast and loose with some expiration dates merely posing as suggestions, but there are visible tell-tale signs of when it’s time to chuck a product– some of which you definitely shouldn’t bet on if you’re the least bit iffy about them.

a 3x vertical1 Sussing Out the Shelf Life on Your Beauty Products

This means the product is useable for 12 months once opened.


Form over Function: Rule of thumb pretty much follows that liquid has a much shorter shelf life than powder or dry products. Since you use your fingers for product application lots of times, bacteria can get inside them and germinate, putting you at risk for infection with future use. Germs live and multiply much easier in a moist environment than dry, so while your face powder may be usable for a year or two with no visible difference, foundation and liquid eye makeup tends to morph and separate, compromising the formula.

Don’t Mess With (Expired) Rx: Things like acne medication definitely lose efficacy once they’re expired. Generally if there is a prescription involved or medication in use, there will be a firm expiration date on the package as opposed to a shelf-life symbol that goes into effect once you open the product. Bottom line is that these medications are only formulated for a certain period of time so the getting’s only as good as before that expiry date. Go overdue and you may just be dealing with the yucky side effects and not actually benefiting from the medication.

MORE: A Breakdown on Makeup’s Expiration Dates

Containers are key: Something in a tube that barely comes in contact with the outside world unless it’s exiting its packaging is an ideal germ-free product. Skincare products like lotions, cleansers and ointments are commonly found in squeeze tubes. Anything in a jar or tub that you put your fingers in is fair game for bacteria. Anything that touches your eye and then gets put back into a container is also potential germ home base. Something to consider if there are packaging options.

Look Out for Shape-shifting: Any time a formula appears to change consistency, develop of weird smell or separate, it’s a pretty sure sign that things are going south. You don’t want to roll that dice with ANYTHING that goes on or near your eyeballs. Gloopy weird-smelling mascara (it tends to take on a gasoline-type of scent once it’s gone bad) and liquid liners are generally the first to go, having a shelf life of 6 months or less. Complexion makeup is able to blend back together but you will probably find that the color is a bit off and it smells a bit musty when it’s gone bad.

MORE: How Germy is Your Makeup?

#NotAllPreservatives: Parabens, which are basically preservatives that prevent mold and bacteria from growing in your products, get a bad rep but there is a ton of conflicting information about how dangerous they actually are. Those who prefer going preservative-free (lots of natural products eschew them) should be extra vigilant about those products’ shelf lives because without preservatives microorganisms can more easily grow and thrive inside them, turning that sunscreen or body wash into a bottle of potential skinfection.

MORE: Beauty 101: When to Toss, Keep and Splurge on Makeup

Bottom line: Pay close attention to any changes in your makeup and skin products– even if something seems fishy before the product’s advertised shelf life, it’s best not to chance introducing bacteria and infectious material into your body. Also, only put clean fingers in your products’ containers.  If you experience an adverse reaction to a product after many times of using it with no funny behavior, don’t assume just magically just developed an allergy to an ingredient inside it (and even if you did)– stop using it.